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Keeping EDM Festivals Fresh in 2015: A Chat with the Top Curators

on March 04, 2015, 12:00am

Welcome to Festival Outlook, a supplemental column that provides more in-depth analysis for the rumors found on Consequence of Sound’s Festival Outlook. In this installment, CoS staffer Derek Staples enlists the support of talent buyers, artist coordinators, marketing managers, and curators from several of the nation’s top electronic-minded festivals to discuss keeping lineups fresh when EDM is blowing up across festivals worldwide. 

Just for a little background, how long does the booking process for your festivals normally take?

Gary Richards, founder of HARD Events (GR): I’m always booking and looking for new music, so it’s a year-round process.

Alicia Karlin, Lead Talent Buyer for Electric Forest (AK): Electric Forest is truly a year-round project. As soon as the event ends, we start thinking about the next year, surveying our fans and developing the direction for the following summer. The majority of booking begins in the fall, but it continues on through the spring, with last-minute additions and new announcements.

Jack Trash, CEO of SIMshows (Summer Set Music & Camping Festival) (JT): Booking discussions for Summer Set are literally year round. The React Presents, SIMshows, and Majestic booking partners live and breathe music year round, and Summer Set bookings are factored into pretty much everything we do as music promoters. We make notes internally and as a team regarding individual acts, higher-profile options, personal faves, up-and-coming hot spots, etc. We keep track of our thoughts in a collaborative Google document, then have regular conference calls regarding every facet of the lineup. November through January are definitely the busy [months] for us with sending offers, locking in acts, and rounding out the lineup.

Pat Grumley, Event Manager for React Presents (North Coast Music Festival) (PG): If we’re not talking to an artist for this year’s fest, the conversation is always ongoing for years in the future. It never stops.

Chuck Flask, Artist Coordinator for Paxahau Event Production and Management (Movement) (CF): We recently released our phase one lineup, featuring Dog Blood, Disclosure, DJ Snoopadelic, and Richie Hawtin, just to name a few. Right now, we’re gearing up for our phase two lineup announcement and already brainstorming for 2016. We typically start confirming artists [at the] beginning of September.

Movement 2015 lineup

Are there any sites, charts, etc. that the team looks at to predict what will be popular come festival weekend — likely months after the initial offers have been sent out? 

JT: Given the time in advance that we book acts, everything we look to with trends is like a year in advance. With everything we are involved in within our individual companies, this is part of the job. We pay attention to all kinds of indicators, from blogs to charts to social media activity and a wide variety of other items. There is really no catch-all for what will be popular, but sometimes trends are easier to predict. Sometimes we get lucky with acts, and sometimes it works the other way around. The second year we had acts like Zedd and Krewella, for example, and their profiles were really skyrocketing after we booked them, and that definitely helped make the festival experience for all those involved.

AK: I don’t really use any charts or sites for specific direction. We really try to pay attention to what our fans and community are interested in. I also rely on trusted agents, managers, and industry colleagues who have great insight into the landscape. Overall, I really try to trust my gut and program a very diverse lineup that I myself would be excited to experience live.

GR: My ear canal is the main one we look into.

Has the increased number of electronic-focused festivals impacted the ability to book certain artists? 

GR: In the beginning [circa 2007], no one was booking these acts, so it was simple. Now it’s really big biz, so the agents really make it more challenging. But I’m up for the task.

JT: The overall interest in electronic music in general has made it both challenging yet engaging when booking the festival. We obviously want high-profile acts to help with the overall vibe of the festival, and these acts can be the ones that are more difficult to engage and confirm for our festival, especially since we are in the middle of Wisconsin. However, the increase in amount of talented DJs/artists/producers/bands makes other facets of the booking process more flexible. For Summer Set, we love a wide range of music, beyond the world of EDM. We love having discussions around balancing lots of killer music across the various stages. The influx of music overall is really fun to work through when booking for the festival.

AK: While there is certainly more competition out there, Electric Forest is unique in its mix of electronic, rock, roots, and jam-style acts. We’re lucky that our community really does want variety. We’re also very grateful to have so much support from the artists themselves, who seem to want to return to the Forest year after year.

GR: It always makes it more challenging, but it’s what keeps me on my toes and keeps things fresh. I’m most excited about new and upcoming talent/artists.

PG: Chicago is definitely a tough market, as we have Lolla, Pitchfork, Riot Fest — which doesn’t book many EDM acts, but you’d be surprised — North Coast, Spring Awakening, and street festivals every weekend.

CF: It gets a little tricky with the artists’ schedules, but we always find a way to make it work. Plus, the artists love coming to Detroit and performing at the festival, so they work with us on finding a middle ground to make it happen. Some even stay for the weekend so they can hang out and catch other performances, visit some cool spots around the city, go record shopping, etc.

electric forest

How has the process changed from year one to 2015? Or even from 2013 to 2015? Is there more stress as the EDM community has grown?  

CF: I feel like deadlines and confirmations get moved up every year! I wouldn’t call it stressful, though. I think it’s exciting to see our event grow with every year of doing this. Our team works really hard in putting together a weekend our fans and supporters can enjoy.

AK: I think it’s become more fun as the community has grown. There are so many genres and sub-genres to draw from. We also have such a broad mix of DJs and live acts, and our stages help dictate a bit of the programming. We’ve added more stages as the festival has grown, and so it’s been great to be able to fit more acts on the bill.

JT: Year one was a lot of “getting to know you” between the booking partners. We had never worked with each other in this sort of context, and there was quite a bit to learn about each other throughout this process. This was also, however, really amazing unto itself. All of us love music so much that we really help balance each other with our passions and interests. The balance of the Summer Set festival is a result of this, and we love watching it all come together. Subsequent years have gotten easier from the perspective of working with each other, as we understand each other a lot. Time can be a challenge sometimes, as we all have lots going on in our individual companies, but we make the time to regularly discuss and make decisions that we feel will create the best Summer Set lineup and experience.

PG: North Coast was actually one of the only festivals booking underserved genres in the market when it was first founded six years ago. Dance music was definitely one of them. We’re never stressed over the growth, but just excited to see where it goes from year to year.

CF: When we became producers of Movement in 2006, there were very few electronic-focused music festivals around, especially ones that were pushing underground artists. With that said, we didn’t have to deal with scheduling conflicts when booking an artist and whatnot. Nowadays, offers and confirmations are done at least six to eight months in advance. In 2006, our promotion was done mostly through print, web, and Facebook. Over the years, we have built a marketing team and a social media team that keep our fans engaged year round. Social media is one of our biggest assets in staying connected with our fans and artists alike. I don’t think much of the process has changed in the last two years.

summer set festival e1344207876991 Keeping EDM Festivals Fresh in 2015: A Chat with the Top Curators

There seem to be more and more label- and artist-curated stages in 2015 across the festival landscape. What might be the reasons? Does this allow for fans to latch onto the trusted labels and curators and then discover the music they bring in? 

PG: Exactly. Fans might identify with a label or artist more than your festival brand. So, getting these different companies to sign on and become a more involved partner is great; they are letting their fans know that your fest has their stamp of approval, which goes a long way for a fan on the fence to see you’re making an effort to give their sound more attention. And, many times, we will push label news for our partners, so it’s beneficial for everyone involved.

CF: It’s like a live experience of your favorite artist or label’s mixtape. Plus, it’s a creative outlet for the artists and/or label to showcase their music. Last year, Kevin Saunderson brought together artists of the past, present, and future of techno for his ORIGINS showcase on the Made in Detroit stage. We’ll be announcing this year’s showcases and curators soon.

JT: Festivalgoers enjoy a range of experiences, and having different-themed or curated stages provides the customer with the opportunity to enjoy this range of experiences. Different festivals do this in different ways. For example, with Summer Set we have our dance tent area, an arena in which the customers know they will get a bunch of EDM acts with LED walls, lots of lighting, dancers, etc. The Grove Stage is our “back in the woods, let’s party” area, with big production in the outdoor atmosphere, nestled in the valley of a wooded grove. Our Saloon Stage provides an atmosphere for regional artists to showcase their talents. In 2015, we are debuting another new stage that will cater to a certain experience. We want our customers to be able to find their groove in a variety of settings.

AK: For Electric Forest, we created the Curated Events series a few years ago. We’ve integrated the Insomniac Bassrush brand, which has been a huge success, as well as some other label curations that change year to year. 2015 is going to have some really special events that I’m excited to share. Electric Forest fans seem willing to go deep into the lineups of these curated events, so it allows us to be creative with partnerships and bring in new perspectives each year.

GR: I always say I’m “DJing the DJs,” but this is a good way to allow for a label to curate an entire area, and it makes things more cohesive.

Image (1) north-coast-logo-2013.png for post 358862

How does your team satisfy demand for big-name headliners while still nurturing the underground? How do the various stages help in curation?

AK: Our stages definitely help in curating and in piecing together the lineup puzzle. A couple of Electric Forest’s stages are built for DJs, while others are a good fit for smaller underground acts and still others for more theatrical-type acts. We’ve built it in a very deliberate way, so the fans know they can go to certain stages and discover things they haven’t seen anywhere else.

CF: The festival was established as a way to celebrate the talents of local, Detroit-based artists who had gained international notoriety and success for their music. Since we became the producers in 2006, we have maintained that Detroit flavor. We have carried on the tradition of representing underground artists and rising stars, as well as paying homage to musical icons in their own right. We have also been able to grow interest from an international audience because we have expanded to include international stars. With that said, we don’t really choose an act based on their popularity at the present time.

GR: It’s always a balance. I like to look at it like a salad: You need the right amount of olive oil, vinegar, tomato, cucumber, etc. to make the whole salad taste right. If we find an act we like, we book ’em. Large event or small does not matter. We also bring these artists on the road between HARD events, like during the Ship2Ship tour with T.Williams and the upcoming goHARD tour featuring producers from Flosstradamus to Eric Prydz.

PG: It depends on the festival [I am managing]. Our audience is very keen to when you start to book too-mainstream artists. And being a Chicago company, we’re sure to keep all the Chicago cornerstone artists on our bills, continually paying homage to house and juke music as well as other genres.

With festivals continuing to sell out, is there really even a push to experiment with new headliners? Or, since so many fans will continue to request the same names, is there more pressure to rebook the same crowd-pleasers?

GR: We’re always trying to experiment. If we did not mix it up, it would get boring and stale. The problem is there are very few true headliners that can sell the tickets and still be HARD. So, this is always very challenging.

PG: It’s a delicate balance between underground artists before they blow up, booking the headliners that still fall in your brand’s artistic parameters, and booking those classic acts that pioneered the industry and can appeal to the old heads as well as excite the new fans.

AK: The String Cheese Incident has always been a staple act of Electric Forest, but we try to not repeat many other acts two years in a row. This year we are thrilled to have some Electric Forest veteran artists like Bassnectar, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Kaskade return, as well as Skrillex, who played the first festival in 2011 and this year is one of our headlining acts. I think there needs to be a healthy mix of giving the fans what they want to see and throwing in some surprises. But ultimately we think people come to explore, share experiences, and discover new favorites.

CF: Preserving the festival’s tradition is very important to us, and I think our audience understands that very well. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t take what they have to say into account. Our social media team does a great job of engaging our fans with the lineup. We have a very passionate group of fans that trust our vision and know that we work really hard to provide them with an experience that is unlike any other. We’re pretty excited about the massive amount of positive reviews we’ve received from our phase one lineup announcement. Since we became the producers of the festival, we have taken some minor liberties with the lineup that the founding fathers of the festival would surely have not believed were in line with the original vision. However, in order to gain more attention for the quality underground acts that are showcased each year, we have booked some more mainstream acts in the hopes that people who knew those names would also be exposed to artists they did not know they would love.

holy ship

Are headlining-artist guarantees impacting the broader artist lineups?

GR: No, but they are getting out of control and affecting the entire festival budget. They can’t just constantly increase and increase. Eventually, something has to give.

As sponsorship money becomes more important to supplement ticket revenue, is there any outside pressure from these brands when it comes to the booking/curation process?

CF: Not really. Our sponsors understand the landscape of the festival and are very supportive of what we do. We work closely with them to make sure their needs and expectations are met as they do with us.

GR: Not that I have seen. They trust us. That’s why they want to be a part of HARD in the first place.

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