The Float Fest That Could
The music festival that’s too good for its own good.
By Mark Stenberg, University of Texas
First, an origin story.
Float Fest is your textbook “Necessity Mother of Invention” situation: it’s impossible to throw a music festival in Texas during the summer.
It’s too hot. August, the doggiest month of summer, has until now been one hundred percent off the table, unfeasible, risk of death and sunburn far too high, even for a music festival.
As the child of dove white and alabaster, summer festivals are especially suicidal. Months June-September, I’m torn in a mental tug-of-war every time I consider going outside. Pulled on one side by my Nordic complexion and doctor’s dying wish for me to adopt a subterranean, mole-like lifestyle, and on the other by my fun-loving, adventure-seeking, youthful abandon, my life often ends up as a cat’s game. And that’s just when I’m thinking about going outside—just going outside—like on my way to the car to buy sunscreen. Going to a music festival in August means not only being outdoors at some point, but staying outdoors, the very idea of which makes my dermatologist wake up in a cold sweat.
Fortunately, with the precision of a richly ornate key opening a complex, Italian Job type lock, the founders of Float Fest crafted the perfect solution: have the festival during summer (quelle horreur!), but have it near a river. The idea is beautiful in its simplicity, elegant in the same way mathematicians talk about perfect equations. The effect is twofold. First, the river makes the heat bearable, because attendees can swim, cool off, bathe, whatever, which makes the festival feasible.
Second, it makes Float Fest—by virtue of its ‘Must Add Water’ predicament—the only music festival in the world to incorporate tubing, giving it an immediate marketability and separating it from the festival riff-raff. For Float Fest, the problem is the solution—a happy Catch-22. Float Fest needs to be on a river to work, but their being on the river is also why it works. It’s a two birds situation for the ages. Their weakness (need for water) is their strength (presence of water). It’s poetry in motion.
The floating, however, proves to be more complex than you might think. Not the actual act itself—few things are easier—but the repetition, floating every day of the three-day festival, is beyond herculean. Very few non-Navy Seals can withstand the prune-levels of three days straight river exposure. It’s too much physically, too much sun, drinking, neck craning, chafing.
So that wrinkles the Float part of the Fest slightly. Adding more wrinkles: tubing all day and then going to a music festival takes a lot of energy. If it’s unlikely that someone floated all three days, it’s downright unthinkable that anyone floated and fested for three days straight. This means attendees must take the buffet approach, picking and choosing at their convenience what days to float and what days to see shows.
As a result, most people float one day, usually Saturday, and then do the typical music festival thing on Friday and Sunday. This, of course, is perfectly fine with Float Fest. They stress that floating is optional, and part of their genius lies in the fact that the venue is only 50 yards from the river. If you wear your swimsuit (which everyone does), you can dip out for a quick cool-down between shows, or you can babysit some Lonies in the river until the sun sets and shadow people like me emerge from the dark. By floating one day and basking the others, you get the novel/exciting/thrilling experience of floating the river and then catching shows, but you also tackle three days of fun in the sun at a sustainable clip.
Another pro tip: get a VIP pass. Tickets are already cheap at $150 for three days GA, so splurge a little (practically the equivalent of other festivals’ regular prices) and live like a god. I’d be lying if I said that the free alcohol isn’t the biggest reason to get one. It is. If you try hard enough, you can make up the difference in price with Summer Shandies alone.
But you also get free food everyday, which becomes extra clutch considering the prohibitively high prices of vendor food and drink. Most food teeters around $10, and the beer runs a minimum of $7. (The $29 personal ‘bottles’ of wine were the most intriguing option, as well as an economic trend to watch.) Festival food and drink is never cheap, and since you’re baking on-site all day it’s near inevitable that you’ll have to feed yourself. When that time comes, it makes a lot of sense to have thrown down for VIP. Plus, the food is good. On Sunday, they served falafel that made me double-take, and I smuggled out Saturday’s brisket in my pockets and filled my trunk with it.
Access to the side-stage also comes included with VIP tickets, and the eye-contact connection that side-stagers and musicians share—and maybe this is just me—is pretty hot (hmu, Hyrda Melody). And if you think that the VIP section doesn’t turn-up, think again. By evening, the side-stage is going gorilla just like the regular crowd, except for they’re extra drunk off their free drinks and power.
You also get access to a bevy of luxuries that you’ll find yourself needing afterwards, like the giant slip ‘n’ slide (Elektroscheiben) that I’m going to need to refinance. Also included: deluxe “Fuck You I Rule” mobile bathroom trailers that are clean, cool, relatively roomy and an all-around much more pleasant experience than hot, plastic, fly-orgy Porta-Potties that the hoi polloi employ .
Speaking of things that aren’t shitty, the Float Fest employees were some of the most polite, helpful, courteous event staff I’ve ever encountered. Part of this can be attributed to Float Fest’s infancy—2015 marks the first year the event went three days. As a result, there were some newborn growing pains, but there’s also a rare camaraderie that only comes from being a part of something unestablished but promising.
So where most music festivals feel like capitalist versions of the rack, machines designed to squeeze out money without popping you, Float Fest was different. I actually felt valued as an attendee, and the cheeseball, frou-frou stuff like “courtesy” and “friendliness” actually made a big difference.
In fact, the staff actually—get this—they actually asked for feedback.
I was shocked, as I imagine you are, but they actually wanted suggestions from their customers.
As for the music—outstanding. As a part of my ongoing celestial punishment, I couldn’t make it to any Friday shows, meaning I missed arguably the best day. Float Fest added Capyac at the last minute to start the day, which was like pouring cosmic salt in my cosmic wounds. Also playing Friday: Dr. Dog, Local Natives, The Eastern Sea and Bright Light Social Hour. I didn’t float a river Friday, but I did cry one.
Saturday, I went to every show that I possibly could, which is to say I went to every show. Where most festival schedules make you choose between bands, Float Fest zippers their performers, staggering start times so you can see every show. It also adds to the hive mentality, as the entire sea of humanity swings back and forth between stages en masse.
Saturday began with Sip Sip (another Study Breaks favorite) killing it despite volcanic heat levels, and ended with Ghostland Observatory giving the crowd free seizures. While there were several great performances in between (Bun B, A.DD+, Wrestlers), Paul Wall was the standout.
I won’t pretend I’m a longtime fan, first time caller—outside of “Drive Slow” and “Grillz” I was pretty unfamiliar with Mr. Wall’s work. But when I saw his custom made jean shorts, purple bucket hat and snow cone-emblazoned purple socks, I thought I’d hear the man out. He played “Drive Slow” and “I’m on Patron” which both got the crowd nodding, but “Chunk Up the Deuce” blew the lid off. The festival’s Texas pride was palpable, and a lot of other performers also made mention of their local roots.
I avoided the water on Saturday because I wanted to suck the musical marrow out of FF, but on Sunday I gave in and went to the river. I missed Sunday’s early shows and drastically cut into the amount of free alcohol and food I was able to get, but Mute Math’s performance alone made up for missing the other bands. All they had to do was play “Typical” once and I time-traveled back to the salad days of 2007. Later, Phantogram closed out the show with a fog and light laden show so disorienting that it made me forget it was Sunday night and I was buzzed in the boonies.
Sitting in the grass afterwards, bemused and touching my sunburn to watch it turn from red to white to red, I couldn’t help but think of an essay by David Foster Wallace. In it, he talks about the hypocrisy of vacation. The appeal of most vacation getaways is their unspoiled, virgin qualities—untouched by man—but by visiting, you destroy what appealed to you in the first place. It’s sort of the fundamental human condition, destroying what we love.
The same conundrum applies here, because the more people that go to Float Fest, the more refined the rawness becomes; the more money pumped in, the more innocence destroyed. As it gets bigger, it doesn’t get better. So, what do you do—do you go? Do you spoil the unspoiled, make uncool the cool—can you sleep at night knowing that you helped turn Float Fest from a unique, independent festival to a mainstream, cookie-cutter, money-making behemoth? You probably can. But still, on behalf of everyone who’s been, and behalf of everyone who enjoyed its authentic, refreshingly bullshit free experience, please, please, please, please—don’t go to Float Fest.