The Strange Paradox of Rock Festivals for Yogis

The Wanderlust gatherings combine two seemingly competing philosophies and represent a big change since the days of Woodstock.

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A Facebook friend of mine saw some pictures I had posted from last month's Wanderlust Festival in Copper Mountain, Colorado, and wanted to know whether this coming weekend's edition of the event in Whistler, British Columbia would be worth the trip from LA.

"It's been a while since we've been to a good music festival," he said. "Is it a fun one?"

The question stumped me. That's because the answer depends wholly on your definition of fun. Or, for that matter, on your definition of a festival.

Wanderlust really isn't a music festival. Yes, the events—which are also held in Squaw Valley, California and Bondville, Vermont—feature multiple performers on multiple stages over a long weekend. Headliners at Wanderlust this year have included Ani DiFranco and Ziggy Marley, with Michael Franti and Spearhead topping the Whistler bill. Wanderlust, though, is also a hybrid, combining elements of a music festival with a big, upscale yoga retreat, and so is emblematic not only of the ongoing boom in the sheer number of festivals being staged, but also their dramatic evolution.

Josh Baron, editor-in-chief of Relix magazine, is the author of "Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped." He says the boom in festivals "is happening across all different genres of music. And not just domestically, but on an international level, too." Depending on your perspective—on how you define fun—the evolution exemplified by Wanderlust is terrible or fabulous. It's either the long-awaited fulfillment of the festival ideal or a complete corruption of it.

That ideal, with apologies to the folk and jazz fans of Newport, is a child of rock. Conceived at Monterrey, born 42 years ago last week at Woodstock, the music festival became a sociological experiment in building a temporary community—one based on the values of a newly emergent counterculture.

The crowds are mostly sober, often vegetarian, unfailingly polite, and reek with the expensive simplicity of privilege. Music is decidedly secondary.

But there's usually been a giant gap between the values expressed by festival promoters, performers, and fans and the realities on the ground. The violence at Altamont, for instance, shattered the illusion of an inherently peaceful counterculture. The corporate takeover of the music industry, much as it's described in Baron's book, belied any notion of rock and roll as a threat to consumer capitalism. Environmentalism has always been a favorite cause of festival lovers, despite the glaringly obvious fact that big, multi-day concerts inevitably have huge carbon footprints—even when taking into account the solar-powered stage at Outside Lands or the conscientious cleaning services of a company like Clean Vibes. That's doubly true when the events are held in remote areas, leading to the irony of the upcoming Green Mountain EcoFest, when thousands of people will schlep tons of equipment and supplies into the rural Missouri woods for "a celebration of sustainability,"

Wanderlust co-founder Jeff Krasno is aware that any large-scale gathering of humans uses a lot of energy. But he has still fretted endlessly over making his events greener. For instance, the festivals not only have specially segmented receptacles to ensure trash can be properly separated for recycling, but also have volunteers hover to ensure patrons properly dispose of every scrap.

After working in the music industry—three years for RCA, then co-founding his own label—Krasno saw how the spontaneous communities around festivals can promote progressive values.

"Look at something like recycling, he said. "It was considered fairly out there years ago, when you first saw it at live events. But today it's completely mainstream."

One of the main ideas behind Wanderlust, he said, was "to create an event where people could take what happened at festivals, and incorporate those values and practices into everyday life."

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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