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.
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 Pirrone 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.
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.
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.” 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.