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Music Festival

There’s no more predictable pile-on in music culture than the backlash to festival lineup announcements. Within minutes of any given festival poster’s release, critics are comparing font sizes to make the usual points. Too similar to other festivals. Too predictable. Too many reunions. Not enough diversity. Weak headliners. And who the hell are these bands in fine print?

But these same festival posters actually provide the raw data to confirm or rebut some of those accusations. Compiled together in one spreadsheet, the info gleaned from posters offers a snapshot of the music industry and the festival business, revealing this summer’s biggest draws and hardest workers, the homogeneity of the American and Canadian festival scene, and a whole lot more. As the flower crown and glow stick industries ramped up for the start of 2017’s festival season last weekend at Coachella, we put a little science behind the ceremonial cynicism, breaking down the data on 23 of the year’s biggest multi-genre fests—including our own Pitchfork Music Festival, to be fair—and the nearly 1,000 acts playing them.

Who Dominates the 2017 Festival Season?

The font-size hierarchy of festival posters provides a convenient ranking system, with most announcements following a template from big-name headliners down to the locals and unknowns in vision-test type. So we devised a scoring system where the first act listed on a festival poster receives the highest score, which is equal to the total number of acts at the festival. For example, Bonnaroo 2017 lists U2 first and has 100 bands, so Bono and company receive a score of 100, followed by Red Hot Chili Peppers with 99, and so on down to Nashville singer-songwriter Aaron Lee Tasjan, who gets one point.

But there are a couple different ways to calculate the “winners” of a given festival season. Is it the musician popular enough to sign an exclusive (and lucrative) contract to headline just one marquee festival this year, or the act that turns up again and again near the top of posters throughout the summer?

We came up with scores for both definitions. The CLOUT tally is based on an act’s average placement on a poster, with more weight assigned for bigger festivals; the OMNI score assigns points for every festival a band plays, based on how high they rank on each poster, then adds them up. (You can sort by either measure and make your own meta-poster for the 2017 season using this interactive visualization.)

The CLOUT rankings are predictably dominated by those playing Coachella or Lollapalooza and nothing else: the Killers, Arcade Fire, Kendrick Lamar, Lady Gaga, and Radiohead.

Our CLOUT ranking is based on a band’s exclusivity among 2017’s crop of summer festivals.

The OMNI sort is more interesting, bringing out the acts that will be most ubiquitous on North America’s heavily-sponsored stages this year: Lorde and Chance, most obviously, but also medium-profile bands like the Shins, Glass Animals, Phantogram, and the Head and the Heart. And if you’re going to a festival this summer, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to see Car Seat Headrest, who are playing nine of the 23 festivals we counted.

The OMNI ranking is based on an artist’s festival ubiquity this year.

What Are the Most Unique Festivals?

Those bands on top of the OMNI list probably motivate a lot of the online eye-rolling when a new festival lineup drops, as people bemoan yet another configuration of Chance, the Shins, and Cage the Elephant under a nonsensical name. With so much overlap, you may want to know where you can get the most unique experience for your festival dollar this summer. (We made a second interactive visualization to help you figure that out.)

By raw number of unique acts, Delaware’s Firefly Music Festival is the winner, locking up one-off appearances by Bob Dylan, Kesha, and Miike Snow. But Firefly puts its thumb on the scale by booking a ton of bands (143), including many “exclusive” acts in the tiny-font tier. Measuring by the percentage of unique bands paints a more honest picture, where Jazz Fest, Pickathon, Florida’s SunFest, and debut Pennsylvania fest Karoondinha are at the top.

However, uniqueness often means a narrower audience. Below broad-appeal headliners Stevie Wonder, Tom Petty, and Usher, Jazz Fest mostly draws from New Orleans locals and, uh, jazz. Pickathon and Karoondinha go heavy on singer-songwriter scenes—their exclusives are predominantly solo billings such as John Legend, Maren Morris, and Robyn Hitchcock. And the bonkers SunFest, in presidential West Palm Beach, is the only place you’ll see Flo Rida, Loverboy, Wavves, and Christopher Cross the same weekend.

To take a slightly broader view, we calculated a “uniqueness” score, which takes into account lineup overlap among festival performers. By this measure, Jazz Fest unsurprisingly scores the highest due to its tight genre focus. Taking up the rear is Boston Calling, who booked frequent-fliers such as Francis and the Lights, Russ, Majid Jordan, and Mitski—acts that are playing six or more other festivals this year.

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