We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the flyers from reputable debt-consolidation companies is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, a vexing piece of concert-going etiquette.
Dorise Gruber writes: "What is good festival etiquette for seat-holding? I just returned from [2013's] Solid Sound Festival (the Wilco-curated festival in Western Massachusetts), and the shows were fantastic. But when the gate would open early in the morning, people would run up to place their blankets/chairs all the way up to the front of the stage, and then abandon them for the day while going off to do other things. On the flip side, there were a few hardcore people who opted to forgo the rest of the day's festivities in order to secure their front-of-stage spots. I don't want to edge out folks who have waited all day, but I also don't see how laying down a blanket gives someone claim to a spot in the pit. What is appropriate seat-holding behavior, in the absence of specifically demarcated sitting/standing zones?"
I've seen this phenomenon play out at the Newport Folk Festival a few times, and it's exactly the way you describe Solid Sound ... except, because it's Newport, people aren't running so much as scooting politely without bending their knees. Like you, I find it puzzling that merely plunking down a blanket should guarantee anyone a permanent place at the front of a major festival stage for an entire day.
As with so many etiquette questions, the answers aren't so much about what you can do — kick an absentee concert-goer's blanket aside, initiate a Sharks vs. Jets-style rumble with rival Wilco fans — as what you should do. And, of course, the festivals themselves can/should take measures to guarantee the best access possible to the most people possible.
I, for one, am not a fan of allowing gigantic picnic blankets directly in front of a concert stage meant to be viewed by thousands of people; in an ideal world, blankets belong along the periphery. You get a more engaged crowd that way — the people nearest the stage are there to see the show rather than sunbathe — while minimizing the likelihood of people getting inadvertently conked or stepped on while lying down or sitting on the ground close to a stage.
But that's for the festival itself to decide, and since I've never actually encountered an unpleasant moment in the years I've attended the Newport Folk Festival, there's clearly more than one way to regulate (or not regulate) the placement of picnic blankets. To someone attending an outdoor festival where place-holding is allowed, I can only advocate a mix of courtesy and flexibility.
As someone who struggles to hold still under the least chaotic of circumstances, I'm not a fan of parking oneself in one place for an entire day, no matter how good the music is. You want to leave lots of opportunities to pace and explore and graze and wander; to meet new people, sample available foods, position yourself near ancillary stages when the time is right, and otherwise soak in as many dimensions of your surroundings as possible.
So I'm not a throw-down-a-blanket guy to begin with, but if you are and it's a desirable/high-traffic area, make it a small and unobtrusive set-up — nothing bigger than you need to seat the person/people who plan to be there. Make as much room as you can for others, be pleasant company for those around you, be willing to share your space when the time is right, and never assume you're entitled to more real estate than any person around you. And don't assume that spots closest to the stage are automatically better than spaces further back; sonically (and sometimes visually), your sweet spot is usually back a ways, where you're less likely to have someone topple onto you and crush you like a potato bug.
Your goal at outdoor festivals should be similar to your goals in other settings: Have the best possible time, enjoy the best possible music and interact with others in the most peaceful, friendly and stress-free manner imaginable. Life is people, so coexisting with them and your favorite music is what makes a great festival worthy of both the effort and the excitement.
This story originally ran on June 27, 2013.