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Size Doesn’t Matter: Why Festivalgoers Should Think Smaller

Photo by David Brendan Hall

Festivals are changing. When Coachella released their lineup on January 2nd — their earliest release to date — the news was met with a collective yawn. In fact, an “I’m Underwhelmed” thread in the festival’s sub-Reddit received nearly as many up-votes as the lineup announcement itself. And naturally, other major lineup announcements that followed didn’t fare much better.

As industry gatekeepers like LiveNation and AEG continue to snatch up one major festival after another, the once-thrilling concept of traveling far and wide for these experiences is becoming more and more passé. After all, why should anyone trek across the country to see a flock of performers they can likely catch closer to home?

The solution for festival goers is simple: think smaller.

Boutique festivals are becoming increasingly thrilling amid today’s vapid festival climate. By providing a thoughtful alternative, they’ve begun to satisfy a seasoned music vet’s desire for something extraordinary and something risky. While their long-term future is always uncertain, their commitment to a singular identity is key to their success.

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Photo by Jaime Fernández

Desert Daze, for instance, has carved themselves out a niche in the festival sphere by cultivating an experience around the Joshua Tree’s trip-inducing visual aesthetic. Each turn is host to a new burning-man-esque art exhibition, and the festival’s signature programming gives life to the location’s supernatural aura — though, not without its share of struggles.

“It’s getting tougher and tougher to have a unique lineup,” says Desert Daze founder Phil Pirrone. “Look, I’m in a band, too, so I get it. It’s almost impossible to make money as a touring musician. I get where agents are coming from. I get the mad dash for cash. But, it does make it increasingly difficult to have a unique lineup when you’re in Southern California.”

Like many festivals of its size, Desert Daze jostles with a number of larger festivals in close proximity for big gets. Pirrone competes with So-Cal-based, Goldenvoice-produced festivals Coachella, FYF Festival and Arroyo Seco for bookings. “I have real envy for festivals that are in a market where they’re the only festival,” he says. “You’re not always going to get the dream lineup together because there’s so much competition. You basically have to have a lot of backup plans.”

As Prionne suggests, artists have become increasingly reliant on major festivals such as Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza. Agents are in a rat race to secure their clients the best possible billings at the most possible festivals.

Adding fuel to the fire, festivals are, now more than ever, willing to offer up the same headliners as their competition in order to move units. Multifest deals mean talent is often contracted for a cheaper booking price to play a string of festivals. Remember Chance the Rapper’s whopping 11 appearances at American music festivals in 2017? This year’s festival darling? Eminem. These instances aren’t simply coincidence but, rather, the deliberate efforts of production companies working the best deals possible.

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Photo by Jaime Fernández

From a business perspective, such programming is sound logic. Music festivals are high-risk ventures, and things can turn south quickly. Sasquatch Festival, for instance, had its attendance drop by 50 percent in 2016. That same year, Bonnaroo’s attendance dipped by a reported 45 percent compared to its peak in 2011. It makes sense that those with a controlling stake would want to play it safe.

Other fests like Pemberton, Karoondi, Summerset, and Mysteryland have met similar fates in recent years, and, especially considering the bad taste the Fyre Festival left in the mouths of investors, independent festivals often disappear faster than they emerge. An Austin staple, Sound on Sound Festival (formerly Fun Fun Fun) was cancelled this year, with organizers citing “several recent roadblocks outside of [their] control.”

Such failures have caused companies like Live Nation and AEG, as well as investors, to constrict their business models. With the signature touchstones of festival culture falling out of existence, promoters have begun to think twice about experimental bookings in their top lines. The result? Different permutations of the same product.

As we’ve seen this year with Eminem, The Killers, and Jack White fronting a plethora of festival bills, promoters are more than wary about who they offer as headliners. As they become larger and competition threatens to cripple them, festivals have undergone a loss of identity: no longer can one guess a festival by its headliners alone.

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Photo by Jaime Fernández

Organizers are flailing to find a solution to the festival problem. But if industry executives continue to treat our cultural gatherings like dollar-churning machines, little room is left for innovation, and we’ll likely continue to see more of the same. Still, boutique festivals like Desert Daze stick to their mission, despite the overwhelming threat of saturation bumping them out of the market.

“In an oversaturated world, we still somehow found a little nook,” Pirrone says. Last year, he hosted the likes of Spiritualized, Velvet Underground founder John Cale, doom metal trio Sleep, Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile’s only festival performance supporting their collaborative album, and the king of punk himself, Iggy Pop, who headlined the festival.

Such programming feels urgent, even unmissable, and for hardcore music fans, the lineup demands attendance in cult-like fashion. This is an itch that boutique festivals have begun to scratch, however, satisfying the avant-garde live niche once occupied by Coachella — and Desert Daze is hardly alone.

Elsewhere, a number of boutique festivals have disrupted the status quo with engaging interactive exhibits. Houston’s Day For Night does exactly that, fostering a rare curatorial experience that weaves visual and sensory exhibits into the festival’s programming. For 2017’s installment, art curator Alex Czetwertynski showcased more 15 large-scale visual installations and hundreds of hours worth of digital programming.

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Photo by David Brendan Hall

“Festivals themselves are done,” says Day for Night founder Omar Afra, who believes that curation is pertinent to the attendee’s experience. “We’re on the precipice of seeing this model become antiquated, right? [Even though] many festivals are still working within a festival construct, it’s the experience that’s changing, and that’s where the focus is. You can’t say, ‘We’re an art and music festival’ if we put a giant dragonfly in the middle of our stages and say, ‘Look, it’s art.’ When you say you’re an art festival, you have to fucking mean it and put the love and the time behind it, because people can tell the difference.”

Day for Night’s emphasis on visuals is a huge diversion from traditional festival model. Dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into visual production is a tremendous risk yet few exhibit the level of curatorial excellence that Day for Night touts each year. Whether it’s showcasing the mathematical glitch-work from Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda or the “attack of epilepsy” from light pioneer Matthew Pioneer, the festival proves that thematic identities can work as a festival model.

“You can’t imitate other people, and you can’t imitate yourself,” says Afra. “That’s probably the worst thing you could do!” The question, though, is whether or not emerging festivals will continue to pave their own paths, or will they fall prey to industry homogenization.

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Photo by David Brendan Hall

The idea of discovering new and emerging artists is another avenue for festival organizers to explore, though also not without its share of risks. Austin’s own South by Southwest pioneered the concept in 1987, and since then, several other music conferences have followed. Driven by proprietary algorithms, Emerge’s Rehan Choudhry wants to provide a forward-thinking curatorial conference featuring the highest tier of next generation talent.

“We’re looking to create an entirely new category of experience.” Choudhry eagerly tells us. “There are a lot of traditional festivals out there. The first thing we want to do is avoid having to chase the same talent based on touring availability, and who’s decided to do festivals this year like everybody else is.”

Emerge’s programming features a plethora of artists that haven’t quite reached mainstream recognition. The concept behind the festival is geared towards showcasing names that music listeners and promoters will more readily recognize and adopt 18 to 24 months from now. “We’re very forward thinking and that’s for our musicians, our speakers, partners etc.” says Choudhry. “What I like about it is that it promotes discovery.”

But discovery comes at a cost. “It’s definitely more difficult to do,” Choudhry admits. “[It’s] more difficult to sell tickets like that. More difficult for the attendee to be able to sift through it.” This is opposed to the typical contextualization of festival lineups, where wide-eyed readers are lured in by massive stars at in large-scale fonts.

emerge Size Doesn’t Matter: Why Festivalgoers Should Think Smaller

Such an experience sheds light on festivalgoers’ contextualization of lineup announcements in terms of font size. Coachella largely pioneered this process with their one-of-a-kind poster: a cultural statement about the current state of music that now largely determines the future asking price for tour musicians. The massive text is eye catching and does well to sell thousands of tickets in less than a few hours.

“The [usual festival] hierarchy allows for a very simple decision-making process,” says Choudhry. “You look at the top line and ultimately you’re making your decision based on location timeframe and the top three lines. Is this something you want to invest in or not?”

Scanning the font hierarchy on Coachella’s lineup is simple: gawk at the big names and move on from there. But what happens when a festival gets rid of font hierarchy altogether and focuses on crafting their experience around discovery? Choudhry discusses the potential pitfalls related to programming a festival like Emerge.

“Here are a bunch of names I may or may not recognize” he says, citing the synthesis between algorithmic data and human curatorial-judgement as the basis for a new festival-conference hybrid. “That’s all part of the process, but it all starts with, ‘How are you selecting the artists?’ What we did was, we put together a 25-person curator committee.” By involving executives from talent agencies and music industry insiders, including those from Spotify, Choudhry argues, “We have the upper echelon of talent to perform.”

 Size Doesn’t Matter: Why Festivalgoers Should Think Smaller

Whether it’s SXSW or Emerge, those attending a music conference are traditonally seeking out something more than the flavor of the week, and when the emphasis is placed on discovery rather than hype, it opens the floodgates to programming that was previously thought to be reserved for local music venues and dive bars. Festivals like Emerge are hoping that seasoned festivalgoers are willing to pay for that full experience.

Even so, the festival experience will always be defined by the lens of perception. As David Byrne points out in his 2012 book, How Music Works, context — read: the creative production behind a festival — shapes our experience of the music itself. “Music resonates in so many parts of the brain that we can’t conceive of it being an isolated thing” he says. “It’s whom you were with, how old you were, and what was happening that day.”

Perhaps this explains why some festivals have started to put so much emphasis on the cohesive community fostered by their events. One such festival is Eaux Claires Festival in Wisconsin, which is curated by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner. “Each iteration of Eaux Claires has been a unique journey, unlike the festival that preceded it” says Michael Brown, Creative Director for the festival.

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Photo by Lior Phillips

Doing away with festival lineup hierarchy is one thing, but what happens when a curatorial festival gets rid of a lineup announcement altogether, focusing solely on their interactive community? “This year is no different,” Brown says, “as we’re currently participating in one of the most radical concepts in the music festival industry: presenting a festival with no marketed lineup.”

The decision not to market the festival’s lineup is an interesting, albeit risky, concept to say the least, but it’s an opportunity for artists and fans to all exist on the same plane. Again, most festival organizers would call it business suicide, but Brown is confident that Eaux Claires’ unique, immersive experience alone will continue to advance the festival.

“We’re pushing Eaux Claires in this direction because we want our audience and our artists to live together in the moment and willingly participate in something special” he says. “We want, for one weekend in the year, that folks stop being concerned with the popularized ‘fashion’ of music and be more concerned with its creative pursuits.”

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Photo by Lior Phillips

The dynamic festival is nestled in the serene, wooded community of Eaux Claires, where Vernon grew up, and it’s a fitting backdrop for the festival’s programming. Vernon, Dessner, and Brown have set out to evoke a sense of spiritual belonging throughout the festival.

“We want people to put value on life experience and living in the moment,” says Brown. “We want people, if just for one weekend, to willingly be a part of a community that openly embraces artistic failure as much as it embraces artistic success.”

By placing more emphasis on the experience itself than the names on the bill, Eaux Claires flies in the face of standard festival business strategy over the last two decades, but it’s that purpose that brings a whole new meaning for the music festival model. Such a model might be more successful than previously thought, too, seeing how The Wausau Daily Herald reports that Eaux Claires attendance surpassed 20,000 in 2017.

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Photo by Graham Tolbert

It’s clear that the festival industry is due for an overhaul, but it’s uncertain how such a shift will manifest throughout our nation’s cultural gatherings. As the focal points of music festivals shift towards more thematically programmed, extracurricular, and immersive experiences, the general public’s contextualization of festivals will shift dramatically. After all, music festivals are one of the biggest cultural touchstones of the 21st century.

As Choudhry explains, “In the last five years, we’ve seen the festival industry consolidate at an incredible rate, with two to three major players buying up independent events across the country. Each time this happens, you also see the pipeline of innovation constrict dramatically. The reason? Innovation typically takes place in smaller, more nimble organizations.”

Whether it’s immersive technology and virtual reality exhibitionism, expansive visual art installations, a unique set and setting, or an off-kilter programming scheme, the emergence of a new class of festivals is imminent. So long as music fans are vocal and innovators continue to test their luck with new and exciting festival models, fans will always have something to look forward to come lineup season.

They just have to be willing to squint.

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Why the EMERGE Music and Impact Conference is the Antidote to Festival Fatigue

Perhaps the only effort more herculean than staging a music festival is rescheduling one. To change the dates is to call into question the availability of talent, venues, vendors, and, of course, attendees. The prospect of again finding a weekend that aligns those stars again is a dim one, a dull needle in a gargantuan haystack.

But Mike Henry wasn’t thinking of any of that when he and the rest of producing company A Beautiful Perspective decided to postpone Las Vegas’ inaugural EMERGE Music and Impact Conference, which was slated to unfold on in mid-November of 2017. On October 1st, just a month before it was set to debut, a gunman opened fire on the Route 91 Harvest music festival, leaving 58 people dead and 851 injured.

“It was the only decision to make,” Henry, who serves as the talent buyer for the festival, says of EMERGE’s postponement. “At the time, what was most important was that we focus on being good neighbors to our community.”

On one of the original dates, Henry and his team staged a benefit concert with White Reaper, Mondo Cozmo, and other scheduled EMERGE artists that raised funds for those affected by the tragedy. “That was a time where Vegas needed to focus on healing. It was amazing to see the community come together and lift itself up.”

Today, EMERGE announced that the festival will now take place in Las Vegas on April 6-8th, and also shared 60 of the artists you can catch at the myriad venues collaborating with the festival. Some you might recognize from the initial lineup shared last summer, while others are new. Henry estimates that they were able to secure roughly half of the artists they initially sought, including Chicago rapper Sir the Baptist, Chicano lo-fi artist Cuco, country-folk outfit Gold Star, and the grimy rockers of L.A.’s Starcrawler. New to the fold is DIY punk veteran Jeff Rosenstock, folk rocker Waxahatchee (who will be playing a solo acoustic set), and Americana star Hurray for the Riff Raff, among several others.

While scheduling played into most conflicts, Henry notes that some artists had simply outgrown the festival. Songwriter K.Flay, for instance, has seen her profile rise considerably over the last year. “When we booked her, almost a year ago, she played a little 300-cap here in Las Vegas. Now, she’s got two Grammy nominations and is packing 1,500 people at Brooklyn Bowl on a Tuesday night. She’s graduated out of the emerging category.”

Losing an artist like K.Flay might be a bummer for EMERGE, but it’s also a demonstration of just how on point their approach to curation is. Their raison d’etre, after all, is discovery. Here, you won’t find the artists headlining other major festivals; rather, EMERGE exists to offer stages to the bands typically relegated to small fonts.

“When you’re booking a giant festival, you need to put 30,000 people in one place at one time,” he says, noting that the reason we keep seeing the same artists headlining the big box festivals every year is because, well, it sorta has to be that way. “There’s a limited number of artists in any given year that can draw those kinds of numbers. We’re not trying to fill a football field. You’re going to get to see these artists in cool, intimate showrooms.”

To ensure they were finding the right artists, they had to “intentionally rewrite the entire curation model.” When I spoke to Henry last year, he and A Beautiful Perspective CEO Rehan Choudhry broke down just how they did that. A proprietary algorithm is involved, as is a collaboration with producing partner Spotify. Behind it all, however, is a “curation panel” of roughly 25 people featuring the likes of The Killers, Spoon’s Britt Daniel, MTV alum Matt Pinfield, and legendary record producer Rob Cavallo, among others.

The entire process was revisited when planning, though Henry notes it was obviously less involved since they still had their original data. Some artists who weren’t available for the fall festival were available for the spring festival, while others crept onto his radar in the intervening months.

“The good news is I couldn’t be more psyched about the lineup,” he says. “I think it’s, in many ways, even better and more interesting than the first. Doing it the second time, i guess that’s the silver lining.”

Similarly, Henry says the need to reschedule the festival allowed them to make the kinds of changes and tweaks an organizer would typically apply to a sophomore outing. “We were able to apply stuff we learned from how we were interacting with our audience, what we were learning from our ticket buyers, our artists, the venues,” he says. “It’s almost like being a second year event; we just had to skip the fun part where all the bands played.”

One benefit, for example, is that Henry and his team were able to sharpen their vision for the kind of acts they want for the festival. He says that, in addition to booking acts that wield a social and cultural impact, EMERGE was also looking for artists who are influencing the ways in which music is being written and released in our modern age. He mentions YouTube pop star Poppy, who’s been added to the lineup, as someone who represents the new ways in which artists are engaging with their audiences. Hurray for the Riff Raff is another example, as her innovative approach to protest music has become increasingly relevant in today’s culture.

On a more logistical side, EMERGE is aiming to increase accessibility on this outing by lowering ticket prices and offering individual tickets to each of the festival’s showcases. They’re also embracing a tighter lineup, with the number of artists decreasing from 100 to 75. This is to accommodate the tight turnaround, obviously, but also to maintain the festival’s commitment to intricate curation.

Because what you’ll find at EMERGE isn’t just a series of concerts with bands that share similar sounds. One of its most groundbreaking innovations is in the way that that curation model extends also to the content of its showcases. While the bands playing these showcases might differ in terms of genre, they’ll be united by common themes that are articulated by a series of speakers that punctuate the acts.

Curating these speakers is Lisa Shufro, EMERGE’s Impact Curator, who notes that, despite there a greater emphasis on ideas and impact at major festivals, there’s a marked division between the speakers expressing those ideas and the music itself. “There needs to be a place where music and ideas are celebrated as equal partners and not separate showcases,” she says. “I don’t think that the music world can just pretend any longer that ideas and culture and music and community are not all closely related. It’s not about choosing between entertainment or substance—we can have both in an enjoyable way.”

Shufro hit similar obstacles to Henry in regards to the speaker series, with the rescheduled date meaning speakers like Way and Henry Rollins were no longer available for the Spring event. But she cites a number of new names she’s brought into the fold, including podcaster Dylan Marron, who works to forge connections with those who troll him on social media on his Conversations With People Who Hate Me, and Saudi Arabian singer Rotana, who will be discussing both her Muslim faith and the sects of Islam who don’t recognize her right to sing.

She also notes that there will be several speakers who, like Rotana, will also be performing at the festival. Lower Dens’ Jana Hunter is one, as is Grandson, who Shufro says will be discussing the state of protest in the social media age.

“Other festivals would have the music and speakers on two separate tracks,” Shufro says. “We’re saying there’s a strong overlap.”

(Read: Lower Dens’ Jana Hunter: Come Right In)

With social media, streaming, and the democratization of the news, it’s easier and easier to insulate oneself in both the realms of art and ideas. “How do we escape the echo chamber?” she asks. “It’s harder and harder to listen to voices you haven’t heard, whether those voices are musical or they’re about ideas.”

The answer, they believe, is through curation. “The fundamental piece here is that EMERGE is 100 percent focused on discovery,” Henry says. “In every aspect, from the event design to the presentations and shows you’re gonna see onstage to what happens when you walk from venue to venue.”

Shufro believes that, should EMERGE prove successful, that they’ll have demonstrated “a very convincing model” for the next evolution in the festival landscape. Because it is changing; where it will end up, however, is still up in the air.

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Top 10 Music Festivals: Fall 2017 Power Rankings

It’s September, summer’s gone, and we now know the lineups to most of 2017’s music festivals. If we’re being honest, though, we’re drawing a fuzzy blank as we try to recall the highlights of this year. For starters, it wasn’t a particularly strong outing for reunions, save for Jawbreaker, and even worse, it wasn’t a particularly riveting year for headliners, either, outside of graduation stories for the likes of Lorde or Cage the Elephant.

But it’s more than that. For awhile, we’ve noted how the biggest festivals with the longest histories have lost parts of their identity, namely due to so many of them being owned by the same companies. Because of this, boutique and destination festivals have started to feel more and more appealing, offering slices of culture that extend beyond music.

Look, if it sounds like we’re coming down on music festivals, we’re not. Even outside of the top 10 below, we’ve found many events this year that are doing something special within the festival landscape, from the relaxed, mature vibes of San Francisco’s Outside Lands to the punk rock nostalgia of Chicago’s Riot Fest to the 90’s-inspired mass appeal of San Diego’s KAABOO.

Gripes aside, there are still many special events happening in the United States and around the world, only the field is more crowded than ever, as we’ve been saying for years. Sometimes, though, you have to make your way through the weeds to find the flowers, and let’s just say, we channeled our inner Ralph Fiennes for this one.

–Philip Cosores
Executive Editor


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