North American Music Festivals: A Definitive Ranking

Music festivals are a wonderful summer pastime in North America. Although one may argue that the OG of music festivals is Glastonbury in the UK, North American festivals get their fair share of well-deserved attention. What better way to spend a hot summer’s day than sitting outside and enjoying some live music in the company of many other music fans?

In addition to enjoying my current city’s Calgary Folk Music Festival year after year,  I have had the fortune of attending several music festivals over the last summers, and have come to appreciate that certain festivals may make you feel more Zen than others, even if others seem more popular. What I think it boils down to in the end, is what your preference for the music-festival experience is. The choices are between ones set in the city, like Lollapalooza in Chicago, IL, Austin City Limits in Austin, TX, and Newport Folk Festival in New York, NY or camping festivals, like Sasquatch in Washington, Coachella in southern California and Bonnaroo in Tennessee.

A second thing to consider is how important is the music to you since some locales seem to manage sound bleed between stages better than others and some festival organizers make moving between sets and meeting your basic needs easy, while others make it so difficult that you may end up missing a set if you have to use the toilet, eat, get water or move to a different stage.

Finally, some festivals seem to be more of a party or a scene than others. So when it comes to choosing which festival to go to, as a handsome Texan once told me while waiting in line for a pop-up concert in Austin after the last day of Austin City Limits was cancelled: “You gotta pick your pony and ride it.”

So how do you pick your Pony?
If you’re new to festivals and trying to figure out which one to go to, there are several factors to consider which I’ll share below.

Music Vs Party:
This first thing to consider is the most important: Why are you thinking of going to a music festival? Is it for the music? Like one of your all-time favorite bands are playing Lollapalooza 2015 and you’ve waited 6 whole years to see them live and at this point you’d fly to Timbuktu for their show (ahem, The War On Drugs)? Or is it because you like the frenzied party atmosphere and don’t really mind if you miss some bands here and there?

Getting up close for The War on Drugs at Lollapalooza was well worth the wait. 

I have never met a festival that delivers fully on one of these extremes over another, but I have found some that tip more toward being about a party or a scene than being about the music. If the party is your thing, then go for it. For myself, I go for the music above all else. All festivals are kind of a party, so I don’t feel that I need one that specializes in parties and some festivals are better at making the music accessible than others. A festival that makes it easy to move between stages and meet my needs between sets is right up my alley.

City vs Camping:
Second, I prefer city festivals over camping since the camping at Coachella was truly disgusting and this comes from someone who has lived and travelled to some pretty sketchy places. The thing to remember is that festival camping isn’t like that peaceful weekend you spent beside a lake or a forest last summer. Rather, it’s tens of thousands of people crammed together on tiny camping pads in a dusty field with little to no shade, with water and port-o-potties a 20 minute walk away, and at least for Coachella, you’re not supposed to bring your own food and camp stove in. Festivals like this are designed to make you spend as much money as possible on over-priced, tiny portions of mediocre food and seem to care very little about your comfort. No thanks. I’ll get my camping fix elsewhere.

Pictured: Not Coachella camping.

On the other hand, when attending a city festival you can check out different neighbourhoods, sleep more comfortably, eat outside of the festival grounds and often there will be aftershows since the evening performances end earlier on account of city bylaws. This means you can check out your favourite bands in cool venues and it also gives you an opportunity to mitigate scheduling conflicts. For example, during our recent Lollapalooza experience, instead of having to choose between seeing Alt-J and The War On Drugs at the festival who were playing at the same time on different stages, we were able to get tickets to Alt-J’s aftershow at the beautiful Aragon Theatre venue. Conflict resolved.

The Aragon Ballroom in Chicago is a wonderful concert venue,

Finally, each festival tends to have its own vibe and that is because of the people who tend to go to it. For my part, I prefer a more relaxed vibe because to me that enables the best music viewing experience.

So of the following big-time North American Festivals: Austin City Limits, Lollapalooza, Ottawa Bluesfest, and Coachella, here is my ranking from best to worst:

1) Austin City Limits
For reasons I elaborated above, I love ACL since it is above all else, about the music. It’s along the shores of the beautiful Ladybird Lake, and takes place in one of my favourite cities I have ever been to. Austin is a vibrant, quirky, affordable, beautiful and friendly city that is a must-visit for any music lover. The festival makes seeing music and meeting your needs exceptionally easy, doesn’t have a designated beer garden so you don’t need to be locked away to enjoy a drink, and organizers place a great emphasis on keeping the grounds clean. I loved that I could watch a show and not have to turn around to a field full of garbage the way I would at other festivals. It was also very easy to bike to the festival along a gorgeous river pathway.The vibe is pretty chill and it seems like the people who go are there for the music, rather than to be seen in their culturally-misappropriated headdresses and do so many drugs that they won’t remember half the bands they see. To quote the attendant at the nearby Barton Springs: “ACL is more backpacks and camelbaks” than other festivals. She was right. After the festival was over, I knew that it was one that I would want to do again and again.

Pictured: exactly how Austin makes you feel. 

2) Lollapalooza
ACL is actually Lolla’s younger, southern sister, so I was keen to visit the festival that inspired my favourite. I also heard many good things about Chicago as a city and it did not disappoint. For such a large city, we found it very easy to get around and there was no shortage of fun places to eat, drink and explore throughout the city. The aftershow venues were superlative and festival itself is right downtown in Grant Park, showcasing Chicago’s beautiful skyline and urban green spaces. That being said, there was way more waste than I would have liked to see and part of that was because of the people it seemed to attract. I watched some super-trendy looking, vapid 20-something complain about how much better New York was as a city and she couldn’t believe she was wasting time in such a dump and then proceed to throw her empty can on the ground when there was a recycling bin literally two steps in front of her. There were a lot of these kinds of people, mostly hanging out at the Perry Stage enjoying an all-day-long EDM dance party which gave the festival a bit of a frat party atmosphere. I liked the lack of beer gardens but the sound quality at the Sprint Stage left a lot to be desired. All in all, I’m glad that I got to go once and I would go back to Chicago in a heartbeat, but I’m not sure if I would go to Lolla again.

A nice place to watch some music.

3) Ottawa Bluesfest
Consider ACL and Lolla as sprints, and Ottawa Bluesfest a marathon. It takes place over 10 days in a park by the river in Ottawa and a few other venues hosting smaller shows. On weeknights, the shows start around 5pm and go until 10pm and then on weekends they last the whole day. There are no beer gardens which makes it great and despite the name, there is often a really diverse lineup of artists. If you’re able to snag early bird tickets, it’s a good value too since you’re able to see so many bands over the course of the 10 days. That being said, unless you live in Ottawa, taking 10 days off for a festival is kind of hard and the sound at some of the stages wasn’t very good. Just like Chicago, Ottawa is a beautiful city that I’d like to visit again, but I am not sure I am in a rush to attend another Bluesfest.

4) Coachella
 Coachella is held on a beautiful, but extremely dusty patch of land that features palm trees and mountain views, weird public art installations (like a giant, inflatable astronaut because Coachella) and even a ferris wheel. If you see pictures of the festival, especially ones of the paid-to-attend celebrities showing off the most ridiculous outfits they could imagine wearing to somewhere it’s 30 degrees C/90 degrees F in the shade, you might think that Coachella is glamorous. Make no mistake, Coachella is anything but. Out of all the festivals I’ve been to, I found it to be the worst organized which meant it was difficult to get from camping into the festival and then once inside, if you had to go to the bathroom, get water or something to eat between sets, it would take so long that it was

First, the organizers barely provide the basics to meet your bathroom and hydration needs both outside the venue in the camping section and inside the concert grounds. This leads to such atrocious human behaviour such as people showering in the drinking water fountains, because who wants to pay $7US for a showers, and people peeing right in the middle of grounds where everyone is walking because they don’t want to spend the 45 minutes it takes to go to the bathroom thereby missing the next set. The same goes for camping. Basically, the whole grounds becomes a toilet. Second, Coachella only lets you drink in the beer gardens which is a lame place to spend a festival so people sneak in all kinds of drugs and get so messed up they pass out as you walk by at 3pm because they smoked joints laced with PCP all day instead of eating or drinking water, or they drank so much in their camp that they’re swerving on their feet and missing the show they told you they were excited to see 2 hours earlier. Finally, for some godforsaken reason, it’s apparently a tradition to trash the outhouses on the last night which people did and the results were beyond gross. There is some great people watching and fun art installations that make Coachella a lot of fun, but between it being so hard to move between sets and meet your basic needs while enjoying the music, the gross people and the seas of garbage that were left everywhere, I’m in no hurry to return to Indio anytime soon. It could be that I just hit it on an off year, but there are far to many good festivals out there (see 1-3) to risk some of the negative aspects of Coachella again.

I think it’s safe to say that Coachella put me off camping festivals at least for a while, but I still want to go to Bonaroo because I’ve heard that it’s another festival that’s all about the music rather than the scene. Though I will likely rent an RV if I go. Other festivals I’m interested in seeing are: Newport Folk Festival because it’s in New York and it’s where Bob Dylan went electric; Outside Lands in San Francisco, because SanFran; Sasquatch because it’s held in the Gorge; Osheaga because it’s in one of my favourite cities, Montreal; and of course, Glastonbury in the UK because it was the original music festival. I’ll be sure to update my ranking after I’ve attended a few more festivals.

In the end, music festivals are a fun way to spend some time and in many cases, explore a new city.  Choosing the right one for you all comes down to how, where and with who you share your Zen. Keep calm and festival on.