Rock no longer rules the X Games, which now showcases dance music and hip-hop alongside action sports
The businesses of music and athletics are deeply intertwined with each other. Playing the Super Bowl halftime show is a crowning achievement for musicians. Professional athletes often try to double as musicians – even if that usually goes awry. And of course, music is played at just about every sporting event to keep the crowd engaged.
Action sports have a uniquely deep connection to music thanks to their individualistic, fast-paced nature. Skateboarding, especially, has long been associated with punk rock, thanks in part to the popular soundtracks from the Tony Hawk Pro Skater video games that introduced mainstream audiences to bands like The Dead Kennedys and Primus.
Punk and other rock subgenres have become less popular in recent years, but that hasn’t diminished the link between music and extreme sports. In fact, its perhaps stronger than ever due to the efforts of the producers of the X Games, the semiannual event broadcast by ESPN in the winter and summer.
The X Games has released a soundtrack for the event dating back to 1996, and earlier this decade started hosting live, large-scale concerts to complement their athletic competitions. They’ve now become an integral component of the X Games experience, with major acts such as Kanye West, Metallica, Calvin Harris and Blink-182 booked in recent years. Those set to attend the 2019 Winter X Games in Aspen between January 24-27 can look forward to seeing Lil Wayne, The Chainsmokers, Kygo and Louis The Child perform in the evening at the base of Buttermilk Mountain.
Jennifer Rieber, the director of music and cultural elements for the X Games, has been a vital figure in establishing the event as a destination for top-tier acts. After winning a Sports Emmy Award with ESPN for her work during the 2010 World Cup, Rieber joined the X Games team and managed the bid process for its international expansion into Brazil, Germany and Spain. She now oversees the curation, booking, production and operations for music and art at the X Games.
AOL interviewed Rieber, who grew up in New England as a self-described “punk rock kid,” ahead of this week’s activities in Aspen about how her favorite music festivals are reflected in the X Games and what genre of music has filled the void in the action sports landscape left by the decline of her beloved punk rock.
AOL: Has your vision for the X Games been influenced by the rise of music festivals in American culture?
Rieber: As far as who we’re booking and why, for sure. I keep my eyes on festivals to see who’s getting booked and the trends of artists who move through festival season. You want to catch what’s hot, but I don’t want us to be a replica of everything. We want to have some measure of autonomy on what's unique about our lineup. So I go to festivals, look at lineups, and just ask everyone I know who they’re listening to, who they’ve seen and who puts on a good show.
At [ESPN] itself, we license music for air constantly so we have a really strong music department and I talk with them all the time. They work intimately with labels, so they’re on the cutting edge of when artists are going to be dropping music. I talk to them all the time and rely on them.
We also ask athletes what music they like to ride into. Music is such a strong part of the action sports culture, so certainly our athletes have strong opinions about who they’re listening to and who they like, so we try to take that into consideration as well. Inspiration comes from a bunch of different places.
You said you go to festivals pretty frequently – what are your favorites to go to, and what do you think differentiates the best ones from the worst ones as far as the production?
I have a few favorites, and they’re all kind of different. Electric Forest is one of them -- they put an absolute ton of thought and support into art and interactive pieces. It’s got a very different look, they’re in this amazing venue of these gorgeous, mature woods, so they’re really thoughtful about lighting in a theatrical sense. And you can’t recreate a forest setting – it all makes for a really cool production.
Festivals that pay attention to art and the ancillary stuff that’s going on outside of the lineup are what’s interesting to me. Live music is great, but I think what really enhances it is the ancillary stuff that goes on.
That’s one of the unique parts about [X Games] – you have a full day of the world’s best action sports athletes performing on these gorgeous courses, and the breathtaking surrounding of Aspen, Colorado. And then at the end of the day, there’s a big concert right on the mountain. Aspen is such a cool setting – it’s sort of like Electric Forest where you can’t just manufacture that.
Along with Lil Wayne, your headliners this year are The Chainsmokers, Kygo and Louis The Child, who are all electronic dance music acts. Is this a recognition that dance music has become a big part of the action sports scene, which used to be dominated by rock?
It definitely has. Time and time again, some of our most successful shows -- the ones that sell out the most and get the most buzz -- are the EDM artists. It’s been like this for a while. Classic, old-school hip-hop also does pretty well for us.
Rock is an area where we’ve struggled a little bit. I don’t want us to ever be genre exclusive. I’m personally not interested in four EDM acts at every event. I think people do want to see some variety. The X Games has a pretty broad base. We’ve got a lot of young kids, and we have X Games fans who have been around and are now coming up with their children. We’re trying to serve a broad audience to some degree, so I like there to be a little bit of a mix. But a lot of the live music out there that’s big is hip-hop and EDM.
It seems like just in terms of rock, the punk genre that’s been associated with the early days of the X Games is less popular than it was then. And the arena rock bands are becoming fewer and far between as indie rock is taking up a bigger chunk of that space, and there aren’t a ton of headliner-type indie bands.
Yeah, I might regret saying this, but I feel like you have the top tier of rock — the Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Green Day, that kind of level. From there, I feel like there’s not a lot of Queens of the Stone Age type of bands, who are still really big and popular, but maybe not quite that Red Hot Chili Peppers size. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of that sort of layer, where as you can name a ton of DJs and hip-hop acts.
I don’t know, rock is a genre I need to pay more attention to, but it doesn’t seem to be quite as prevalent at the moment with the kids.
Is there a common thread in the artists you try to book throughout the variety of artists on the lineup?
I always remind myself I’m not booking for me – I’m not quite the demographic I’m booking for. I do want to book people who I like and have integrity musically, and I think we’ve done a good job of that. But I think generally we lean towards high-energy, fun party vibes.
Especially in Aspen, the event is outside, so it’s cold and we went people to be comfortable. And that happens mostly when they’re having a ton of fun and jumping around.