Festivals are becoming the national pastime for America’s millennials

Burning Man attracts a lot of millennials. And plenty of Generation X, too.
Burning Man attracts a lot of millennials. And plenty of Generation X, too.
Image: Reuters/Jim Urquhart
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An estimated 70,000 people (many of them, well-paid technology executives, apparently) have gathered this week in the Nevada desert for the annual festival of hedonism and weirdness known as Burning Man.

This year, the event is arguably gaining more attention than usual, amid claims it is being ruined by rich people. We’ll leave that debate aside, but the fact that Burning Man has become part of the national conversation, in certain circles at least, reflects an important behavioral shift in America: festivals are booming, as both a business and an activity.

This is particularly so among the increasingly important millennial age cohort. According to research and surveys conducted by Eventbrite, an online ticketing company, a staggering one in five millennials attended a music festival in the past year. In a new study, the company claims that music festivals have become “one of young Americans’ favorite pastimes.”

The study, which analyzed 20 million social media conversations across Facebook, Twitter, and other online forums spanning the past 12 months, found that South by Southwest was the most-discussed festival. The Coachella music and arts festival ranks fifth and Bonnaroo is 10th. EDM (electronic dance music), which is absolutely booming in the US currently, accounted for eight of the top 25 most-discussed festivals, the highest being Tomorrowland (in third place.)

The boom in music festivals is great news for musicians, amid a shift among consumers away from music ownership (in both physical and digital form) to on-demand streaming platforms. And it echoes an increased desire among consumers (again, particularly millennials, sometimes described as the experience generation) to spend money on experiences rather than things.

Burning Man, which has a music component but isn’t really about music at all, ranked 16th in the Eventbrite study. If this really is a watershed year for the event, in a bad way, then maybe millennials are actually to blame.

While Gen X-ers like tech luminaries Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Larry Page have been attending Burning Man for years, the New York Times columnist Nick Bilton recently claimed that “a new set of younger rich techies are heading east, including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, employees from Twitter, Zynga and Uber.” They’re setting off a “secret game of I-can-spend-more-money-than-you-can and, some say, ruining it for everyone else” he writes.