The Changing Face of Sasquatch!

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It’s springtime in Seattle, and that can only mean one thing.

Actually, it could mean a whole lot of things, depending on whom you ask. But if you’re anywhere near your twenties and your friends like music of the indie variety, chances are that springtime means one two-syllable word: Sasquatch!. Sure, chances are the people around you have been discussing the Northwest’s premier music festival since the lineup was released back in March-probably even before then-but it’s in spring that the Sasquatch! talk really blossoms.

With talk about the festival so ubiquitous these days, particularly because of the two-weekend fiasco, it’s often easy to forget just how strange Sasquatch! is in general, and how the festival has come to serve as an extension of the Northwest’s own changing identity.

Sasquatch! began back in 2002. It was started by Adam Zacks, a concert promoter from the Northwest who, prior to the inception of the festival, booked shows for the Roseland theatre in Portland. According to Zacks, the festival began with his hunch that the Northwest was in need of a festival that would cater to its “eclectic” tastes. In 2002, traditional festivals like Lollapalooza were becoming less popular, and Coachella had created a new demand for festivals featuring more unique flair.

Since Zack’s hunch, the festival has grown to become a massive event in our part of the country. When it first began in May of 2002, the festival only occurred for one day-a Saturday-and featured seven bands. In its second year, it had 24.

Now, in 2014, the Memorial Day weekend event will feature over a hundred artists. Among them are giants like Outkast and MIA. Last year, over 25,000 people were in attendance at the Gorge. The event has gotten so huge that Zacks even attempted to move the festival to two weekends. For those keeping up on this year’s events, you probably know how well that worked out.

Not enough people bought tickets to the Fourth of July weekend event, and the second weekend was canceled.

What is it about Sasquatch!, then, that has made it so huge in the Northwest? How can we account for its rapid growth in the last few years, from a one-day festival featuring mostly up-and-coming artists to a national event that hosts musicians from the top of the industry?

An article from the Phoenix NewTimes by Chris Parker might help us understand Sasquatch. Parker’s work concerns Coachella, but the two festivals are similar enough that their fundamental popularity can be traced to similar root systems.

What is particularly interesting about Parker’s piece is the role that music festivals have come to play in a music industry that-thanks to the digital revolution-has suffered dramatic decreases in sales over the last decade.

Out of a 50 percent drop in total music sales since 1999, the article says, concert ticket revenues account for 40 percent of the remaining revenue: 4.3 billion in 2012.

So the simple answer about the popularity of Sasquatch! might have to do with the fact that, as digital media allows us to consume more and more music for less and less money online, music festivals become an increasingly important way for the music industry to gain revenue. This, one might think, would account for the massive size of the event and the increasing popularity of its performers.

But I would argue that there is another, more intuitive, aspect of Sasquatch! that has made it such a hallmark of the Northwest experience.

Jack Hood, a junior here at Seattle University who’s attended the festival three times, described the event in these terms: “It’s just sort of crazy, chaotic freedom.”

Like many of us in the Northwest, he spent most of high school hearing about the event and building it up in his mind. Finally, during his senior year, he was able to attend. And also like the rest of us, Hood’s relationship with the festival goes beyond the music.

“Once you’re there, once you’re actually at the Gorge, you sort of forget that you’re in reality,” he said. “By the time you get to Monday, or Tuesday morning, you’re quite haggard from the sun, the consumption, and just the overall experience that you sort of step away from this crazy world and realize you have to go back to reality.”

This, I think, is the larger appeal of music festivals like Sasquatch!. Having gone to the festival three times myself, I can honestly say that the debauchery and madness of the event are part of what makes it so appealing. For folks in Seattle and the rest of the cold North West, huddled up as they are all year round indoors, Sasquatch! serves as an explosive introduction to the world of spring.

Even more than that, though, is the way the festival marks off different sections of our lives as young people. Everyone who has gone to Sasquatch! even once-though I would say it’s even more true for those who have made multiple trips-come back with a surplus of stories and a sense of personal change.

This is increased by the transition of the musicians themselves. Attendees might see their favorite band playing a small stage one year and, just two years later, see them performing the main stage in front of a crowd of a few thousand people. It’s an event that grounds them in the place that they live, and the music they love.

Plus, if the inclusion of local bands like Kithkin and Iska Dhaaf in this year’s festival are any evidence, Sasquatch! often launches our favorite bands onto the national stage. It certainly isn’t the only thing that does so, but watching a local favorite move from Chop Suey to the Gorge gives many denizens of the Northwest a sense, I think, of being part of a larger musical scene unique to the place they live.

The event serves as the end and beginning of some aspect of their lives, even if it isn’t always clear which. It might be the spring before they enter college-it might be the spring after they graduate; it might be where they met their best friend, or lost them. It’s chaos and unreality wrapped into one hedonism-soaked weekend and, judging by the numbers, it works.

So if the double weekend failed this year, it might simply be because the festival’s promoters overestimated the festival’s mass appeal. They may have forgotten, momentarily, that Sasquatch! began as something for the more eccentric tastes of the Northwest.

But as places like Seattle continue to grow, and their cultural influence on the nation becomes more pronounced, we should expect things like Sasquatch! to appeal to a wider audience. It’s quite possible that the event will move to two weekends if we give it a few more years. We might just have to accept, by then, that the place we live in now isn’t the same as the place it used to be.