Big music events are no longer just about the music — they’re about you
Update: The Metarama Gaming & Music Festival, mentioned below, has since been canceled.
Nothing beats that initial lap at Life is Beautiful. There are the unidentifiable, squid-like characters greeting you post-pat down (Instagram post number 1); the new, vaguely sociopolitical murals on the Downtown buildings (number 2, with multiplier); the selfie wall with the pithy, on-brand messaging in neon (number 3, #wearebeautiful); the four straight dudes in holographic merman leggings (number 4); an alley outfitted with lighting strips circa Radiohead’s 2007 tour (number 5); Diedre, the friend you always see at the Bunkhouse, only less drunk and more sunburnt (number 6); someone with a “Netflix and Consent” T-shirt (number 7, #metoo); and a grounds maintenance vehicle you suspect is this year’s Banksy (number 8, #art). Thirty minutes in, and you finally wonder: Wait, aren’t there bands playing?
This wouldn’t have been a question 15 years ago during peak Coachella, which didn’t have to contend with a gauntlet of photo ops or social media enabling the hourly humblebrag. When you entered the California festival’s iconic polo fields, you were already clutching your homemade Excel sheet of lineup preferences, speeding past the Burning Man loaner sculptures and toward the Outdoor Stage to catch Belle & Sebastian.
But Coachella no longer caters to that kind of music fan — nor do the other major music festivals, whose successes have given way to homogenization and sharing the same talent pool. That’s one reason why social media feeds rarely boast the lineup posters — they’re all very samey. Another reason? Few festivalgoers spend $350 a weekend to see their favorite bands anymore. They’re investing in the total experience, one that balances sensory stimulation.
Most local fests have picked up on this — of course they have. As Las Vegas itself has had to evolve away from gaming toward other activities, many of its music weekenders have deemphasized music and aspire to become greater than the sum of a festival’s parts. In fact, Life is Beautiful, which returns this month for its seventh edition, isn’t the first Valley festival to offer a multidisciplinary spread.
Music festivals in Las Vegas had largely comprised packaged tour stops (Lollapalooza, Warped Tour) and locally produced events (radio-station promotions, Reggae in the Desert) until Extreme Thing, in Desert Breeze Park, bundled high-octane music and BMX/skating demonstrations, and Viva Las Vegas threw in burlesque and car shows with its rockabilly offerings. A precedent, yes, but not a springboard.
When the much-larger Vegoose came — and quickly went — it represented a mid-aughts cautionary tale of circumstance (the rock festival bubble burst wide open), fan betrayal (trading improv-rock crunch for indie punch), and shifting generational tastes (less arms-crossed passive consumption, more playtime during downtime).
It wasn’t until L.A. exiled Electric Daisy Carnival to these parts in 2011 that local festival culture not only began in earnest but repositioned to become more participatory. EDC promoter Insomniac Events did everything that confounded traditional festival enthusiasts: It downplayed live acts, pricey superstars like Deadmau5, and, well, the lineup in general; discharged enough fireworks to embarrass any Fourth of July display; hired Cirque-like performance troupes to enliven nonperformance areas; flecked the grounds with carnival rides and props for photo backgrounds; and changed the marketing and the entire ethos of the fest by turning the focus on the attendees — now they were the “headliners.” EDC soon became the most attended music festival in North America, even selling most of its tickets before any lineup announcements.
Two years later, Life is Beautiful followed, with its balance of music, food, art, and infotainment, though its real masterstroke was transforming Downtown Las Vegas into an urban playground as alluring as Kanye and The Killers. In 2015, Brazil’s Rock in Rio made its debut with a karaoke room, nonmusical entertainment, and ziplining, as did Further Future, a dusty, experimental confab in Moapa that merged Burning Man, TED Talk-like presentations, and glamping. Neither lasted long, but it wasn’t because of their shift toward audience engagement.
Since then, the festival sphere has kept promoters obligated to give its customers more; even Coachella budged to kowtow to its hammy, attention-deficit clientele. Locally, the tourism infrastructure — a major selling point for fests on or near the Strip — has given rise to hotel-takeover events like Psycho Las Vegas, Big Blues Bender, and Wynn Nightlife’s Art of the Wild, which sell one-stop-shop convenience as much as the niche artist curation. Last spring’s Emerge, also contained to one property, produced a half-music/half-lecture bill that projected a distinctly political, call-to-arms charge — in escapist Las Vegas, of all cities.
This fall will mark the debut of Metarama Gaming & Music Festival, an arcade writ large with its own electro-hewing soundtrack, where passholders can cheer on both Marshmello, who’ll play a DJ set, and Twitch-famous controller-wielders, who’ll play Fortnite and other e-sports staples — to say nothing of the cosplay, drone-flying, racing simulator, and virtual-reality diversions that will be on offer. It could represent both the present and future of Vegas weekend revelry; much like Burning Man and EDC, the attendee is the chief collaborator, and will ultimately bestow Metarama its energy. Which makes sense — video games are largely a participation sport. And now, so are Vegas music festivals.
Life is Beautiful, September 20-22, Downtown Las Vegas, tickets start at $145/day, $315/three days, lifeisbeautiful.com