Pauline Frommer's First Music Festival Vacation—And Advice on Planning Your Own
I never thought I'd regret not owning any tie-dyed clothing.
But who would have guessed that, well past the statistical midpoint of my life, I would become enamored of music festivals?
Blame my daughter Veronica. During her last year in high school, she formed a band and wrote a song that now has over six million downloads on Spotify. As her biggest groupie, I go where she plays, which is how I found myself (with my husband and the boyfriend of the band's guitarist) driving nine hours to a music festival—another thing I'd never thought I'd enjoy.
I assumed I'd be one of the oldest people there. I was wrong.
I thought I'd be bored, hot, and grouchy. I was wrong again.
It was one of the most joyous, life-affirming travel experiences I've had.
I chatted up everyone I met, from the shuttle bus drivers to my classmates at the block printing workshop (you should see my new bathroom art!) to all of the lovely folks who set up their portable chairs near mine at the concerts. Thanks to all of them, I can present you with the amalgamation of their wisdom, and my observations, on how to best enjoy these unique events.
It was a stroke of luck that my first festival was a jam band event, because for that type of festival, the crowd tends to be extremely mixed (age-wise, at least). Jam band gatherings, which are based around a love of improvisational music, gained mass popularity in the 1960s with the Grateful Dead and other groups—and it looked like roughly half my fellow attendees may have been at those early festivals.
They certainly knew how to enjoy themselves. At a set by the amazing Turkuaz, a 70-something woman who was near me in the crowd suddenly pulled out a light-up baton and started expertly twirling to the music, a display of delight that was both awe-inspiring and poignant.
I conducted an informal poll about which jam band festivals were the best-run and most enjoyable, and the names I heard most were FloydFest (where we were, pictured above), Lockn’ in Virginia, Peach Festival (Pennsylvania), Summer Camp Music Fest (Illinois), and High Sierra Music Festival (California).
But many folks I met attend other genres of festivals as well, and they helped me craft this list of other recommendable events:
• Country music: Stagecoach (California), WeFest (Minnesota), and CMA Music Festival (Tennessee)
• EDM (Electronic Dance Music): Ultra Music Festival (Florida) and the Electric Daisy Carnival (Nevada)
• Mixed-genre: Lollapalooza (Illinois), Coachella (California), South by Southwest (Texas), Pitchfork Music Festival (Illinois), The Governor’s Ball (New York), New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Life is Beautiful Music and Arts Festival (Nevada), and Firefly Music Festival (Delaware)
The EDM and mixed genre festivals tend to get crowds that are younger and more ethnically diverse; as I learned, a mix of 20-somethings and aging white hippies are drawn to the jam bands.
So once you’ve chosen which festival to attend, set an alert for when tickets will be available. You'll need to be speedy to get a place for many of these events.
If you miss out, don’t panic. Festival tickets usually show up on resale sites such as StubHub, VividSeats, RazorGator, and SeatGeek. Better yet, do what we did (on the advice of Isaac, the guitarist's boyfriend), and use CashOrTrade, a social network run by fans. All tickets sold there are offered at their face value.
I also foolishly delayed looking for accommodations, which meant that the only hotel in the town of Floyd was booked long before I started searching. I probably should have taken care of that even before tickets went on sale.
Instead, I sussed out other options, including the sometimes-bizarre choices recommended by the festival's website. If I had taken its advice, I would have booked in Roanoke, a good hour and a quarter away. But eventually, thanks to a combination of Google Maps and Booking.com, I found digs in Hillsville, a 40-minute drive from the festival.
Most of the attendees simply reserved tent sites offered by the festival organizers who, as is common practice, operate campgrounds for the duration of the event. The early birds scored the best of those types of accommodations, too, snagging the few glamping tents (with real mattresses and bedding plus access to a trailer toilet) that were available as well as the only "premium" tenting spots, which were in a flat, quiet area.
On our second night, we got our festival baptism: torrential rains.
One veteran of these events, knowing that I was a newbie, told me the music fest experience isn't truly authentic until you're up to your ankles in mud.
Luckily, I had been advised in advance by my daughter to pack shoes I wouldn't mind "destroying" (her word). On her advice, we also brought rain jackets with hoods so we didn't impact sightlines by raising an umbrella, because unless the weather turns dangerous, the music proceeds, rain or shine.
• Earplugs. You’ll need them for the times you're wedged right next to a giant speaker, or at night when you’re trying to sleep six inches from a neighboring tent.
• Water bottles and a cup: Most festivals have banned single-use plastics. To stay hydrated, audience members bring a bottle they refill at water stations installed around the grounds. At the Floyd Fest, like at many other similar events, bartenders don't provide cups, and instead pour alcohol directly into revelers' receptacles. So be sure to bring one of those, too.
• A balloon, a flag, or some other eye-catching totem: People use these to mark their tents, making them easier to spot in packed campgrounds, or to carry around so their buddies can find them easily in the crowds.
• A portable solar charger: Lines at fueling stations can be epic, so these are crucial if you want to be able to take photos. But don't expect to use your phone to chat with friends from home: It's near impossible to find a solid signal with this many people around (and at the rural locales of many fests). Be sure to take a moment while packing to alert your friends and family that you'll be incommunicado for a few days.
Key to the Floyd experience, in particular, were all of the opportunities to get out into nature—the festival is held right off the famed Blue Ridge Parkway. Guided hikes (a shot from mine is above), mountain biking clinics, fly-casting lessons, and other outdoorsy activities allowed attendees to take advantage of the spectacular location.
Other festivals offer stand-up comedy, dance, and theatrical performances; act as a platform for the local culinary scene (a key component at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival); or erect Ferris wheels and other types of carnival rides. A fest-goer could attend just one music set a day and still have tons of fun.
I learned this one the hard way. Too often, the top headliners are scheduled on different stages at the same time, which presents difficult choices—and sometimes a seriously long walk from one end of the festival to the other.
Those who decide their schedule in advance don't have to dash at the last minute around the massive campuses these fests occupy. Some festivals help with these decisions by creating Spotify playlists before the dates to familiarize attendees with the music. At the ones that don't, you simply study the lineup in advance and create your own playlist.
Pre-planning is also key for some of the non-music activities (see above for those). At FloydFest, there were limited spots available on the hikes and in the classes, so people who signed up in the morning had a better chance of participating than those who showed up at the start time and tried to take part.
I was impressed by how thoughtfully our individual needs were handled at FloydFest. Though no outside food was allowed in—the onsite vendors wouldn't have allowed that—about 40% of the meals sold were either vegetarian or vegan. And there were signs announcing that other dietary requirements, like nut allergies, could be handled.
That festival, and others, also sets aside a space for Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups to support those attendees who want a substance-free experience.
All in all, attending felt like becoming a citizen of a joyous, temporary intentional community. I'll be interested in seeing if other fests have as welcoming and warm a spirit.
Maybe I should buy some tie-dyed clothing after all.