Put Your Hands Up for Detroit

Laneway in Detroit? Inspired or insane? Adrian Pedic gives his verdict.


When you think of St Jerome’s Laneway Festival (or just Laneway), there are a multitude of first impressions you could have. If you haven’t yet been, maybe it’s a solid line-up, or the pictures that flooded Facebook a few weeks ago (that only made you a little jealous). If you have been, then maybe your first impression is of the day itself. Even then, it’s hard to settle on any one concrete representation. For me, it was the day I touched Mac DeMarco’s butt, but that’s a story for another time.

What I’m trying to scratch at is that even though music festivals are a fairly well-known and understood quantity these days, Laneway seems to stand out for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s impossible to slap it with a genre label, or its attendees with a culture label. Laneway is distinctly missing its “Soundwave metal heads” or “Stereosonic bros”.

The line-up is diverse and acts as a good cross-section between the established heavyweights and the up-and-comers. While it would be adorably naïve of me to say it’s a mostly independent selection of artists, that would also be wrong. Pond, the Australian psychedelic mango-loving band, is in fact signed to a major label. FKA Twigs is easily beyond the level of indie artist, even if that still seems to be the appeal for some. Future Islands conquered the world last year, and their performance on Letterman went viral and even became a meme. Cultural fringe bands? Doubtful.

Now here’s where things get interesting. Take that whole concept, and apply it to the festival itself. Laneway, which began in as a glorified street party in Melbourne, is now held in every major city in Australia, as well as Auckland, Singapore and now Detroit.

It’s the decision to hold it in Detroit that seems to be the most interesting one, because it’s one that’s almost impossible to justify. Just imagine it: your successful music festival is about to take its first excursion into the Land of the Free, and you need to pick a location. Keeping in mind, for its debut in America, you are going to want to make an impression. So New York? Los Angeles? Maybe Las Vegas, with an up-yours to Coachella?

Or Detroit, industrial ghost-town, with the subtle connotations of a wasteland and robocops? It seems insane when you consider the crime rate and poverty of the city. However, with a bit of research and thought, it’s actually quite smart.

First of all: Laneway does pride itself on consistently producing line-ups featuring the fresh and hippest artists of the time. In America, where festivals like Coachella reign, what chance does a small show like Laneway have? Instead, take the collection of cool artists, and invite all the cool people to a music festival off the beaten track. It does add some undeniably great ‘indie’ appeal. But more importantly, it manages to give Laneway its own distinct brand, which is impressive for its first time in the US.

“Detroit is having its rebirth and as Laneway continues to evolve, we can identify with a city that is continuing to evolve as well… It seemed like a great fit and this line-up seals it,” said co-founder of Laneway, Danny Rogers, in an interview with MusicFeeds in 2013, when he announced the decision.

It’s certainly a valid point, and has some interesting historical precedent to draw upon.

Perhaps the most relevant is that of Seattle in the 1990s. What was Seattle before the grunge culture, and what was it after? I don’t know, because who cares about Seattle if it’s not the 90s?

Unlike cities like New York, San Francisco and London, where there is a new cultural movement every other generation, cities like Washington DC, Baltimore, Seattle and now Detroit are of interest because they mark a significant expansion of efforts in culture and arts. Rather than depending on the inevitable upswing in major cities, the “rebirth” of Detroit is a concentrated effort by a few individuals, which begins to grow.

Which is why Laneway is a perfect fit for a city that is a growing cultural hub, and why the seemingly insane idea to hold it there begins to make a lot of sense. Now, what’s the first thing you think of when you hear Laneway?