Outside Lands

Concerts are increasingly the dominant source of income for artists in the music industry. Record sales continue to fall as "ownership" becomes an outdated ideology in the era of streaming, yet the new rental economy is still a war zone of competing financial interests that has few winners and a bitter majority of begrudging losers. While the business begins to rediscover exactly how to monetize audio recordings, musicians are wisely taking their catalogs on the road. Live music is more massive than ever, and one such result of this trend is the modern summer festival circuit.

Outside Lands released their official 2016 schedule this past Thursday, and once the inevitable guffaws fizzled out from fans who were upset to realize the festival promise was indeed too good to be true, the residual reaction became focused on the truly surprising nature of this year’s composition. While conflicts are always a letdown, they are generally predictable in advance. Headlining EDM will be pitted against headlining alternative rock, Americana and folk artists will be tucked in at Sutro, and washed up icons of the ‘80s – no matter the diminishing size of their relevant fanbase – will play the mainstage per due respect. Yet for the first time since I began attending the festival back in 2013, it seems as if the organizers have forgone a good deal of long established procedure.

Let’s go over some of the typical rationale behind setting up a schedule for a music festival the scale of Outside Lands. No matter how much attendees complain about the biggest acts playing opposite one another, there’s an obvious reason behind this. The Polo Field can’t accommodate everyone who attends congregating at one area. Organizers have to split the crowd to ensure no specific stage becomes congested. That’s why J. Cole is playing against LCD Soundsystem. If you’re big on both, that’s heartbreaking. But if you are like most and have a strong opinion about one over the other, you’ll make a simple decision and have a more pleasant time because you’ll experience your show with fewer, and more committed, fans.

Furthermore, most three-day festivals want to encourage movement from stage to stage. So while each section of the park generally has a specific reputation (i.e. you’re more likely to see electronic acts at Twin Peaks and folk acts at Sutro), the organizers are likely trying to spread artists of similar styles across stages to keep people in rotation and break up campers who would rather pee in a bottle than lose their spot for the headliner (although this is going to happen Saturday for Radiohead no matter how hard they try to prevent it).

All this is expected, and no matter how much injustice you feel that you can’t see both Anderson .Paak and Radiohead, you have to hold at least a little sympathy for the process. Nonetheless, right now you wouldn’t be unwarranted to be a bit more fed up than usual, as there are some uncharacteristically difficult conflicts. Now, there are often artist stipulations we don't know about that force the organizers to structure the layout in otherwise unjustifiable ways. Yet looking over the schedule from day to day, it’s apparent that Outside Lands is intentionally adopting at least a few new strategies.

Friday, August 5:

For the most part, the first day of the festival feels fairly balanced. It’s unlikely Jidenna fans will be upset about having to pass on the wistful indie-pop of Ra Ra Riot, nor do fans of Thomas Jack probably know who or what The Claypool Lennon Delirium even is. There is, however, the odd squaring off of St. Lucia and Poliça, two synth-pop acts that hold a lot of common ground and could easily earn one another’s fans if they played back-to-back. This is a common issue across this year’s schedule – artists that should be sharing stages are too often competing.

Usually the festival tries to make logical pathways for specific types of fans to follow throughout the day, but this year it seems like organizers want to further break up these subsets of listeners across the park. Perhaps the rationale is promoting crowd diversity, but more likely this is a response to the increasing prevalence of fans of electronic and pop music at Outside Lands (at the expense of the traditional rock and folk fans that used to be this festival’s bread and butter), and the need to keep them spread apart to prevent overcrowding.

In an ideal world, Beach House would lead into LCD Soundsystem on the main stage to give indie kids their dream evening, but instead they are stuck tragically having to choose one or the other. The festival went to great lengths to ensure Lionel Richie holds a crowd (we’ll get to that), but it’s rather unfortunate they didn’t lend this same courtesy to LCD Soundsystem. There have been reports bubbling across festivals from the past few months that the reunited dance-punk outfit are having a difficult time gathering an audience the size of what would be expected from a major headliner, and Outside Lands isn’t going to make it any easier on the band by pitting them not only against a populist rapper like J. Cole, but also an act like Beach House that they share a great deal of mutual fans.

I expect the biggest loser in the insane Friday night face-off to tragically be Hiatus Kaiyote, one of the highlights of this year’s lineup as a whole that deserve a less heated spot where they could win over new listeners. This is a group that would have proven a delightful surprise to early afternoon main-stage attendees, yet instead will likely wind up lost in the late-night shuffle. That Panhandle closing spot is never an easy one to hold down, but the group will definitely make it worthwhile for those who come out.

Saturday, August 6:

One of the most vocal internet responses to the release of the festival schedule was the conflict between Radiohead and Anderson .Paak. I empathize, as I specifically passed up on opportunities to see the latter this summer in hopes I would catch him at Golden Gate Park. But while I’m disappointed, it’s hard to think of many other acts that could pull enough of a crowd away from the alternative rock titans to tide the time until Zedd hits the stage. Before the schedule reveal, the conventional wisdom suggested that Sufjan Stevens would go up against Radiohead to provide a Beach House-style split as with LCD Soundsystem. But while this competition is far more necessary for Radiohead than it is for LCD, the festival organizers likely expected a greater backlash if they made ticket holders pass on Sufjan in order to see Radiohead.

I’m not sure about that, because the most ardent Thom Yorke fans are still going to camp at the mainstage right through Sufjan to be upfront for arguably the most important band in modern alternative rock. Nonetheless, it’s some sort of a bone thrown, and for those who haven’t seen Sufjan’s life-changing festival sets, it’s a welcome act of kindness. It also won’t affect Air’s attendance much, because a large collective of Radiohead fans are going to be stuck at that main stage all day, no matter who is playing elsewhere, ensuring the French electronic duo a healthy crowd in the process.

Conflicts elsewhere across Saturday are minimal. Maybe The Wombats and The Knocks share a handful of overlapping fanbases, but probably not. Most of whom I’m personally missing are acts I thought would be cool to check out, but I don’t hold nearly the same attachment as for who I’m seeing instead. Julien Baker is one of the finest new songwriters around, so I’ll take the hit of missing the less exciting, but still really exciting Methyl Ethyl. I would have liked to see Ibeyi, but I personally couldn’t miss Kevin Morby. Big Grams versus The Last Shadow Puppets is definitely going to cause a good amount of stress for some, but you can still see at least half an hour of the former before needing to trek to Sutro if you elect to catch both.

In the end, most of the day is going to be me constantly worrying that I’m not showing up early enough to claim a spot for Radiohead, but there’s nothing the festival could do to ameliorate this personal concern. Mostly I’m thankful that organizers are diversifying the main stage from act to act so more people use their legs during the day, and the clean-up crew at the end doesn’t have to pick up as many “contaminated” water bottles.

Sunday, August 7:

This is where Outside Lands really broke with tradition in structuring the layout for the day. In my first impressions of the lineup back in April, I predicted that Lana Del Rey would lead into Lionel Richie, much the same way Sam Smith lead into Elton John last year. Well, I was proven spectacularly wrong. For the first time I can recall, the largest EDM act on the lineup is not performing opposite the legend slot to split the millennial crowd from the middle-aged. Rather, Major Lazer is opening for Lionel Richie in what is expected to result in the largest mass exodus from The Polo Fields in the park’s history following the electronic act’s set.

This is weird, and also particularly unfortunate. Sam Smith into Elton John was a pairing that discovered common ground between age groups, and likely found youngsters impressed by older music and oldsters easing their opinions on the decline of modern pop. Lana Del Rey and Lionel Richie could have pulled off something similar, if not quite as readily apparent. My guess is that the organizers know Lana Del Rey won’t pull as large of a crowd away from Lionel Richie as Major Lazer would, and are trying to cut the legendary R&B singer a break by softening his competition a bit. It’s become all too common that the legacy act at Outside Lands can falter with increasingly younger attendees — remember the disparity in crowd density between Tom Petty and Macklemore in 2014?

In the name of giving Richie his due reception, I’m in support of this break from tradition. It’s also a step towards the inevitable direction of EDM taking control of the main stage in coming years. Major Lazer needs the extra space of Land's End, and Outside Lands is wisely avoiding the likely-unsafe levels of overcapacity that followed Flume in 2014. This isn’t to say Major Lazer won’t face his own stiff competition. The Diplo-featuring trio is squaring off against both Ryan Adams and Miguel, and while most listeners could probably make this decision off genre-lines alone, others are going to have a difficult time if they are fans of any combination of the three. I still haven’t made my decision.

The other major conflict of note here is Chance the Rapper versus Kehlani. This might be the single most poorly-organized clash over the entire three days. The two artists are fans of one another, and draw on a similar fan base, but the former is far more prominent than the latter. Kehlani is a local artist with a great deal of national buzz, and this festival should have been her homecoming celebration prior to the release of her debut album. Yet she’s pitted against an artist who should realistically be headlining Twin Peaks based on his popularity but is somehow stuck in a pre-evening slot (anticipate claustrophobia).

If you’re a fan of Kehlani, you’re probably a fan of Chance, and no matter which artist you like more, Chance’s set is where you should go. He’s one of the most charismatic, lauded, and talented rappers of this moment, and this will be his first show since dropping his adored third mixtape Coloring Book. As such, by trying to split up similar fans Outside Lands is undercutting a local artist, missing an opportunity for on-stage collaboration (a facet of many festivals nationwide that never seem to happen when they should at Outside Lands), and making it so those who bought a ticket likely on the strength of these two artists alone (I know a few) go home feeling robbed.

However, if you can get past that, the rest of the day is relatively agreeable. If you like dance music, then you can see almost all of Snakehips, HÆLOS, GRiZ, RÜFÜS DU SOL, and Major Lazer. Meanwhile Heron Oblivion, Third Eye Blind, DIIV, Jason Isbell, Ryan Adams, and The Muppets (I think) all provide various shades of rock, and none conflict with the others. For fans of pretty harmonies, nuanced hooks, and cadence of a specific syllable, Oh Wonder versus The Oh Hellos might be tough, but you can work it down to stylistic preferences for either synth-heavy alt-pop or anachronistic alt-folk.

So over the course of three days, it’s unlikely any one fan is going to see everything they expected to. That’s generally the case with festivals. Yet this year does seem to be uniquely oriented towards exploring new layouts. Outside Lands seems to understand that its future is going to look increasingly different from its past, and as such is taking precautions now to accommodate space accordingly. You can take solace knowing that the organizers likely felt just as much pain creating these conflicts as we will facing them. Or just pretend they did. Sometimes you have to tell yourself whatever you can to cope.

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