Great (music) outdoors: Making the most of your summer festival season

Eaux Claires // Photo by Nate Ryan, MPR

“Get a lay of the land. Stay hydrated.”

“Best way to beat the heat: cold compress laced with an essential oil blend of peppermint and eucalyptus.”

“Bring at least one outfit that pushes your limits. A little too sexy. A little too neon. A little too Lycra.”

Those are just a few of the responses I received when I asked friends for music festival pro tips. Be prepared and take care of yourself, regular festivalgoers advise, so you can take full advantage of everything an outdoor festival has to offer.

First and foremost, though, just go, wrote Gabriel Douglas—frontman of the 4onthefloor, a frequenter of festivals both onstage and off. “I have met most of my favorite people celebrating music in one form or another and countless numbers of them have been at festivals. You are going to a place that like-minded folks have spent their hard-earned money to go to as well. Go. It is always worth it.”

That seems to be a popular sentiment, as summer music festivals are multiplying around the world. Attendance at music festivals has been growing for over a decade, and some of the biggest are astoundingly profitable. California’s two-weekend Coachella towers over the rest, grossing upwards of $80 million, but even many festivals you’ve never heard of are pulling in $10 million plus.

Eaux Claires // Photo by Nate Ryan, MPR

“When I was younger, you did not have all of these festivals as options,” said Drew Christopherson, a drummer who has played dozens of festivals with groups including Poliça and Marijuana Deathsquads. “Festivals were more of a jam-band, hippie scene thing. Nowadays, they’re everywhere, and there are new ones every year.”

Though music festivals are theoretically ideal vehicles for music discovery, some observers are starting to see exhaustion set in. Music blogs regularly speculate on whether the festival surge is a “bubble” that’s about to burst, and the New York Times made waves last year when it declared that its music writers would not be covering Coachella or the Tennessee festival, Bonnaroo.

“They give a music critic less and less return,” wrote the paper’s Ben Ratliff, announcing the staff’s decision to focus their attention elsewhere. The two big festivals’ “bookings used to be somewhat exciting, if exciting means special and special means rare and rare means meaningful; they aren’t anymore.” Instead, the Times critics decided to focus their attention on smaller festivals, where more interesting musical alchemy is prone to happen.

Eaux Claires // Photo by Nate Ryan, MPR

The Twin Cities metro area is home to a growing number of such festivals—from one-day affairs like Rock the Garden and Soundset to overnight camping adventures like the Blue Ox Festival and the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival. Both of the latter are held on a large site bordering the Chippewa River in Eau Claire.

Eaux Claires, founded and curated by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner, is known for fostering musical collaborations and creative offshoots. This year, for example, Wilco is on the bill—along with several other acts featuring members of Wilco, such as Tweedy and The Autumn Defense. The idea is that festivalgoers won’t just hear the hits, they’ll appreciate the performers’ multifaceted talents.

Eaux Claires // Photo by Nate Ryan, MPR

“My favorite festivals I’ve been to,” said Christopherson, “it’s not because of the lineup. It’s because of the choices the festival directors made with what they’re offering as an experience. Ones that have a strong art element to them or have a lot of installations built into the experience […] you leave those festivals just buzzing, talking about it with your friends.”

Related post: The creative confluence at Eaux Claires

Michael Brown has the title of creative director at Eaux Claires, working to make the festival a multidisciplinary affair that unites musicians, visual artists, and the audience in a shared experience.

“The point is to make this incubator of a community,” said Brown, “where special stuff can happen, and people are inspired and encouraged to make it happen. It’s not just our artists working together, but the mood and the mindset of the audience: to have audience members who appreciate and want that and recognize these very singular moments.”

Eaux Claires // Photo by Nate Ryan, MPR

A sense of spontaneity, said Brown, facilitates musical experiences that wouldn’t be possible in a generic, out-of-the-box festival situation.

“Honorée [Fanonne] Jeffers got up on stage with S. Carey and did a live reading,” recalled Brown about one memorable moment last year, “and it was a really touching moment, a true crossover of genres between music and literature. It would have been so much less impactful if it was this very calculated thing. It was just artists coming together and making something happen because they wanted it to happen, in the moment.”

At the other extreme, Christopherson cited an illuminating experience involving one of the festival circuit’s most revered performers. “I remember as a kid I went to see Beck, and I absolutely loved the show. I went to see him again about eight months later at H.O.R.D.E. Festival, and it was the exact same show. Exact same performance. That really made me realize that these festival performances can be a little bit canned.”

Eaux Claires // Photo by Nate Ryan, MPR

When it comes to artists that aren’t headlining, on the other hand, festivals can be illuminating. “In some ways you’re getting the raw spirit of a band” in a festival performance, said Christopherson. “A lot of times the bands won’t have their lighting or backdrops—all they really have is themselves and their music.”

At a camping festival, overnight stays with friends old and new are part of the appeal. “If you can have campfires, bring extra campfire chairs,” wrote Douglas. “There’s always somebody with a few beers who is ready to tell you stories in the campground. Always. And if they aren’t stumbling into your camp, it’s your turn to go stumble into theirs.”

The sense of community extends backstage as well, said Christopherson. “If you get on a certain circuit where you end up playing three or four festivals with another artist, you run into them in the catering tent and strike up real friendships. We’ve become friends with a number of bands because of that.”

“Have fun,” wrote Douglas as a final piece of advice. “You deserve it. You chose to be a part of something that is bigger than you, bigger than your neighbors, bigger than your favorite band. There is no community chemistry like that of musical festival. It rejuvenates you and let’s you see the best in humanity: togetherness.”

This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Growler Magazine and 89.3 The Current, Minnesota’s non-commercial, member-supported radio station playing the best authentic, new music alongside the music that inspired it. Find this article and more great music content at


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