The North Coast Music Festival (NCMF), which has lit up Chicago every year since 2010, is the brainchild of several independent music promoters who throw a yearly celebration of the music they love. The promoters, including Cold Grums Productions, React Presents, Metronome Chicago, and Silver Wrapper, have produced concerts in genres including EDM (electronic dance music), hip hop, techno, and jam bands, and the festival has developed into a much-anticipated event that draws over 50,000 music fans, affectionally known as Coasties.
Touting itself as "Summer's Last Stand," the NCMF takes place each year on Labor Day weekend, inclusive of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, in late August or early September. In 2014, it was held from August 29 to 31. In 2015, it was held from September 4 to 6, and in 2016, it was held from September 2 to 4.
The festival is held at Chicago's Union Park, a thirteen-acre municipal recreation area with many green fields. The park is readily accessible, no matter which form of transportation you choose.
- Air Travel - For people who live far away from Chicago, air travel is an excellent option. Once you arrive at the airport, you can use Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) to make your way to Union Park, which is located at 1501 West Randolph Street.
- Travel by Car - Chicago is accessible from three interstates, I-55 North, I-290 East, and I-90/94 East. No matter which direction you're driving from out of town, the festival website provides directions to Union Park from each of these major thoroughfares. Parking at the festival is limited, however, so you might want to book alternate parking arrangements within walking distance of the grounds or use the CTA for transportation in the city.
- Chicago Transit Authority - The CTA, Chicago's city-wide transit system and the second-largest public transportation system in the U.S., consists of around 1,900 buses and 1,500 trains which travel all over the Chicago metro area and to 35 suburbs. The CTA website describes exactly how to access Union Park from the trains or buses, and which train lines and bus numbers to use.
- Biking - Biking is allowed at the park. During festival season, the website has details about biking accommodations. Specifics change from year to year, but the festival provides a bicycle parking lot, as well as the basics for bike maintenance.
Where to Stay
While you're not rocking at the festival, you'll need a comfortable place to bunk for the night. Since camping isn't allowed, you'll likely want to stay in a nearby hotel. The NCMF has partnered with two area establishments, the Hard Rock Hotel and the Crowne Plaza, to offer discounted rates. There are a number of other hotels near Union Park from which you can choose. If you're low on funds, you might want to look into local hostels, including HI-Chicago for about $30 per night, Chicago Getaway Hostel for about $20 per night, or IHSP Chicago for around $15 per night.
To buy tickets to the NCMF, keep your eye on their website, especially in spring when line-ups are announced and tickets go on sale. You'll need to purchase your tickets online, then you'll pick up a wristband for entry into the festival at the box office with photo identification. Ticket prices change every year, but you'll want to buy your tickets as early as you can, since prices go up in mid-August.
General admission tickets are available as three-day passes or single-day passes. Three-day passes covering the entire weekend run in the neighborhood of $160, while single-day passes cost around $80 for Friday or Sunday and $100 for Saturday.
VIP tickets ensure you'll enjoy an extra-special festival experience with perks like express check-in at the gates, special viewing areas during performances, air-conditioned restrooms, and a VIP lounge where you can choose from expanded menus of food and drink. You can purchase three-day VIP passes for around $300, and single-day VIP passes start at around $110. To purchase VIP tickets, you must be at least 21 years old.
The NCMF closes at 10:00 each night, but that doesn't mean the music and fun has to stop. The festival sponsors After Parties that take place in clubs and night spots throughout Chicago, featuring as many as 25 different acts. Tickets to After Parties become available from ClubTix once the specific party line-ups are announced in early August on the festival's website, and ticket prices vary from around $23 to around $48, depending on the act and the venue. Most of the clubs require you be at least 21 to enter.
If you choose, you can rent a locker so you can make your way around the grounds without having to carry as much. A locker will also keep your belongings secure. Your locker will include a cell phone-charging station. You can reserve a locker online before the event or pay cash for a locker when you arrive.
The NCMF features five areas where over eighty artists perform during the three-day weekend. Three of these areas are conventional stages. The Heineken House is a dome structure where you'll find party action hosted by some of Chicago's best known house DJs. If you're a fan of Silent Disco, you're in luck, since the festival has two Silent Disco tents where DJs will spin your favorite music, whether hip hop, EDM, house, or trance, to which you can dance while you wear headphones. Performers over the years have included rapper Snoop Dogg, rock band Widespread Panic, and jam band Umphrey's McGee.
Highlights of 2016
EDM News Chicago, a publication focused on electronic dance music, gave the 2016 NCMF high praise, saying that the event is a favorite on the festival circuit year after year. Hermitude, an EDM and hip hop duo, started off the event on a rip-roaring note by getting the crowd to groove to their funky beats. Headliner ODESZA, a Grammy-nominated EDM duo, made Coasties break out in happy chills with their skillful instrumental work. Keys N Krates, a techno band, shook the ground with their intense drumming, and Zedd, a classically trained electronica artist, brought down the house with his soulful music, complete with lasers and graphics.
Highlights of 2015
According to Downbeats, the 2015 NCMF was a real blast and a festival that should be on every electronic music fan's list. Sweater Beats, an EDM band, mixed rhythm and blues with their dance sound and had the crowd going wild. Techno band Booka Shade ratcheted up the excitement with their unique combination of electronica with a live rock sound. Tycho and Green Velvet brought ambient vibes to the festival, which prolonged the leisurely feel of summer in the minds of the Coasties. The Chemical Brothers, an EDM duo, wound things up in style with a performance that brought to fans' minds Daft Punk's performance at Lollapalooza in 2007.
Highlights of 2014
The Chicago Tribune lauded the 2014 festival for remaining true to its roots as a platform for hip hop, EDM, and jam band music. Headliner Snoop Dogg, appearing as a slightly more mellow persona than in years past, mixed his newer reggae style with his hard-core, classic rap roots. When Future Islands, a jam band, took the stage, its lead singer danced unrestrainedly while performing, delivering his powerful vocals with passion. The DJ acts were hugely popular, with Alesso bringing fog and lasers into his performances. To the delight of all Coasties present, Porn and Chicken featured dancers sporting power tools that emitted eye-catching sparks.
Other Attractions and Activities
Though music is the main attraction, you'll find plenty of things to love about the festival. With its unique activities and attractions, it's a great way to end the summer.
Whether you're non-vegetarian, vegetarian, or vegan, you'll find something to suit your palate and your nutritional needs. If you're on a gluten-free diet, you're also covered. Each year, twenty local vendors offer tasty, diverse fare on the festival grounds. Restaurants located near Union Park include bellyQ, which serves Asian barbecue, La Luce, an Italian bistro, and Kaiser Tiger, which specializes in bacon, sausage, and beer. If you're at least 21 years old, you can also enjoy alcoholic drinks at the festival.
With its appreciation for hip hop music, the NCMF is the perfect place to celebrate street art, and the festival teams up with Chicago art collectives the Elder Tree and Ava Gray Designs for this purpose. In the Living Gallery, you can watch wondrous street art being created before your eyes by renowned painters. The Living Gallery is connected to the Silent Disco, giving you the opportunity to see artists creating visual wonderlands to music spun by top hip hop DJs.
Contests to Win Tickets
The NCMF sponsors contests by which you can win tickets. The contests riff on various themes to do with the festival, such as music, DJs, and street art.
- Pop-Up Art Gallery - If you have artistic talent, you might want to try your hand at creating art for the festival. The winning art will be displayed at the event throughout the long weekend, and the winner will receive two three-day VIP passes, four general admission passes, and a special code to get additional tickets for friends and loved ones.
- Party Like a DJ Sweepstakes - To enter, you'll need to fill out a form on the sweepstakes web page. If you're the lucky winner of the random drawing, you'll get to live the life of a DJ, including travel to Chicago, a five-night stay at a top hotel, access to VIP areas at the NCMF, free merchandise and a five-star dinner, and a $400 shopping spree.
- Chalk Contest - Do you like creating street art? If so, use chalk to create a mural on a school campus, whether high school, college, or university. Make sure your design includes the logo for the NCMF. Get a friend to take a photo of you with the mural and post the picture to Facebook. You'll need to give it the tag @North Coast Music Festival and include the name of your school. If you win, you'll receive four VIP tickets.
- Toast of the Coast Battle Royale - Two winners are chosen for the Battle Royale, which is held at Chop Shop 1st Ward in Chicago. The winners get the opportunity to perform on a main stage at the festival. The contest is open to music artists and DJs. You must be seventeen or older to enter.
Pros and Cons
You'll find a great many reviews of the festival every year since its beginnings in 2010, and opinions have been largely positive. The reviews emphasize the festival's deep roots in Chicago and the city's music and art scenes.
- Grateful Web described the festival as organized and well-run, and the staff as friendly toward everyone, whether attendees, artists, or vendors. The layout of the 2016 event was praised for being easy for fans to navigate, especially when it came to moving between the various stages and performance areas to catch as many acts as possible.
- Gapers Block is a fan of the NCMF, but it acknowledges that Chicago is prone to bad weather, and when storms hit, the festival experience can suffer. On day one of the 2013 festival, a bad storm hit the city, and the grounds had to be evacuated. When people could return to Union Park, it was a mess from the rain and high winds. One of the bands even suffered loss of their equipment from the rain. After the storm, though, Gapers Block reports the music was excellent and the festival is a wonderful experience as long as the weather is good.
- Tomorrow's Verse praised the music artists performing in the 2016 festival for being exceptionally engaging with their fans and for making strong connections with every member of their audiences. Though festival music tends to be on the edgy side, the give and take between artists and Coasties is described as intimate and a meaningful reflection of the inner-city experience.
- Time Out wrote the festival is doing a good job walking the tightrope between remaining true to its roots while also endeavoring to enlarge its fan base. Organizers are trying to strike more of a balance between electronic dance music on one hand and jam and rock on the other hand, giving equal time to both low-end and high-end to broaden the event's appeal. They seem to be doing a good job because three-day passes have been very nearly selling out.
A Thumping Good Time
If you enjoy a big-city vibe and highly charged music that spans a broad spectrum of moods from thumping to ambient to downright surprising, you'll want to check out the NCMF. The event draws stellar talent from the genres of hip hop, jam bands, and electronic dance music. The performances will make you want to listen, and they'll make you want to dance. Most of all, they'll make you want to come back next year.