Inside Lands experiments with digital festival design

Inside Lands
LCD Soundsystem/Courtesy

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Last weekend, Inside Lands tried to provide an answer for the future of the live music industry. After the Outside Lands festival was promptly canceled as a result of the pandemic, Inside Lands, a two-day, all-digital festival, was born. The event was an attempt to maximize audiences’ growing desire to see live acts perform, and experimented with the constraints of the world’s new reality.

The festival, streamed via Twitch, intertwined live performances with archival footage from festivals in past years. In between the music, Inside Lands hosted various segments related to food, environmental initiatives and programs promoting voting. For Friday’s show, there was an extensive wine-tasting segment that turned WASP’y, stomach-churning to the same degree of a festival corn dog. The food segments, however, allowed thousands of viewers to tune into what could’ve been on the festival’s menu, such as the Oakland-based Filipino restaurant FOB Kitchen. 

Inside Lands’ largest pitfall was that many of the performances fell abysmally flat. 

Some artists performed alone from the comfort of their bedrooms, such as singer mxmtoon. Others could be found in a recording studio or at The Ranger Station, where artists performed on a proper stage accompanied by shaky, festival-provided camera work and dizzying light shows. Some artists, such as Tycho, carried out their segment at the St. Joseph’s Arts Society, with just a few keyboards at their disposal under the center’s sparkling lights. Many of the “live” performances were shot on professional cameras and often made for an aesthetically pleasing watch, especially because of prior editing to remove any mishaps. 

A live festival’s energy is what many artists could have benefitted from. Rock band Hinds, with their prominent indie girl whine, may have fared better among a crowd rather than being more exhausting than enjoyable over a live stream. 

“I need molly to enjoy this kind of music,” one user commented in Twitch’s chat feature during DJ Shiba San’s set. 

Avoiding a live audience altogether, asking for the same spirit of Outside Lands is comical — ridiculous, even, when trying to evade going outside at all. No one is asking for pyrotechnics or boy band choreographies, but some artists’ understandable nonchalance didn’t make for the most exciting indoor event experience.

There were exceptions to the dullness so many DJs perpetuated. Tokimonsta closed the first night with a surprise guest appearance from singer Gavin Turek. Throughout her set, she was not completely absorbed with mixing, allowing for occasional moments of dancing or jumping along to emulate what could have been a live show’s energy. These respites set the chat room ablaze with emojis. 

The most interaction viewers could have with one another was within the Twitch chat room. Negativity and the occasional slur aside, the chat room sometimes banded together in an attempt to have some sort of united, festival-going experience in the new age. While Berkeley-based Rexx Life Raj performed his set, the chat was flooded with links to his social media and YouTube videos. Other times, commenters would recall pre-COVID-19 memories, such as randomly bumping into an artist or their first time trying a drug at the festival. 

“Making art is about empathy,” Oakland-born rapper and actor Daveed Diggs said during the festival’s “Mobile Homies” Q&A segment. He noted how the process of creation stems from society working together for social movements of the past and, most notably, the present.

Daveed spoke on how the realities of COVID-19 have been experienced and shared via Instagram slideshows displaying color-coordinated infographics relaying looming messages that are boiled down to aesthetic text. Returning to a live event, to what is “normal,” was widely discussed throughout Daveed’s talk.

The festival played footage from Elton John’s performance at Outside Lands in 2015, where, in a dazzling blue sequined suit, John seemingly jolted a keyboard to life. He encouraged everyone in the audience to follow along and scream “Bitch!” in tandem with the rattling bass of “The Bitch Is Back.”

As the sun set in that 5-year-old performance, it also happened to set for Californians watching live. There was no swaying along in the last stream of the sun or yelling until an overpriced drink and a hoarse throat were the souvenirs of the night. Instead, viewers have blue light fatigue, trudging along to the reality that average performances, for all intents and purposes, will be as good as it’s going to get for now. 

Contact Kelly Nguyen at [email protected]. Tweet her at @kellithnguyen.