First, you may find it useful to distinguish between smaller, in-town fests (like September's Edgefest) and the bona fide monsters. The former are easy to budget; you can pop 'em like Tic-Tacs. The latter will cost you close to $1,000 to attend and demand some serious selectivity.
Don't be fooled by the apparent uniformity of the lineups. It only seems as though all the major 2009 festivals are headlined by Kings of Leon, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and The Beastie Boys. In fact, there are important distinctions that you, the gainfully employed-but-not-filthy-rich alt-music glutton, must weigh before making your choice.
Location: Manchester, Tennessee
Cost: $225-$250 (four-day pass)
Notable acts: Bruce Springsteen, Beastie Boys, Phish, Nine Inch Nails, Wilco, Al Green, David Byrne, Snoop Dogg, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Elvis Costello
Overview: Last year, this sprawling multi-media hoedown was named "Best Festival" by Rolling Stone, and we can't disagree. It boasts the most eclectic programming, the best non-musical innovation, the choicest land-use model (over 700 acres of capacious Tennessee scrub) and keeps rockin' until 3 a.m. or later for serious party-animals. Word to the wise: You must get in touch with your inner dirty hippie to enjoy Bonnaroo. After a day of bopping around in the muggy Tennessee heat, followed by a dusty half-hour slog back to the tent, you will make a French backpacker seem comparatively fragrant.
ALL POINTS WEST
July 31-August 2
Location: Jersey City, New Jersey
Cost: $199 (three-day pass)
Notable acts: Beastie Boys, Tool, Coldplay, Echo & the Bunnymen, The National, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, My Bloody Valentine
Overview: Dubbed "Coachella East," this second-year event is promoted by Goldenvoice, the same outfit that runs California's seminal three-day April festival in the Coachella Valley. Already, the Jersey fest may have surpassed the mother ship in headliner excellence. Consider: Would you rather see Coachella's lineup of Paul McCartney, The Killers, Morrissey, and The Cure or the All Points roster of Beastie Boys, Tool, Echo & the Bunnymen, and The National? Unless you're a baby boomer or an aging New Wave chick, the answer is obvious. Held in Liberty Park, All Points also offers a striking view of Lady Liberty and the Manhattan skyline.
Cost: $190 (three-day pass)
Notable acts: Tool, The Killers. Beastie Boys. Kings of Leon, Jane's Addiction, Depeche Mode
Overview: Perry Farrell's baby no longer has the squawking mutant vibe that distinguished Lollapalooza when it was a touring festival in the '90s. These days, it's a well-behaved, urbane affair — utterly worthwhile, but not terribly transporting. Then again, when you're smack-dab in the middle of one of America's coolest cities, swaddled in a breathtaking skyline of concrete and steel, who needs transportation? Now that Austin City Limits has moved to October from its traditional early September spot, this is unquestionably the summer's top "urban" festival.
Location: San Diego and San Francisco, respectively
Cost: $90 (two-day pass) and $225 (three-day pass), respectively
Notable acts: None announced; and Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band, Beastie Boys, Incubus, Black Eyed Peas, respectively
Overview: These California-based, late-summer festivals offer an interesting study in contrasts. In its second year, Outside Lands appears poised to join Coachella and Bonnaroo as one of the country's top-tier festivals; it has a great venue (Golden Gate Park) and a stacked playbill. Meanwhile, in its 25th year, Street Scene appears to be a festival in crisis. Moving last year's show back to downtown San Diego after a dubious three-year odyssey in the 'burbs was a wise move, but the festival is so marginalized that one San Diego blogger posted a mock press release announcing that the 2009 show would be held in a Sizzler parking lot. And now it's going head-to-head with Outside Lands. As a certain California governator once remarked: "Bad idea."