Why "Scene Festivals" Are Really Bad for Bands

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It's that season again. It's time for Houston to be inundated with touring metal, punk and hardcore festivals, from Warped Tour to the All-Stars Tour to the upcoming Summer Slaughter Tour. It's an opportunity for kids to see all their favorite bands from those scenes all crammed together on one massive bill.

I, however, have a bone to pick with these festivals. While the lineups can range from amazing to spotty, they all have one problem in common: their focus. Sure, it's great for some fans to see all their favorites in one place, but what of outsiders? I personally feel this could be a hindrance for the bands themselves, and here's why.

The narrow range of focus leaves one suffering from a form of ear fatigue. Like I said, for the initiated, it's all well and good -- if you're already familiar with every band on the bill, you're unlikely to tire of the fact that all the acts at these festivals sound relatively similar. You're also unlikely to be unable to differentiate between them quite easily.

However, take a look at the more successful festivals these days, touring or not. Houston has a great festival every year in Free Press Summer Festival, where one of its greatest assets is the free-form, wide-ranging lineup. This is a festival where Jandek, Baroness, Wu-Tang Clan and Dwight Yoakam are all vets.

Its success can be largely said to result from that diversity. It means that fans of almost any genre will have a chance to check out a favorite band and discover something new. Now, let's turn our attention back to the metal and hardcore touring festivals. While they surely do feature diversity, such as last year's Summer Slaughter lineup that included the Dillinger Escape Plan, Norma Jean, Animals as Leaders, Periphery and Thy Art is Murder, this diversity is less obvious in the undercard.

A festival lineup like that is sure to attract a wide range of fans who may just be showing up to see Dillinger or Periphery. This is where the problem lies. Those people showing up for one specific band are unlikely to know anything about the rest of the lineup, including and especially the younger, newer bands who are on these bills to try to get noticed.

But it's hard to do that when you're playing something that, to the uninitiated, sounds very much exactly like everything else on the bill. Unless you're doing something vastly different than the rest, like Animals as Leaders, you're likely to get overlooked by anyone who didn't already own your record before he or she came to the show.

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I noticed this at last year's festivals, and this year looks much the same. It's a fundamental difficulty of the concept. How is your small death-metal band going to catch the attention of Dillinger Escape Plan fans when you're opening for five other small death-metal bands?

This kind of listener fatigue ultimately means no one gets to really stand out except the headliners, while the fans of the bigger bands simply tune them out. I've seen it a million times: people standing outside, smoking and bullshitting during the openers. It's not that they don't want to see something new, they just don't have much of an opportunity when every band on the undercard is so similar.

Free Press Summer Festival is so great for discovering new bands because everywhere you turn around, you're going to hear something different than the last thing you heard. It's a great tool for exposure.

Metal bands have less options, unfortunately. Festivals like FPSF, Austin City Limits, or even Fun Fun Fun Fest aren't booking all that many local death-metal bands from around the world. There's a few, and they have a better shot at standing out in that setting, but ultimately it's a lot tougher on them.

However, the current system of rounding up all these very similar bands for a touring festival isn't working out all that well for them either. I'm not sure how to solve that problem, but aside from the honor of opening for Norma Jean, these bands aren't getting much out of the mix.

I propose that such scene festivals have a crucial flaw in this way. While I enjoy the lineups for their headliners, especially last year's amazing Summer Slaughter, I'd love to see these touring festivals incorporate more diversity and better separation of styles.

It won't completely alleviate listener fatigue, but if I'm not enduring one band that sounds the same after another, I'll be a lot more likely to give them a chance after I go home.


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