The Social Life of Music Festivals

April 13, 2018

A crowd with hands in the air at a music concert.Almost 100,000 people a day flood the Coachella music festival, transforming a corner of the California desert into a city of pulsating rhythm.

In this self-contained whirlwind of music idols, in a swirling mass of fans capturing millions of moments on Instagram, what sort of community takes shape within the walls of this impromptu city?

Colin James ’18 wants to know, and his sociology studies at Whittier College have given him the tools to investigate. Sociology examines how people relate to themselves and to the world around them, and music festivals create one extraordinary environment for James to explore. Specifically, he wants to know what effect technology and social media have on attendees of modern festivals like Coachella versus attendees’ experiences at festivals past, like Woodstock.

Through copious interviews, James hopes to understand how their communities form, how people can feel included or excluded, and what distinguishes these festivals from one another. What he’s found thus far is that the older events’ communities felt more accepting, paying less care to social norms. But at recent festivals, attendees are more inclined to stay with their friends rather than mingle. Surrounded by tens of thousands of people with smartphones, attendees also experience a heightened awareness that they’re being watched.

“I think that with the growth of social media, there is pressure for people to experience music festivals in a certain way,” James said. “There is a sort of institutionalization of music festivals happening—which ultimately means that there are becoming ways for people to act and not to act within festival walls.”

“In a way, it was like recent festival attendees were more worried about their image and getting pictures to share on social media showing that they've attended a music festival, rather than experiencing the music for itself,” he added.

James’ research adds to a growing library of observations about the technology-led shift in music festival culture. 

After he graduates this spring, James is open to a number of career paths, including applying his sociological studies to help produce music festivals where everyone feels comfortable.

“I think the best thing about my major is learning to have empathy towards one another,” James said. “Learning about how people act in certain positions with regards to economic, ecological, and political circumstances gives an interesting perspective of how societal dynamics play out in our diverse country, let alone world, which ultimately teaches me to be grateful for what I have and to seek what I can do for others in less fortunate circumstances.”