Amazon's music festival prizes commerce over culture – it must be resisted

Ben Beaumont-Thomas
Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

First it was books, then it was the Kindle. It was DVD box sets, then it was making the shows themselves. It was CDs, then it was streaming, and now, a music festival.

The next step in Amazon’s iterative takeover of western culture has been announced for December in Las Vegas: Intersect, a two-day festival featuring acts including Foo Fighters, Beck, Kacey Musgraves and Anderson .Paak. It also promises a “postapocalyptic dodgeball stadium,” a “mega-sized ball pit with over 200,000 balls”, visual art installations, and games including one where you try to mash buttons at high speed. The latter is the perfect symbol for the enterprise: one that values immediate sensory thrills over deep cultural engagement, and which tries to press every pop-cultural button as hard and fast as it can in an attempt to succeed.

The lineup faces firmly towards the millennials and Gen Z hipsters that Amazon so need to ensure ongoing relevance: leftfield black talent such as Flying Lotus, HER, Thundercat and Jpegmafia; new indie stars like Japanese Breakfast, Snail Mail and Miya Folick; dance tracks from Jamie xx, Max Cooper and Gesaffelstein. The Black Madonna, another of the DJs booked to play, has reacted with horror at the festival announcement, saying that Amazon’s name was not mentioned on the paperwork she signed.

Musgraves, meanwhile, is set to perform alongside “500 Intel drones programmed and flown by a female-led team in a tribute to women’s contributions to advancements in technology”. Given there is a gender pay gap of 11.6% among computer programmers in the US, way above the national average of 4.9%, this is a wretchedly offensive and banal initiative. With this, and its excellent, studiously diverse music lineup, Intersect is merely an attempt to gild Amazon with wokeness and credibility.

This is nothing new. Music is the most cheap and easily available cultural form of all, accessible via streaming, radio, YouTube and elsewhere. Compared with film, TV, literature or anything on stage, it is also the cheapest and easiest to make, as grassroots scenes from blues to UK drill attest. So music has an immediacy and authenticity to it that is absolute catnip for brands, who long for such qualities in their own advertising – the simplest way to access it is to simply shackle themselves to the music.

Red Bull is the master of the craft, nurturing musicians in its Red Bull Music Academy and publishing music journalism – before it switched tack to its own festival held in London last month headlined by Aphex Twin. Savvier still is Boiler Room, the live-streaming, brand-supported dance music site who have started their own music festival but also their own advertising agency, leveraging the cool – and the data-led audience insights – they have earned over the last decade to sell back to brands. The two other big names in streaming, Spotify and Apple, have their own music events: the former’s Who We Be festival returns for a third year in November, while the latter has replaced its Apple Music festival with its Up Next Live concert series.

Other music festivals may not be run by brands or advertising agencies, but they feel that way. Over the last two years it has been a strange and ghastly experience walking through London’s All Points East festival (whose branding aesthetic is echoed by Amazon’s Intersect), where the brilliance of the artists – Björk, Nick Cave, etc – is dulled by vast walk-in advertising experiences for Jägermeister, Samsung, Tinder and others.

The head of one hip independent company told me its audience see them as more, not less legitimate if they do brand partnerships

This co-opting of musical space by branding has become so normalised that the head of one hip independent London music company told me that its audience see them as more, not less legitimate if they do brand partnerships. A PR for Red Bull recently assured me, regarding coverage of one of its events, that “this is not a sponsored/branded event, the event is produced and owned by Red Bull”, as if it was a Medici-style cultural patron rather than an energy drink brand.

But we should rail against this normalisation. To walk through a music festival that only exists because of a branding imperative is one of the most spiritually bereft experiences in cultural life. It’s almost worth going to them just to get the bracing sense of music being played for its own sake at others: the bucolic idyll of Green Man and End of the Road, or Glastonbury, where the only branding you see – beyond the glorious font of alcoholic glucose that is the Brothers cider bus – is for Oxfam, Greenpeace and WaterAid.

I just returned from Poland’s Unsound festival, one of Europe’s best. Aside from some unobtrusive sponsorship from Brooklyn Brewery at the closing party, the festival is funded via a variety of European and Polish bodies – it essentially insulates people from commerce for a week by deploying public funds. To me this is such an important psychic state: to not feel hectored to consume, as you do at so many branded festivals. Arts funding has an important role to play in clearing that space.

Unsound’s truly global lineup – from Kazakhstan to west Africa – meanwhile is not mere clout-mining or box-ticking in the manner of Intersect, but rather a product of true artistic passion and a desire for profound cultural conversation. Sure enough, it was only here or the likes of Glastonbury, rather than in the repugnant branded spaces of other festivals, that I could really lose my mind – or, as Intersect festival hopes for itself in perfect brand-speak, “create new paths of expression and new ways to engage your senses”.