I missed Free Press Summer Fest this year, and all rainbows aside, I'm glad that I did.
Things have drifted downhill for the festival since it sold out general-admission tickets in 2013. The past three years have been plagued by weather woes: FPSF 2014 suffered a rain evacuation, and FPSF 2015 underwent an emergency relocation to NRG Park after parts of Eleanor Tinsley Park were submerged in up to 35 feet of water. This year's festival got the worst of both worlds. By Sunday, NRG's few green spaces had devolved into foul-smelling slop, and many festivalgoers complained about the poorly handled evacuation.
No doubt, organizers tried to make the best of a bad situation; a collapsed stage and injured fans would be a far worse fate than some muddy pavement or shortened sets. But as climate change and Houston's explosive growth collide, and as 100-year floods start to occur annually, the costs and risks of this summer festival may start to outweigh the benefits. I can't see the FPSF balance sheets, but all this last-minute shifting around can't be good for business. I'm not losing sleep over their bottom line, though. Both my shoes and my sanity are grateful I stayed home.
Reports on the ground suggest that the crowds at FPSF have grown significantly younger, with more and more college-age attendees using the festival as a laboratory to test their alcohol and drug limitations. I'm not going to shake my cane at the kids who come to FPSF. If they want to get so blasted that they lose control of their bowels and cry their way home on the METRO, that's their prerogative. But my days of sneaking vodka into a Camelbak are long since past, and intoxicated teenagers just activate my maternal instincts. I didn't spend a decade swallowing birth control pills to suddenly be somebody's festival mama. Nor do I enjoy the seizing tightness in my chest as I wonder whether a teenage girl being led into a Port-a-Potty is doing so consensually. FPSF plays a dangerous game when it willfully creates an environment for minors to indulge so recklessly. As I get older, it's a game that's less and less fun to play.
There are plenty of other things I could grouse about, which this publication has already addressed at length. But the biggest reason I decided to pass on FPSF is actually part of a larger problem infecting music festivals as a whole: They're just not interesting anymore. The New York Times recently made an eyebrow-raising critical move when it announced that it would no longer offer comprehensive coverage of monster-size festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo. "We are trying to figure out intelligent ways to cover the big, cross-genre, medium-cool outdoor pop festivals," writes music critic Ben Ratliff, "which look increasingly alike in their vision of a codified, consensual, safe and purchasable bohemia."
Festivals, at least the flashy, corporate-sponsored ones, are no longer the crucible in which music history is being forged. And how could they be? The aggressive profit motivations that come with the support of global businesses don't allow for the risks that made these festivals popular in the first place. FPSF is not immune. When its murals are emblazoned with corporate logos, you know that the organizers have wandered away from the trillness they so often espouse to sell tickets.
While I haven't abandoned all hope for FPSF, I'm turning my critical attention to Day For Night festival, the "visually immersive light and music festival" that debuted at Silver Street Studios last winter. The cooler temperatures breed a mellower take on festival hedonism, and the December event date is unique (you can't exactly throw an outdoor music festival right before Christmas in Chicago). Further, the deliberate fusion of installation art and popular music is a rare quality in a festival climate full of the same ironic cover songs, overpriced tickets and Native American appropriation.
Combined with Houston's already respectable fine-arts infrastructure, Day For Night has the potential to become the kind of music festival that we hoped FPSF would be. Here's hoping that we don't start getting unusually frigid winters, or that the college set suddenly develops a passion for James Turrell.
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