Since FYF is soliciting feedback, and since I was going to write something about it anyway, here’s an open letter I wrote to them:
I don’t have a problem waiting in lines. I’ve stood in many before, and I’ll stand in many again. I have waited many hours to be up front at venues in my life. But there has to be a sense of purpose to a line. Things can take time, so I get that aspect; sometimes, it’s because something’s free, which I also get; time is just another way of paying occasionally. It’s problematic when there’s no sense of purpose to the activity, though. That was what Saturday felt like when I showed up to FYF. By happenstance, I walked by the front entrance before finding the end of the line (which, all told, had to be about a half mile of walking by my estimation) and the most disturbing thing I noticed wasn’t the slow pace so much as the lack of movement. No one was going in. As I wended my down the block in search of the end, I couldn’t really understand how this had happened. There were delays at Pitchfork when the scanners didn’t work properly, but I don’t think I waited more than 30-40 minutes the entire weekend across the three days. I eventually made my way to the back of the line, and I waited. We were so far back that we were almost at the VIP entrance. And then I stood there. Again, as luck would have it, after an hour of inching along (I’d gone a few hundred feet at most), people just started going in the VIP area, which led to the same gates as the regular entrance. Like that, after standing in a line that barely moved for over an hour, I was waiting to get through security. I am not sure if anyone encouraged us to do this in an attempt to ameliorate the situation, or if people just started doing it and therefore it was a thing that was happening. After an hour of standing on concrete and pavement in the sun, I don’t think anyone bothered to question it too much. I felt sorry for the people stranded, and it was not the most ethical decision I’ve ever made, but I was tired of standing there without purpose and I also wanted to see Slint, which I didn’t think was going to be a problem when I showed up by 2:45 pm.
The problem with the line was a nice portent to a weekend full of problems. When I got to security, I had to discard my metal water bottle. Because in one part of the information available online it said “non glass or metal water bottles” were not allowed. Which, while lexically confusing, I do understand. Unfortunately, the problem was that was under the list of allowed and prohibited items; elsewhere, in the FAQ, it stated that reusable water bottles were allowed as long as they were empty. I grabbed my bottle from Outside Lands and didn’t think much of it. In a push notification from the app, I was reminded not to forget my plastic water bottle. I think you can see a pattern here. While all the various bits of information were trying to say the same thing (you are allowed one empty plastic water bottle), they all actually different things. Consistency in messaging is important. There’s no reason all three outlets couldn’t have been worded the same. In fact, there’s good reason all three should have been worded the same. While I was having quite the argument with security about this, I decided it’s just a water bottle, something that would make my weekend nicer, but not ultimately something that’s irreplaceable like the time I’d spent arguing about it was. I was also offered the laughable solution by security of going and putting the water bottle in my vehicle. Security seemed utterly oblivious to the nature of the line, a problem they helped create as they they were too busy pulling apart every bag and doing what appeared to be too-thorough gender-segregated searches. I went down the wrong line first (no signage), switched to the appropriate one when I realized what was what, and then didn’t receive a search at all after I got into a shouting match with security about the poor messaging around the water bottles. I am not sure what the motivation was for that level of searching, but it seemed odd. Again, different festival, different circumstances, but no one was cupping anyone’s bra at Outside Lands a couple weeks prior. It looked grossly unnecessary, and even though I didn’t get one it made me uncomfortable, especially after I had already been misgendered by security twice at that point.
You might note I’ve gotten several hundred words in and haven’t said anything about the music. In that case, I hope this experience somewhat replicates what Saturday felt like. I finally got inside, and hoped to grab a map but I didn’t see where anyone was handing them out. This turned out to be no major issue, but I still went the entire weekend without figuring out where anyone got one. I had made it onto the grounds in time to hopefully catch Slint, who was just starting as I got in at 4 pm. The Arena really seemed liked a missed opportunity. It took so long to make your way down to the floor, or to get into it in the first place, that I didn’t end up making it to the stage until 4:20 pm. I watched the rest of Slint, and didn’t end up going back into the Arena for the remainder of the weekend. Turns out it saved me some trouble, as it sounds like it involved more waiting in lines. While I respect the idea of having a stage like that, in reality, it just didn’t work that well. Sure, sound bleed sucks and some bands look better on a dark stage, but one of the reasons festivals are nice is usually you at least have a shot to see everything. The Arena, with its capacity issues, created another frustrating layer in a weekend full of them.
Lines were the theme of the weekend, and the overall festival followed that by having a very linear layout. While it wasn’t too problematic in terms of finding things, it did take quite a while to get from the Main stage to the Lawn stage even though they technically weren’t all that far from each other. And while I didn’t have any issue figuring out where the stages were, there was an acute lack of signage throughout the grounds. I didn’t even notice a posted schedule until the next day, right by the entrance in an area I never went back to after entering, even when I made my way over to the Lawn stage.
But you come to FYF for the music. I went three years ago and had a blast. It’s hard to beat the quality of the bands at that price, and now that I live on the West Coast, it’s an easy trip down from San Francisco. I said before the line-up was announced that if any other festival besides Pitchfork had Slowdive, it’d by FYF. I know that you get that caliber of band. Seeing Slowdive again was one of the main reasons I purchased a ticket. And by the time they took the stage, most of my negative feelings had dissipated. They delivered a glorious set, a beautiful dusky wash like the LA sunset behind us. From the thrilling punk of Against Me! to the well-dressed, even better delivered post-punk of Interpol to the wonderfully lit and lively Ty Segall, Saturday was a wonderful experience musically. I already knew it would be. It was almost doubly rewarding on the heels of such a frustrating afternoon.
One of the things I respect about FYF is their responsiveness. This wasn’t just evident on Sunday, when the line process was much smoother, there was free water to assuage those of us who’d lost our bottles the day before, and the Arena was expanded (though the lines still looked like a mess). This was evident in the run-up, in response to artists that cancelled for one reason or another; it’s evident in the responses I’ve seen since. I don’t expect things to be perfect. I understand that executing an event like this is difficult. And FYF seems to have something of a reputation for trying. There is something to be said for being willing to try. And sometimes, failing is a cost. I’m not a big believer in saying I’ll never go again. I still think FYF books the caliber of bands that I will always consider it. Because while it won’t be the Blood Brothers or Slowdive next year, it’ll be someone that’s legitimately worth catching, who delivers that gut punch or that swoon that music has so sorely missed for however long they’ve been gone. On paper, I thought Sunday was the weaker of the two days, but it didn’t show in what I saw, and as opposed to the day before, I actually got in plenty early with time to catch all of Joanna Gruesome’s set. Built To Spill delivered one of the best sets of the weekend, it was fun to catch bits of up-and-comers like Benjamin Booker, and Presidents of the United States of America delivered the type of fun, nostalgic set this child of the 90s expected. By the time I got to the measured lackadaisical headlining set of The Strokes, I didn’t need anything else. I’d gotten everything I came for. Musically, I had a wonderful time, and while all the other aspects of a festival are nice and can enhance the experience, it doesn’t matter how good the food is if the music isn’t.
On things that didn’t quite fit into the narrative, I thought the food was good. There were really good options but it seemed the best stuff had long lines, though I didn’t find I waited too long for anything. As a vegetarian, I was glad to see plentiful options, from the poutine truck to the vegan pop-up to Tony’s. I could have eaten at the Sage truck all weekend. While it was great that there were food options built into the alcohol gardens, I didn’t go in any of them all weekend, so I’m not sure what I missed in there. The free water and charging stations were nice touches, though it seemed the only stage you could take in from the charging stations that I found was the Trees. Again, I never located a map, and I didn’t want to spend too much time poking around on my phone as I wanted that battery power for other things. The fact that there were real bathrooms was definitely appreciated, though as is fairly typical of any festival, the portable toilets were quickly out of toilet paper, and I couldn’t particular figure out the lift in separating those by gender. The passage between the Main Stage and the Trees felt quite constricted at times, and the same was occasionally true of the passage between the Lawn and the Trees. All told, it felt like there was plenty of space, but not where you needed it at times. I never got too close to the Main stage, but I had no problem getting right up to the other stages when I wanted to. Parking wasn’t a huge issue, and getting in and out via car was pretty easy all told. Overall, the festival experience was a great one musically, and an occasionally frustrating one logistically, but it’s still something I’d probably do again. While there are certainly problems, I have faith that FYF will try to remedy them, and many of the problems seem to be the kind borne of ambition, of trying to do more and still deliver an amazing experience that’s fairly economical. The stories of those of us who waited in line will linger, they will eventually be what most frustrating stories become, funny stories that we can tell later, badges of honor, something to commiserate with other festival goers about when it comes up in conversation. And if they keep a few people from coming back next year? Well, at least it’ll be easier to get in, right?