The best music festival I've been to isn't even a music festival—at least not anymore. It's South by Southwest, which is now better described as a conference than a fest. That whirlwind of a March week in Austin, Texas, is as exhilarating as it is exhausting. The element of discovery thrives there not only because of the number of artists playing showcases, but, also, because the relative affordability of seeing shows makes it the most accessible festival-type of experience there is outside of a free-for-all function.
Discovery is, after all, the heart and soul of music festivals. Each time I'm assigned to cover one, it's the idea of discovering new (or new to me) acts that grounds me and reminds me why I go. I'm not just there for the big names, or the accompanying bells and whistles. I'm there to experience unfamiliar acts in their element—live—and to think about things like, What world do they create? What's their vibe? Who is this, and where do they go from here? All these questions inevitably wind up being discussed amongst friends long after the festival wraps. It's through these conversations that I've forged some of my strongest friendships, because the connection you have with someone who discovers new music by your side is untouchable. It's what keeps that festival's spirit going long after its glow dims.
Photos by Hayden Manders
These days, the sheer number of festivals out there is astonishing. It feels impossible to come up with a number, but the fact that more than 32 million people attend at least one U.S. festival a year is mind-blowing. That's more people than the entire population of Texas—aka a lot of fucking people, dropping a lot of fucking cash for a three-day party. And that's not even factoring in all the international festivals.
In the last year or so, there's been plenty of talk about the festival bubble bursting, but it hasn't. Instead, more and more festivals, ranging from the boutique to more run-of-the-mill "group of stages in a giant park" sort of a thing, pop up every year. The tinier ones don't get as much media love since they don't drive the traffic numbers necessary to please advertisers. They also usually cater to the specific community and surrounding area where the event takes place, so you're unlikely to hear about them unless you're in the general vicinity. Coachella can be Coachella because of its huge headliners and all the money behind it; this is how its influence extends across the States. On the flipside, something like Broccoli Fest in Washington, D.C., though featuring a very good lineup, isn't as compelling to your average festival-goer who can find something similar closer to their home.
Photos by Hayden Manders
One thing is clear though, no matter the festival's size: accessibility and discoverability go hand in hand. And yet for some festival-goers, the real appeal lies in having a highly curated experience, one in which their existing tastes are affirmed. These experiences come at a cost and take the form of boutique festivals. An example of one is this year's doomed-from-the-start Fyre Fest, which offered up a bevy of luxury amenities in addition to a smaller, more curated lineup. Unfortunately for Fyre Festival, the Bahamian paradise, upon which it was supposed to occur and which was supposed to include premium accommodations, culinary experiences, and yachting, wound up being less paradise and more... a parking lot. The ticket holders, who paid between $5,000 and $250,000 for a package, were met with disaster relief tents, little to no food or water, non-functioning bathrooms, looting, and feral dogs. The disaster drew the attention of a far wider audience than ever would have been able to attend the festival, thanks to the fact that the creators invested a ton of money into influencer marketing, which included promotion by model and It girl Bella Hadid. It's possible that the doomed Fyre Festival would have otherwise gone unnoticed, but instead, the gleeful schadenfreude of watching these so-called "rich kids" get stranded spawned a plethora of memes and led many people to ask if a festival like this can even be successful. And if so, by what standards is it judged?
Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to get invited out to the island of Malolo Lailai in Fiji for the Your Paradise festival, now in its fourth year. Its co-founder, Hadi J, and project manager, Dan Chapman, spoke with me about why Your Paradise works where Fyre Festival failed. They said that it all boils down to working with experts in areas like local hospitality, the country's tourism board, and music/party promoters. From there, the experience is refined into one that Hadi J proudly (and rightfully) refers to as a "choose your own adventure experience."
Photos by Hayden Manders
And what an adventure it was. I had a fucking blast. Only 600 people attend, and it felt like I was part of a thrown-together family. I traveled alone and wound up meeting some of the most genuinely excited and happy to be alive people I've ever met, most of whom were from Australia, whose proximity to Fiji means it's the country with the most representation at Your Paradise and which also lends it a local vibe.
But while the baseline package for Your Paradise this year was not as staggeringly high as Fyre Festival's, at around $2,000, it's definitely not cheap. The price did include airfare, room and board, island transportation to and from the airport, and a ticket to the festival itself, which for a five-day festival is pretty reasonable considering most Coachella-goers shell out at least $600 for three-days—and that's just on the cheap end of the spectrum. Food and drinks at Your Paradise, however, are not covered. And then there are all the add-ons, which average around a couple hundred dollars each. In some cases, the add-ons are things like skydiving, which maybe you don't need to do to have fun. But in others, the add-ons were the parties themselves, which, in my experience, were the main reason to go to the festival.
This, I realized, is where the idea of "choice" in this self-described "choose your own adventure festival" becomes questionable, because not everyone can choose to spend a few hundred more dollars on top of their already pricey ticket. And yet attendees will undoubtedly want to experience the truly extraordinary day parties; it's why most of the festival-goers were there. I mean, one party was on a literal sandbar during low tide and another was on a floating bar called Cloud 9 in the middle of the ocean. (The drinks and food were included in the add-on ticket price.) Having experienced it, I think they are worth every penny, but, man, that's an awful lot of pennies. More pennies than my wallet can handle, actually; there's no way I could have experienced this without being press. And it was hard not to keep in mind that most of my other festival-goers were of a socioeconomic class that could afford it, making it a very different crowd than might attend a local city fest. (Though, in fairness, many festivals these days are very pricey.)
Photos by Hayden Manders
There is no denying that Your Paradise was a luxurious experience. But luxury doesn't have to feel wasteful. Unlike Fyre Festival, which relied heavily on an image of partying influencers to draw attendees and was hardly focused on the artists at all, Your Paradise is different. In fact, one thing I loved about it was how, like SXSW, it eradicated the audience-artist divide. There was no glitz. No fuss. It’s a festival rooted in the shared experience of listening and dancing to music. The discovery element isn't so much about the music, like SXSW is, but about yourself, as an individual, and how you relate to others; the music—and a very long plane trip—is simply the channel that brings you there.