Take a look at the lineup for the first day of XO Music Festival, a Bay Area fest that would have kicked off today if its promoters hadn’t canceled at the last minute. It starts off strong and idiosyncratic: a headlining set from local rap legend Mistah F.A.B., and another premier slot for his fellow regional stalwart Mac Mall. A solo Flavor Flav set sandwiched between them might give you pause, but carry on. Next are Young Gully and Lazy Boy, two younger Bay rappers who you might not recognize if you don’t follow the scene closely, but each seems to be picking up steam, and it’s cool to see a festival attempt to tell a cohesive multigenerational story with its lineup.
It isn’t until a few lines later that things start to dissolve into total babble: Pyrite Sidewalk, an emo-ish alt rock band whose latest music video has 2,000 views. FirstNameShayne, whose internet presence amounts to a YouTube page with only 46 views total and a short bio on the website of XO Music Festival itself. Failure by Proxy, a macho hard rock crew whose one and only recorded song available online was released less than two months ago. Several of these mid- and low-tier performers appear on multiple days of the XO Fest schedule. It’s unclear whether they were actually planning on giving more than one set, or if XO’s organizers were just reaching to fill space on their poster. Some of the headliners are just as bizarre as the filler, like a DJ set from comedian Russell Peters, who apparently moonlights behind the decks when he’s not telling jokes.
XO announced its cancelation, citing venue problems and low ticket sales, after weeks of critical stories from local news outlets and trade publications: a trademark infringement claim here, a slew of performers dropping out and claiming nonpayment there, a pair of organizers who were previously arrested for an alleged real estate scam. The comparisons to last year’s Fyre Festival were fast and obvious. But while the promotional materials for that debacle initially made a fairly convincing pitch for its luxury appeal, XO Festival almost seemed to flaunt its status as a boondoggle from the start. One vendor said he’d been told by organizers that fellow salespeople made $12,000 from their booth last year—except there was no festival last year. There’s nothing wrong with giving a chance to unknown bands like Alvie and the Breakfast Pigs or The Groove Objective, to choose two hilarious names at random from the XO lineup, but it’s deranged to think you can ask $375 to $2,495 to see them, which is what XO was reportedly charging for tickets.
Trying to dupe artists and music fans out of money is fucked up, of course, if that’s what XO was really trying to do. But there’s something about their brazenness that’s perversely admirable. The music festival economy feels increasingly like a bubble that could burst at any moment. If and when it does, maybe we’ll look back at moments like XO and Fyre as the warning signs we should have heeded.