You probably just think going to a music festival, in this case the Iowa experience that is the 80/35 Music Festival in Des Moines, is nothing more than sitting, listening and then leaving in a somewhat orderly/panicky fashion.
Oh, you poor fool!
Not that there can't be rich fools, obviously. Anyone who has listened to the new Jay-Z album can attest to the presence of rich fools.
Attending a music festival is no small feat, I?assure you. It really boils down to two simple rules:
1) Abandon the uniquely American taxonomic tradition lest you find yourself whiling away the hours chasing elusive sub-genres, only to find your edification elusive and enjoyment hallow.
2) Wear comfortable shoes.
I cannot stress the second rule enough. Days after the festival my calves still bear the unmistakable pain of wearing 12-year-old sneakers with as much arch support as a moccasin from the Cracker Barrel gift shop.
Oh, that and the taxonomic thing. That is also important.
People, and some would say Americans to a greater degree, have a natural tendency to organize; to try and impose an order on an otherwise chaotic situation.
The 80/35 Festival was a great example. People would ask me "are you going to cover the bands? Who are you here to see? Did you get to meet the Wu Tang Clan?"
I'll rip this Band-Aid off right now: I did not get to meet the Wu Tang Clan. This may be due to the fact that they didn't even get into Des Moines until their scheduled start time, let alone have time for any of my probing questions like "Do you guys still talk to Chapelle?"
Well, newly minted press credentials in hand, I?decided to cover the festival as a whole; to try and understand the experience and the people responsible for that experience.
First on the list: The people with the free stuff.
A little-known benefit of having press credentials was having access to a special V.I.P area, brought to you by Pearl Vodka. Yes, they had posters up EVERYWHERE in the V.I.P. area, but since they were fronting the money for the padded benches, who were we to complain.
It was in the V.I.P. area, brought to you by Pearl Vodka, that I met a woman who, incidentally, was handing out free samples of some kind of alcohol, but I'm not sure which one.
She had been in small group marketing endeavors, called "street teams," for years now. She told me she had started on a street team for Red Bull years ago, and vodka seemed like a natural progression.
Next time you attend a festival have a quick look around. The bands aren't the only people making money; from subsistence musicians hawking CDs to the street teams attempting to give away free ... pretty much anything, all the way to restaurants that have decided to temporarily relax their dress code in favor of some easy cash there is a lot of money changing hands. Except at Starbucks, where they close early due to excessive requests for the restroom from non-paying customers.
I would be angrier about that last bit but they set up private bathrooms in the V.I.P. area, brought to you by Pearl Vodka.
Second on the list: The overworked hotel staff.
These guys and gals earned their money over that two-day affair. What is a relaxing time for everyone else is a 48-hour gauntlet of towel requests, overcrowded rooms and hallways filled with bizarre smells for these hotel staffers. I hope you guys got hazard pay for working that weekend, I really do.
Third on the list: Body-painted people.
Ever since 80/35 started there have been a cadre of women, and one dude, who paint themselves head to toe in glittery body makeup and wander around the festival taking pictures with people, occasionally getting on stage, and always wary of the ever-present creepers who seem to think body paint is an invitation for touching.
I?tried to talk to one of these painted girls outside my hotel. Who better to ask about a festival than a walking attraction?
As I said, I TRIED to talk to one. She was smoking a cigarette outside the entrance; my first question got no further than "Is this your first year at ..." then a man in a rickshaw came up, asked the painted girl to ride around the block on the rickshaw for a little free publicity for his anachronistic method of travel, and then "like" his page on Facebook.
Ok, so she returned a few moments later and I went back to my original question. Almost immediately we were set upon by a family that wanted their toddler to have their picture taken with the painted girl. I?say the family wanted it because it was obviously NOT the little girl's idea.
Now the family was gone and before I had a chance to open my mouth a gaggle of motorcycle riders, clearly angered that something in downtown Des Moines had the audacity to be louder than them, spent an entire red light's worth of time revving their engines and congratulating each other on their loud engines. Needless to say, this made conversation impossible.
With the motorcyclists passed I was finally able to ask my question, only to have the painted girl be taken away by an 80/35 staffer because her shift was starting.
Lesson learned: Painted people are the busiest people.
Fourth on the list: People who didn't know there was a festival.
Being at an extended fest can give you tunnel vision. You start to assume that, wherever you go, you're disheveled, refugee-looking appearance is not only accepted but lauded. It can be a sobering reminder that other people are still living their lives around you.
Case in point: Josh. Josh was a guy I met, again in the smoking pit outside my hotel. The first question he asked me was "does this sort of thing happen a lot around here?"
Turns out Josh was in Des Moines from Nebraska to attend a car show. He then explained the restoration he and his father were doing on their 1951 Chevy truck in such great detail that I think I could restore one myself, had I understood a single word he was saying.
So the summation of the festival is a collection of seemingly disconnected people who all may or may not have some vested interest in this particular gathering?
Yes. Any large music festival, or any large event is always about finding what YOU like about it; the music, the commerce, the friends or that fact that you just stumbled upon a giant music fest and all you wanted to do was buy a '51 Chevy bumper.
But, if you need one singular event that summed up my time at 80/35 it would be watching David Byrne and St. Vincent cover the Talking Head's "This Must Be the Place" while getting my shoulders worked on by the masseuse-for-charity in the V.I.P. lounge, brought to you by Pearl Vodka.