No, I’m not exaggerating when I say Musicfest NW (MFNW) is probably Portland’s most hated festival. The infamous hullabaloo used to have the same format as South by Southwest (SXSW) – scheduling acts at various venues throughout the city – but switched to just one location and two stages a few years ago. Cramming every attendee into a single sweaty venue for an entire weekend opens the “Pandora’s box” of commercialism – which is exactly what the organizers wanted.
Gone are the days of intimate shows where you can practically reach out and touch your favorite artist, all in the comfort of an air-conditioned bar. Now, whenever Portlanders think of MFNW, images of Lyft tickets and HTC smartphones spring into their minds.
Last year, organizers banned water even though the temperature was over 85 degrees and shade was nowhere to be found. This left the masses fuming in anger, threatening to boycott the event. That, and the fact that MFNW is one of the most expensive music festivals in Portland, charging $140 for a three-day pass, $60 for a full day, and $45 for a half day. By comparison, Project Pabst only charges $75 for the weekend.
Reddit user “wheeldog” had this to say about it:
“Nice way to withhold basic human needs. Hey why not charge two bucks per porta potty visit? While you’re at it, how about a surcharge for oxygen? I will never attend this event.”
Another netizen by the name of “canyoudiggitman” decried the event, saying:
“MFNW. It’s over!”
Despite the sour taste of kombucha that still lingers in my mouth from last year, and the fact the most memorable takeaways were the free e-cigs and Kind Bars, I went again this year hoping things would be better. The answer is, “not really.” To be fair, there was a Heineken booth where “water maids” would fill your empty water bottles (but no free cups); thanks to the wildfire smog, the sun wasn’t beating down on us like ants under a microscope (although there was a Fallout 3 vibe going on); the lineup was slightly better than last year and featured acts like Beirut, Twin Shadow, Milo Greene, and Danny Brown.
Though, this year’s festival made the commercialism of 2014 seem like an Occupy Wall Street protest. The staff had no clue what was going on; there was no seating for non-VIP people who needed to rest (I even witnessed a young girl pass out from discomfort during Modest Mouse); it was shocking to see more press people than actual attendees during the day, yet when the headliners played, the pit was suffocating; there were not enough water stations and no tables to sit and eat.
How MFNW manages to attract big name acts like Foster the People and Belle and Sebastian, regardless of the paltry attendance and local stigma, is a quandary. My hypothesis is that it’s Portland itself. “Bridgetown” is a mid-size city that was considered the armpit of the west coast up until recently. Due to the influx of transplants, TV shows like Portlandia hyping it up, and numerous fluff pieces by the New York Times, Portland is now the new “It” town and an indie-music mecca. It’s no surprise that hipster-friendly bands want to come to a place with a lot of hipsters – the beautiful scenery helps too. Even though there were less than 200 people watching Tallest Man on Earth, that probably won’t stop Ryan Adams from playing at MFNW next year.
MFNW has become so trendy (amongst non-Portlanders) that Vice writer Christine Heeley had this to say about it:
“They say Portland is the most polite city on the West Coast. If its largest music festival is any indication, I’d say that statement is pretty damned accurate. It’s a festival where grandma can come and dance, babies can take their afternoon naps, people drink responsibly and where concert-goers respect others and their environment.”
Yes, it’s true, most of the people jamming out to Modest Mouse were my parents’ age, but that’s just because no one under 40 listens to Modest Mouse anymore. Beyond that, Christine Heeley is completely oblivious to Portland culture and probably thinks Voodoo Donuts is a “cool” place to visit (no offense). She also fails to understand Musicfest NW is not a camping festival, so there will obviously be a lot less Ketamine and “free love” going around. But the main reason why MFNW had such a quiet, polite, family-friendly vibe is because no self-respecting Portlander would actually go to MFNW. The end result is low attendance rates, visiting families, and rich, 40-something VIPs who only come to watch Modest Mouse. So, until the hype and mystique of Portland fades, Musicfest NW will continue to “Float On” while drawing ire from locals.