Scenes From the Class Struggle in the Parking Lot
The Grateful Dead made life simple. With the exception of an occasional trivial surcharge for the floor (usually about a $2.50 difference if my memory is correct), ticket prices were all the same. To get great seats, you could get lucky with mail order or camp out at a Ticketron. Sure a few people paid the scalpers, but until recently, getting up front at a concert was more about luck and hard work than having some extra cash in your pocket.
Unfortunately, one of the many problems caused by scalpers is that they made it obvious to managers that there was a market for much more expensive tickets. Understandably, some would prefer to make the money rather than to charge less and have third parties pocket the difference. This trend started with the nostalgia bands but it invaded our scene in the form of VIP tickets.
At first glance they seem pretty harmless. Hey, if someone wants to pay three times as much as me to go to the same festival, why should I have a problem with it? Unfortunately, the existence of VIP sections affects the population beyond those who use them
One of the things that make Jam Cruise so special is that everyone has the same experience. It doesn’t matter if you stay in an inner room in the bottom of the boat or a suite on the 12th deck, everyone gets the same shows, the same food (Skerik’s pizza rant on Jam Cruise 4 proved that even the artists eat what we get.); the only difference is what space you sleep in when you finally collapse at dawn. This helps to build a strong community.
VIP sections are divisive by their very nature. There’s a zero sum game in terms of how much space there is in front of the stage. The more room that is reserved for VIPs, the less room there is for the poor peons who thought that the price of the festival was the one widely advertised. It’s not hard to predict who would be victorious in a battle between people who are paying $100 for a ticket and those who are paying four times that.
Perhaps the worst influence on the community is the existence of VIP sections at camping festivals. Not only does this create a divide between those who have to schedule their time carefully to make sure that they can see the acts that they have planned for and those who can wait until the very last second before heading to the stage, but we then get the wonderful dynamics of gated communities added to the mix. It’s a little bit annoying to not be able to get up front even for poorly attended shows (e.g. Camper Van Beethoven at noon during Wakarusa ’06), but once you create a separate area to stay in, people start having dramatically different festival experiences based solely on their ability to pay exorbitant sums.
Festivals aren’t just a place to see great music. They also are places where people can meet with kindred spirits, events where the overriding theme is of tolerance and acceptance. While that’s still true of some festivals – String Cheese’s Horning’s Hideout shows and High Sierra Music Festival use their environment as a selling point – for others the narrative has changed. When the police constantly harass the general camping area while leaving the VIP sections largely alone, the class message sent is pretty obvious . On the off chance that you miss it, listen to the chatter of Bonnaroo VIP attendees. They’re spending the extra money because it gives them the ability to attend the festival and not have to interact with those who aren’t as well off as them.
Is it pure mean-spiritedness that inspires people to want separation? Of course not. There is some genuine sketchiness in the general camping lot of a big festival. While I never have had anything stolen , I have heard the stories and don’t believe that they’re all urban legends designed to scare us . I wouldn’t want to camp next to the nitrous tanks or the three card monte players either. I’m just not convinced that the best solution to that problem is to let people buy their way out of it.
Unfortunately, thats another side effect of multiple tiers. You need to find a way of inspiring people to pay for the extra expense. Why should Great Woods fix their traffic issues when they can charge people $20 to park in a special lot that has an easier exit? Why worry if people are nervous about general camping if you can tap into that fear to sell extra VIPs? Where’s the incentive to fix the problems of an event if keeping them broken creates demand for people to upgrade?
Is there a short-term benefit for VIP areas at festivals? Of course there is. What business wouldn’t like a nice bump to their profits? However, festivals are in the business of selling an experience. If you destroy a large part of what makes these events so special in order to generate more profits over a year or two, how do you get people to continue to go even when you can’t get the perfect lineup?
 One of the unheralded aspects of the high tech movement is that it makes it a lot harder to tell someone’s wealth and power based solely on visual clues. If a scruffy looking person comes into a BMW dealership in Redmond or San Jose, the dealer doesn’t know if this is a person out for a joyride or someone whose options had just vested. When there’s a constant danger of accidentally offending a Microsoft executive, people are going to give others a bit more leeway in their behavior. It may not be the most egalitarian reason for respecting people, but it has the same result.
 The closest I came to this was at Horning’s a few years ago. Someone woke us up in the middle of the night by rifling through our cooler. When confronted, he claimed, ‘I was just looking for a grilled cheese sandwich.’ Because, you know, a cooler filled with ice is where you’re most likely to find that. Best. Excuse. Ever.
 Those exist too. When I used my homelessness as an excuse to run off and do the Grateful Dead’s spring tour in 1992, my grandmother called missing persons on me. They told her that I probably ran into a heroin dealer who shot me for my money. Thank you so much government spokespeople. That didn’t cause any additional stress.
Author’s Note: The initial reaction to this column made it obvious to me that I should post one clarification. I hold nothing against anyone who chooses to camp in a VIP section. I, myself, am obviously on the haves side of the debate and it’s not like I eschew hotels these days when I travel.
However, while I understand the appeal of a quieter area these days, I also remember what it was like to be 23, broke, and in a town that stood against me and all that I represented. The acceptance shown to me from the scene was a large part of the reason why I made it through those years.
I can’t help but wonder if that would happen if I were growing up now. Some of the friends I made then were people who could have easily afforded VIP areas. Would we have even met? My problem is not with those who can afford to take advantage of these programs (as I have used them once or twice myself), but rather with their creation. It’s not that people are making the wrong decision; it’s that this divisive option is given to them in the first place.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html
He is the stats section editor for The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at http://www.livejournal.com/users/thezzyzx.