Photo by Tony Piscitelli, Thrival Festival
Festivals are everywhere. Once upon a time, they were destinations. Now, you’re likely to hear the headliners from your bedroom window. While this proliferation has its perks, it’s also given way to a unique sense of festival fatigue. Over the last five years, we’ve watched Bonnaroo and Sasquatch! take financial hits, seen new festivals like Pennsylvania’s Karoodinha Music Festival and Bon Iver’s Days Have No Numbers fail to take off, and endured the clusterfuck that was the Fyre Festival.
To borrow a phrase that’s been liberally lobbed around these last few years, has the festival bubble truly, irrevocably burst? When we last spoke to the organizers of Las Vegas’ upcoming EMERGE Music and Impact Conference, the project’s head of curation, Mike Henry, addressed this by framing the music festival in terms of its evolution. For him, festivals operate “in a cyclical nature” that, over time, take on “new themes and story lines.” He cited the shift from the touring festival of the ‘90s to the weekend festivals of the ‘00s to the experiential festivals that we’re currently seeing pop up throughout the country.
His point? The festival bubble isn’t bursting; audiences are just eager for the next step in festival culture. While names like Chance the Rapper and Arcade Fire push tickets, it’s becoming more and more clear that names alone won’t guarantee a landmark festival. Austin’s long-running, ever-evolving SXSW remains the gold standard for creating a festival that transcends the traditional, what with it flooding the streets of Austin with the newest, most exciting advancements in music, film, comedy, technology, and innovation. But that’s not a model that’s easy to emulate, nor is it one that guarantees success. More isn’t always better.
For EMERGE CEO Rehan Choudhry, capturing that ineffable need doesn’t mean getting the biggest names or attempting to encompass the breadth of media. Rather, he believes the modern festival should speak to national concerns. “Right now we’re in an interesting time politically,” he told us, “and we believe that the next generation of relevant music is going to come from unknowns. It’s not going to be another album from another headliner; it’s going to be from new voices, largely in response to what’s happening around them.”
Relevancy, he believes, is key. Dan Law, Executive Producer of Pittsburgh’s rising Thrival Innovation + Music Festival, agrees. “Culturally, people are really thirsting for meaning. They want something that means something. They want something that can inspire them and, in a sociopolitical and cultural environment that, to many of us, feels very toxic at the moment, they want something that is focused on progress.”
This desire for meaning can manifest in a lot of ways, whether that be in the music itself, alternate programming, or in the way a given festival embraces its native community.
First, let’s look at music. Where most of the nation’s festivals are focused on securing the most popular artists in their budget, EMERGE is devoted to shining a spotlight on new and emerging artists. That’s a tough proposition in the internet age, when audiences vet artists in advance via YouTube or Spotify. Gone is what was once the raison d’etre for music festivals, that sense of discovery that accompanied stumbling upon a new act and the grassroots rise that could arise from a memorable festival slot.
That’s certainly what Michael Hollett, founder of Toronto’s North by Northeast Festival, misses about the old days. When NXNE kicked off in 1995, Hollett says the festival was a portal of discovery, with hundreds of bands spread across dozens of venues. “This was pre-internet,” he says. “If you could gain an audience’s trust, they would be open to checking out bands that they’d never heard of just on faith and cool bios. And it worked great.”
Photo courtesy of NXNE
Now that blogs and Twitter buzz all but guarantee which sets will be packed and which venues won’t be, Hollett had to rethink the way people navigated his festival. “What we did was create curated club shows, where we’ll have top Canadian artists curate four up-and-coming bands that they like,” he says. “If [Broken Social Scene’s] Brendan Canning says these four bands are great, his fans will take a chance and check them out. They’re gonna go because Brendan says they’re good.”
His approach worked, too. “We did a bunch of those this year, and they were all packed. It worked perfectly.” Next year, he says, they’ll be curating even more shows.
Curation is also key to EMERGE’s approach. Choudhry and Henry also asked popular artists — The Killers, Imagine Dragons, and Gerard Way, among others — to recommend up-and-coming bands, but they expanded their reach by working with record companies and industry tastemakers like MTV alum Matt Pinfield and record producer Rob Cavallo.
For both EMERGE and NXNE, the best way of preserving a festival’s spirit of discovery and its ability to break new artists lies not on critics or even marketing, but on the artists that have already built a relationship of trust with their audience. No longer are these artists simply there to perform; as festivals move forward, they’ll also become integral to programming. It’s not about chasing trends anymore; it’s about identifying talent.
How that talent is presented is where EMERGE and NXNE differ. While NXNE’s various streams — film, comedy, innovation — can be found elsewhere in Toronto, EMERGE is integrating its selection of thought leaders and presentations into the concerts themselves. At each event, audiences will be treated to a variety of ideas, sounds, and talent.
Photo courtesy of NXNE
For NXNE, which unfolds in the cultural hub of Toronto, incorporating a variety of streams can work like gangbusters. For other festivals, however, the integration of non-music programming manifests in different ways. At EMERGE, this programming is centered around issues of social impact, with its speakers touching on “bipartisan topics with beautiful themes that are very socially relevant.”
“We wanted to make sure the topics that were being raised had immediate relevance and long-term influence,” he elaborates. Speakers include feminist activist Madame Gandhi, tech innovator Aza Raskin, and photographer Miru Kim. For EMERGE, the intent is to tap into national and global concerns, with Henry noting that “the largest festivals in the country aren’t music festivals; they’re protests.”
Pittsburgh’s Thrival is also concerned with sparking conversation, but their approach is more local than global. Thrival is, after all, put on by a non-profit organization called Ascender, which aims to support early stage start-ups and encourage young professionals to set up shop in Pittsburgh. Law notes that the city is enjoying an economic and technological revival.
“Pittsburgh has gone through this extraordinary renaissance,” he says. “It’s become this hub of robotics and technology and medicine and healthcare and philanthropy, which is all fairly far removed from our industrial roots.”
Photo by Tony Piscitelli // Thrival Festival
After kicking off in a dirt lot in 2013, Law notes that the festival has grown by 800%. In that time, the festival has adopted its current format, which consists of two days of panel discussions, thought talks, and workshops followed by two days of music. Across these four days, Thrival aims to celebrate both Pittsburgh’s industrial history and its forward-facing future through both its programming and even its presentation. For its forthcoming event, which runs from September 27th to the 30th, Thrival repurposed the city’s defunct Carrie Blast Furnaces as a festival site.
“It’s a demonstration of innovative thinking,” he says. “We’re turning a mill back on, but we’re not producing iron; we’re producing culture. That’s important for a place like Pittsburgh.”
Law and his team see Thrival as an entry point into Pittsburgh, a way for people to learn about a city’s past and future while also engaging in the “universal language” that is music. “What music does is it brings all these people together in a very holistic and beautiful way. It’s a very powerful vehicle in advancing these conversations and this type of model.”
Photo by Tony Piscitelli, Thrival Festival
He continues, “Thrival and festivals like us present multiple touch points for people, so they’re not siloed into just going to a concert or a panel discussion. It’s a much more integrated experience, and I think that’s the way our culture is going. Everything’s blending together, and people are beginning to see things as a more interconnected whole. Our festival environment is beginning to represent that.”
Whether or not these models will begin to permeate the larger festival scene remains to be seen. Thrival is now beginning to make waves across the national festival scene, and EMERGE will see how its model works when it kicks off its inaugural, three-day conference on November 16th. Considering it shares a curation philosophy with NXNE, one of the scene’s elder statesman, shows that it’s certainly on the right track in terms of reimagining the traditional festival model.
Of course, whatever that model is will continue to change and evolve over time. As Hollett so succinctly puts it, “We have to reinvent this every fucking year.”