It’s only March, but 2017 seems to be continuing a downward trend for music festival lineups. Reunions are almost non-existent, unique headliners are becoming more and more difficult to find, and undercards rarely portray a festival’s identity the way it should. Sure, there are still some reliable juggernauts that stand out (thank you Coachella, Primavera Sound, and a few others), but the muddled middle is getting muddledier by the year.
So where do fests go from here? The last couple years, we’ve been praising the idea of festivals that take over cities, that introduce attendees to the venues and local talent that a town has to offer. These fests are less reliant on big-name lineups than they are on grabbing a wide range of interesting touring acts to turn a week of programming into a unique experience for local music fans and out-of-towners alike. This formula creates massive success stories like South by Southwest, but also more modest victories like Treefort, Sled Island, and Noise Pop.
But as demonstrated by last weekend’s SXM Festival, there’s something else brewing in the festival world. We can call them “Destination Festivals,” likening them to when your best friend from college decides to get married in Aruba or when your cousin’s 21st birthday party requires you to fork up $500 dollars for a share of a Las Vegas hotel room. But really, music festivals have long involved a destination. Lollapalooza, FYF, and Governors Ball might be accessible via public transportation, but festivals like Bonnaroo and Sasquatch didn’t initially make people think twice about packing a tent and driving for a few hours to their respective farm or gorge.
Coachella might be the most successful blueprint for this. Though it is located in Indio, the actual experience for Coachella can vary greatly depending on tax bracket. Yes, you can camp on site. But for many, the event involves forking up more than a thousand dollars for swanky digs in Palm Springs, visiting pool-side day parties while the temperature sky rockets, and finally arriving at the polo fields as night falls to catch a handful of acts. Yes, Coachella offers up a huge lineup, but it’s ability to provide a resort-style vacation might play into its ability to continually sell out while Sasquatch and Bonnaroo have seen their ticket sales decline in recent years.
But SXM Festival is a different breed. Set on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, its location is as big of a star as the talent. There are turquoise waters, light sand, comfortably warm weather, and a relaxed island culture that makes it easy to check out of regular life and check into a vacation mindset. And that’s the thing: It’s a festival that feels like a vacation. There is nothing to endure about SXM. Your hotel is a brief shuttle ride away at all times. If you don’t feel like dancing on the beach, you can go swim in the ocean. And as tourists from all over the world descended on the island for the week, the focus was placed on having attendees appreciate the wide range of activities that the location has to offer. The festival was a big factor for people’s journey, but if that was all that you took away from the experience, you were doing it wrong.
The idea of SXM took its time gestating, starting when organizer Julian Prince’s parents moved from Montreal to the island to take over the Mercure Hotel in 2004. Inspired by their warm, new home on visits, it took more than a decade for SXM to become a reality, finally launching in 2016. But 2017’s event wasn’t a trial run. The likes of St. Martin’s tourism board, local transportation services, and many of the island’s hotels and clubs were on board to create an immersive experience. There were sunrise beach fiestas, boat parties, and a VIP event at a private villa, creating an atmosphere where there was always something to do for fans of dance music. The festival booked a range of talent, including rising stars Bob Moses, South African producer Black Coffee, electronic pioneer Richie Hawtin, and Welsh house DJ Jamie Jones. For five days, St. Martin was truly paradise with a beat.
But just as important for the experience were the moments away from the music. Dining on the island included fantastic French cuisine and island fare, with fresh fish and fruit a requirement for any hungry attendee. For those wanting to get a bit of the island’s history, there is Fort Louis, a French military encampment built in the 18th century and hosting picturesque views of the French side of the island. Art fans could visit galleries like that of Roland Richardson, where showing up on the right day could include a live demonstration of the artist’s commitment to capturing the bold colors of the Caribbean. If you wanted to relax, there might not be a better place than The Loterie Farm, a forest sanctuary with swimming pools, hot tubs, strong cocktails, and even a bit of wildlife (they also have zip lining and hiking for those that don’t want to relax). And, of course, there was the water adventures, with up-close encounters of the Caribbean sea life and scenic views of the island from offshore.
The week allowed attendees to experience the range of what St. Martin has to offer while also taking in a first-class event, and it isn’t alone in this type of concept. Look at Iceland’s Secret Solstice Festival, which includes opportunities to witness music in an underground lava tunnel and experience a midnight sun boat party in addition to programming diverse artists like Foo Fighters, Rick Ross, and The Prodigy. While festivals continue to unveil lineups that are hard to differentiate from each other, maybe the future of festival experiences hinges on what else the events can offer. Music is often not enough. Nor is a good food lineup or beautiful art installations. With your dollar, why not sign up for a music festival that promises not only to be a great party, but also to provide a trip of a lifetime. At that, SXM Festival is leading the charge.