For a music lover, it's perhaps the quintessential summer experience: sharing sweat, heat stroke and generational anthems with 200,000 of your shirtless, screaming peers at an outdoor music festival. But with ticket prices at the likes of Bonaroo and Lollapalooza soaring into the $300 range, what college student can even afford to participate in this rite of passage?
Rather than dropping a grand on a flight to Seattle and a Bumbershoot pass, why not snag a bus ticket and check out some of the nation's hottest free or cheap music festivals? True, you won't catch Lady Gaga or Kings of Leon at any of these smaller fests, but some of the country's best independent acts spend their summers on the minor festival circuit for a fraction of what the marquee names charge. Read on for Money College's guide to seven of the nation's best music festivals -- for less than $20 each.
1. Westword Music Showcase - Denver, Colo., multiple venues
June 19, tickets $15 in advance
Denver's one-day music fest sports an impressive lineup that includes prog-pop's current standard-bearers, Dirty Projectors, as well as chillwave's vanguard breakout act Neon Indian, electro-soul dance-inciters Ghostland Observatory and the lo-fi institution Superchunk. This mile-high music celebration sprawls across several city blocks in downtown Denver, so amble around, squint hard and imagine you could actually afford to attend South By Southwest.
2. Twilight Concert Series - Salt Lake City, Utah, Pioneer Park
July 8 – Aug. 26, FREE
Despite SLC's reputation as a stalwart stronghold of Mormon conservatism, the city's arts council proves that their town can draw some of the best independent artists with its 2010 weekly free concert schedule. Indie fans should especially note the relative strength of the opening acts: Zooey Deschanel's hit retro-pop project She & Him rubs elbows with L.A.'s current buzz band du jour, Dum Dum Girls, while the New Pornographers share the bill with art-rock critical favorites The Dodos. The award for coolest billing, though, goes to the genius who paired Outkast's Big Boi with tongue-in-cheek electro-funk cads Chromeo. Please, please, please let Chromeo's P-Thugg bust out his goofy vocoder stylings on-stage with Big Boi.
3. Jelly's Pool Parties 5 - East River State Park, Brooklyn, New York.
July 11 – FREE
The tiny Brooklyn concert promoter Jelly managed to nab attention and accolades over the last couple years with their series of free Pool Party concerts in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, booking top-shelf indie acts like Grizzly Bear, Mission of Burma, Dan Deacon, The Black Lips and Girl Talk, and turning heads with some high-profile celebrity attendees like Jay-Z and Beyonce. Of course Jelly, being a bunch of Brooklyn hipsters, managed to continually piss off city and parks officials even as they wowed adoring music fans. This cast serious doubt over the future of the Pool Parties, but Senator Charles Schumer (Democrat, New York) made headlines and hipster friends when he intervened and pulled hard to get the concerts back on track. As a result, the Pool Party series is scheduled to kick off July 11, but the lineup remains TBA, so check back at Jelly's web site for updates soon.
4. Whartscape - Baltimore, Md., multiple venues
July 22 – 25, ticket price TBA
When electronic music mastermind and juvenilia enthusiast Dan Deacon organizes a music festival through his whacked-out Baltimore art collective Wham City, expect the unexpected. Deacon's oddball blend of anti-corporate punk ethos and childlike conceptual art makes for a bizarre sort of Sid Vicious-in-diapers aesthetic, and his festival line-up skews predictably toward the avant-garde and noise avenues he's championed for years. Still, the bill sports top-tier experimental rock like Xiu Xiu as well as recent breakout acts like L.A. noise-punkers HEALTH and Deacon's own ensemble. Although Wham City hasn't announced ticket prices yet, last year's Whartscape ran only $17 per day, not bad for all the noise-rocking mayhem you can shake Deacon's trademark glowing green skull-stick at.
5. Green Music Fest - Chicago, Ill., street festival
June 26 – 27, suggested $5 donation
Chicago's newest entry into the summertime street festival scene narrowly edges out the storied Wicker Park Fest as the city's best bet for those who can't swing the steadily-rising ticket prices at Pitchfork Music Festival. In keeping with the ever-present (and increasingly vague) theme of "going green," Chicago's West Town Chamber of Commerce hired old-school hippie favorites like The Wailers and The Aggrolites, then rounded things out with an electronic music stage and some hipster draws like Cloud Cult and Brooklyn prog-pop maximalists Fang Island. The festival's site also advertises local retail, art, crafts and food vendors: elephant ears and henna tattoos for everybody.
6. Virgin Mobile FreeFest - Columbia, Md., Merriweather Post Pavilion
Sept. 25, FREE
Meet the big daddy of free summer music festivals. Last year Virgin Mobile bucked the trend in rising festival prices and acknowledged the current economic slump by turning its Maryland-based summer music festival into a free, donation-suggested event to benefit youth homelessness. The event costs nothing but last year's lineup read like a main-stage schedule at a big-ticket money-pit like Lollapalooza: Blink-182, Weezer, Taking Back Sunday, Public Enemy, The Hold Steady, Girl Talk, The National. Drooling yet? This year's lineup remains TBA, but keep a close eye on the festival's website and sign up for e-mail updates on how to acquire the free tickets: last year's lot of 35,000 disappeared in only 20 minutes.
7. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass - San Francisco, Calif., Golden Gate Park
Oct. 1 – Oct. 3, FREE
Before you indie snobs turn up your noses at the prospect of a three-day bluegrass festival, it's "hardly" strictly bluegrass - get it? Although this year's lineup hovers in TBA limbo, last year's Hardly Strictly included Pitchfork-endorsed indie faves like Neko Case, Okkervil River, Dr. Dog, and Amadou & Miriam, as well as, yeah, a whole lot of bluegrass. If you're still not convinced of this free festival's expansive scope, then bear witness to last year's headliner: MC Hammer. I kid you not.
Steven Kent writes the Dollar Store Dilettante column, which appears on Sundays. Email him at email@example.com.
Rock out for less at summer's best music festivals