Curating the Urban Music Festival

Paulo Nunes and Carolyn Birdsall in European Journal of Cultural Studies (2021)

In recent years, music festivals have grown in significance within local cultural policy, city branding and tourism agendas. Taking the Mexefest festival in Lisbon as a case in point, this article asks how, in the digital streaming era, music festivals in urban environments are framed, curated and experienced. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork, our analysis examines how music festival programmers curate the urban festival experience, for both locals and tourists alike. First, we identify the emergence of urban music festivals in recent decades, and how modern festival programmes have adopted the cultural technique of the ‘shuffle mode’ as an influential principle. Second, we investigate the work of festival programmers through the lens of ‘cultural intermediaries’, and ask how their programming strategies, particularly through digital mobile media (such as music playlists), contribute to an aestheticised experience of the city during the festival. Third, we focus on how the Mexefest festival events are staged in tandem with brand activation by sponsors like mobile phone company Vodafone and their radio station Vodafone FM.

In doing so, this paper highlights the participation of festival-goers through their embodied engagements with digital media, music listening and urban space, and evaluate the heuristic value of ‘shuffle curation’ as a tool for the understanding of music festivals as a distinctly global and networked form of leisure consumption in urban culture.

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