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The Good Listener: For Music-Festival Rookies, A Survival Guide

If you're going to Bonnaroo this weekend, as these folks did back in 2010, you could use a few tips.
If you're going to Bonnaroo this weekend, as these folks did back in 2010, you could use a few tips.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the American Girl catalogs we never ordered is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, how first-time music-festival attendees can survive and thrive in an overwhelming setting.

Kendall Levinson writes: "Any advice for a young person going to his or her first music festival this summer? Any tips for preparation or survival would be appreciated."

Whether you're wading through the boiling asphalt at Bonnaroo this weekend, gaping over the gorge at Sasquatch or taking in any of a zillion festivals popping up on six of the seven continents, festival preparation can be broken into three categories: music, logistics and simple survival.

Let's start with survival. When I first became a parent more than a dozen years ago, the local PTA installed a chip in my brain that contains the following stern lecture: People die at music festivals. Sometimes it's drug- or alcohol-related, often it's due to dehydration and/or overexposure to the elements, and occasionally it's due to freak injuries as a result of stage collapses or folks leaping around and landing the wrong way.

It's impossible to live a life in which you encounter no risks, but take basic precautions: Bring powerful sunscreen and a portable cell-phone charger. Have earplugs handy whether you think you'll need them or not; don't hesitate to pop them in at a moment's notice. Abandon footwear-related vanity and wear the most comfortable shoes imaginable. Get thee some shade and other means of cooling off; check in with the state of your skin and your body temperature. Drink water like a mofo — even if it means building expensive onsite bottled stuff into your festival budget. Hang back behind violent mosh pits, should they arise. And think through worst-case scenarios involving illicit substances, even alcohol; you're in a huge crowd of people, many of them idiots, often at a remote location. Is your first music festival the time to relinquish control over your faculties? Go with friends and keep an eye out for each other; it's no fun to babysit drunk or otherwise addled companions, but prepare for the possibility, because the alternatives can be far worse.

That leaves music and logistics, which are often intertwined. Show up early, because it's way more fun to wait outside the gate with your friends at 11 in the morning than it is to sit in standstill traffic while thinking about everything you're missing. When you're dealing with multiple stages — any set-up where you're choosing from a menu of musical options at any given moment — plan ahead and jot down where you'd theoretically like to be. Take advantage of Bandcamp, Spotify and a million other ways to pre-screen festival acts you've never heard of. Many large events have useful apps for your mobile devices to help you plan, but remember that hugely crowded areas full of young folks often get crummy cell-phone reception, so jot down backups on an old-fashioned piece of paper.

Finally, remember that the best part of leisure planning — whether it's a music festival or a low-key vacation — comes from serendipitous opportunities to abandon your agenda altogether. Maybe your group meets a bunch of fun strangers who want to see a favorite band you've never heard of. Maybe you get word of a surprise appearance by an artist you've always wanted to see. Maybe the single most appealing option in a given moment is to walk to the quietest spot on the grounds and spent 10 minutes drinking a smoothie in the shade. Prepare yourself for any festival you attend, but always remain notionally open to life's infinite capacity to surprise.

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email at allsongs@npr.org or tweet @allsongs.

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