The Barca bash showed how European fests hold significant advantages over their American counterparts (hint: $$$$)
FESTIVAL BEAT is a monthly column in which IMPOSE writers recap music festivals in all their rough-and-tumble glory. This month’s recap: Primavera Sound in Barcelona, Spain
Last year, I attended the first (and probably only) edition of Primavera Sound Los Angeles. It was a very paired-down event compared to the flagship Barcelona version, with just about 25 artists per day performing across 4 stages at the relatively small L.A. State Historic Park. That fest was leased out to American concert giant Live Nation to handle promotion and organization duties. A 3-day pass ran me close to $500 once you added up fees. A cup of Heineken (the only beer being sold) ran about $15. Cocktails were closer to $20 apiece. I spent an absolute fortune that weekend.
Fast forward to spring of this year, when pre-lineup tickets to the Barcelona version of Primavera went on sale. I spent $270 for a 3-day pass, and at the festival, alcohol ended up ranging from $5-10 per beverage. Prices for everything else were similarly scaled down. The lineup would feature over 50 acts per day spread across nearly a dozen stages. Simply put, this festival was the best bang for my buck that I’ve ever experienced. As ecstatic as this made me in the moment, it also made me angry knowing what we festival-goers have to put up with back in the States.
I realize this isn’t the most fair comparison to make. Barcelona turned out to be an extremely affordable city to travel to. My friends and I “balled out” one night at a fancy tapas place and only ended up spending about $30 per person. I spend more at my local brewpub after ordering a burger and two beers. Southern California, and so many other parts of America, are extremely expensive places to live.
Nonetheless, the price differential being so drastic has made me question buying tickets to other upcoming American shows and festivals. It’s made me question a lot of other things. The influence of concert promotor monopolies (*cough* Live Nation *cough* AEG) controlling the market share and every price point in existence. Mounting inflation. The state of untethered capitalism in the American “free market.” I’m not an economist, or even that knowledgeable about money in general, so I don’t have answers to these questions. But as an avid concert-goer, I do have my frustrations.
Ultimately, Primavera Sound ended up being one of, if not the best, music festival I’ve ever attended. And I’ve been to 15 consecutive Coachellas (also very expensive) and countless other city/boutique fests! Cost was definitely a factor in rating this, but then again, everything else about it was spectacular too – from the performances, the amenities, and the small little cultural differences too. Not every fest is perfect, but this one was pretty damn close to it. Below, I’ve broken it down and analyzed all the positives and negatives in order to reach that conclusion, and with a tighter eye on how finances played into it all. For anyone debating whether or not to attend one day, it’s not just a fantastic festival, but also one that’s very worth it from a budget standpoint.
On paper, it was the best festival lineup I’ve seen this year, and it isn’t even close. And all the bands and artists I saw delivered on the hype and put on incredible performances. My favorite of the entire weekend was Depeche Mode, who seemed utterly galvanized by the massive crowd singing along to every single lyric. They even mentioned several times that we were “the best crowd yet” on their tour. European audiences adore Depeche Mode, and it’s hard for me to imagine an American festival crowd today showing them that much love and respect. They did, in fact, take me on a ride with my best friends.
Moreover, Kendrick Lamar was absolutely unstoppable during his Saturday night headlining gig. With a relatively paired down stage design (compared to previous sets I’ve seen from him), Kendrick felt the freedom to really deliver, and he ran through a set full of his greatest hits, and without concerning himself too much with recent material or the visual bells and whistles that usually accompany his festival sets. He’s the best pure live rapper around, with breath control that needs to be seen to be believed. He’s just got that special something in his DNA.
New York band Liturgy may very well have executed the best performance of the festival as they threw down possibly the greatest set of transcendental black metal ever. The final track clocked in at 15 minutes long, and felt like a final breakdown that almost never ended. Unbelievable. Jaw-dropping. Face-melting. It was all that and more.
Skrillex’s set was the most pure fun my friends and I experienced. 15 minutes in, the Estrella Damm stage’s lighting rig caught on fire, forcing him to pause his set until they could put out the blaze. (¡TRANQUILO!) He was that hot. And when he returned, he was even more explosive. Hit after hit blended with his head-spinning mixing and transitions led to the best drunken dance party of the weekend. Sonny’s ability to work his way around a festival-ready banger is unmatched in EDM these days. In my lifetime of listening to music, I don’t think there’s an artist out there that I’ve done such a huge 180 on. Now, I simply love the guy.
The best of the rest? New Order were swoon-worthy as they played the hits perfectly to a devoted crowd. The War On Drugs felt like a religious experience, especially once the drums kicked in on “Under The Pressure.” Boris tore off the roof of the Auditori with their shoegaze-metal theatrics. Be Your Own PET’s reunion set turned back the clock to the 2008 peak of indie sleaze (Jemima went so hard she puked on stage, while I rolled my ankle in the pit…whoops!). Karenn’s industrial techno DJ set gave climactic super-duo energy. Tzusing turned an underground parking garage into a blistering warehouse party during the PAN takeover. bar italia were pure effortless cool. Drain Gang were rapturous and euphoric, and the set ended with me getting whiplash in the pit (I have since retired from mosh pits). Nia Archives played a gloriously revved-up drum and bass set to one of the biggest crowds at the Cupra Stage. And Two Shell shut the festival down from 4:30-6:00 am, playing an ominous IDM set to a crowd made up almost exclusively of Brits zonked out on uppers.
I’ve been to plenty of amazing festivals in my years, but I can’t think of one that was THIS stacked with greatness. From top-to-bottom, start-to-finish, every act I saw crushed it.
$5 per beer. $10 per cocktail. $10 for almost any meal you ate, including one of the best burgers I’ve ever tasted. Merch that was actually affordable, including the $20 festival shirt I got as a gift for my mom. I’m not sure if this is typical for a European fest, as I’ve only been to this one. But go to almost any festival in North America, and you’d have to almost double those prices across the board. On top of that, tipping culture does not exist abroad. It’s not even a fair fight. Again, I’m not sure how the economics work, but I’m willing to bet that Primavera still made a gigantic killing, even at those cheap costs. I’m sure more people were buying too.
The Parc del Forum is an ideal place for a festival, even though it really isn’t the type of venue you’d typically see host one. Unlike places like Bonnaroo or Coachella, where the venues are sprawling, open grass fields, the Parc is a winding maze, with secluded areas and walkways more akin to a theme park. Nonetheless, the festival easily supported the crowd size, with little to no bottlenecks, and stages that felt perfectly curated for the bands playing on them. At Coachella, aside from the Yuma, Sonora and Sahara Tents, the stages are sort of interchangeable when it comes to which act they’re hosting.
At Primavera, each band played the stage most tailored for their vibe and sound. The smaller punk, experimental or rock-leaning DIY bands played the intimate stages down by the water or the moody indoor Auditori stage. The rave-y electronic acts performed on stages built specifically for them, such as the 360-degree wraparound Boiler Room stage as well as the aforementioned Stone Island Warehouse – converted from an underground parking garage. And course, the mainstream superstars (Rosalía, Kendrick, Calvin Harris, etc.) played the behemoth dueling main stages.
Not to mention that the entire venue stood adjacent to the bay overlooking the Mediterranean, giving fans gorgeous views and vibes, especially as the sky turned pink from day to night. What more could you want?
REUSABLE COLLECTIBLE CUPS
This was a huge perk in my eyes. Instead of giving out cheap throwaway cups for beer and water, the fest distributed hard plastic reusable cups that each featured a cool illustration along with a past Primavera lineup printed on it. This proved to be environmentally sustainable, as you could refill it at any bar you wanted. And as the weekend wore on, the cups became their own collector’s items. I saved seven of them myself, and I even heard stories of people collecting every single lineup cup. Good way to go green and provide fest-goers with nice souvenirs.
GIANT ICE CUBES
You ever buy a cocktail at a hot outdoor music festival, and it’s over halfway-filled with crushed-up ice? And then within ten minutes, your drink has melted into a tasteless watery soup? Not a problem at Primavera, and presumably all European fests! This is one of those small cultural differences that actually goes a long way in giving you more bang for your buck. All across Europe, their ice cubes are just…bigger. They hold their form and melt a lot slower. This means your drink has more liquid by volume. And at the cheap price it’s being offered at, it’s no wonder people were practically chugging booze all day and night.
VENDORS WITH KEG BACKPACKS SELLING BEER IN THE CROWD
This was truly one of the coolest perks I’ve ever seen at a music festival. You’d be stood in the middle of a massive main stage crowd, and all of the sudden, you’d spot a man with a keg strapped to his back, weaving through fans and selling cups of beer in the crowd. Forget leaving your crew to go the bar and fighting your way back. Just wait for the beer man to come through! They had the quick-tap credit card machines and everything, and it was just about the most convenient thing ever. I know a lot of American fests have strict permitting rules requiring alcohol to be sold exclusively in beer gardens, but for profit’s sake, they should really consider making this a thing going forward. Another small cultural difference, but also kind of a game-changer.
NO BOTTLE CAPS
For whatever reason, you were allowed to bring in plastic water bottles, but you were not allowed to bring in the bottle cap. I’ve heard conflicting explanations. One was that they’re trying to cut down on the amount of plastic in the fest that winds up in the ocean (doesn’t explain why the bottle is allowed in but not the cap), the other was that a full water bottle with a lid can be used as a weapon. But at that point, can’t anything be used as a weapon? In any case, it made refilling and carrying your water bottle around a huge chore. Which brings me to my next point…
LACK OF WATER STATIONS
Other than the drinking fountains, which were hard to find, permanently built in as part of the park, and had absurd lines, there were no actual water refill stations in sight. And even if you did re-fill your bottle, you had to carry it around in your hand the whole time because…no cap. Your only move was to buy a cup of water at the bars, but every time you’d go do that, you just ended up buying another beer or cocktail in addition. Not a whole lot of healthy hydration going on at this fest. Good thing it wasn’t that hot!
As amazing as the venue was, it also made for a physically tiring weekend, thanks to the fact that the whole fest – aside from the main stage areas, which were covered in a thin layer of astroturf – took place on pavement. My feet hurt. I’ll take the sprawling green grass of the Empire Polo Fields every time.
IT’S A WASH
One of the biggest logistical hurdles in attending any festival is figuring out how you’re gonna get to and from. The ride over to Parc del Forum was a breeze, as you could take the metro and arrive quickly, depending on where you were staying. Getting back was a little trickier, since the metro was shut off from midnight until 5 a.m. (although you could take it back if you stayed until the end of the fest, which ran until 6). The festival did offer complimentary shuttles that dropped you off at a central location in downtown Barcelona, but those trips took a lot of time, and once you were dropped off, you had to fight off other tons of other attendees for cabs. But all in all, it wasn’t any better or worse than the situation at a typical American festival.
On the one hand, I felt euphoric vibes emanating from the mostly-Spanish crowd all weekend. Primavera festival-goers were simultaneously respectful and rowdy when they needed to be, and I could tell that the majority of the crowd was there for the music and not just to party or be seen. On the other hand, there were a few moments where the crowd drove me bonkers. I understand that Rosalía headlining a fest in her hometown is a huge deal, but unfortunately, too many people in the crowd seemed to have main character syndrome; SCREAMING the lyrics so loud to the point where they drowned out Rosalía’s voice, and talking incessantly to their friends during her show about how much they adore her. Her set was no doubt a party, and people were in high spirits, but if you love her that much, show some respect to her and the crowd around you. PLEASE.
Also, if you’re ever wondering what the atmosphere of a music festival is like from 4 to 6 a.m. after the headliners have ended, I can tell you now, the crowd is almost entirely comprised of Europeans strung out on mountains of drugs. I get that Two Shell is a druggy electronic band, but every face I saw had saucers for eyeballs, teeth grinding down to nothing, and mouths talking incessantly over the music. Nowhere in the crowd was safe. I searched for a patch of silence throughout the entire set and couldn’t find it. It reminded me of some of the American festival crowds I’ve been in. So overall, the crowds at Primavera were a wash, and really not that different from any other fest.