Q&A With Life Is Beautiful’s Rehan Choudhry

Life is Beautiful founder Rehan Choudhry recently talked to Pollstar about why attending this weekend’s debut festival in downtown Las Vegas is such an attractive idea. The lineup features The Killers, Kings Of Leon, Beck, Vampire Weekend and Imagine Dragons.

Through a partnership with the Downtown Project, the inaugural event is set for Oct. 26-27 with the action taking place at several historic venues as well as on city streets and open lots. Boasting more than 80 acts, the roster also features Pretty Lights, Empire Of The Sun, Passion Pit, Jurassic 5, Alabama Shakes, Zedd, Janelle Monáe, Portugal. The Man, Haim and more.

But Life is Beautiful isn’t just about the music. With the event devoted to music, food, art and learning, your general admission ticket includes access to the Culinary Village featuring over 50 restaurants, culinary demonstrations by 20 chefs, performances from Cirque du Soleil and other theatrical productions such as “Rock Of Ages,” and the chance to hear from more than 25 speakers.

And to take your festival experience to the next level, fans 21 and over can purchase tickets for flight tastings with master brewers, wine makers and distillers in The Alchemy Gardens or take part in nightly three-hour dining tours.    

Life is Beautiful begins with the Grills & Guitars kick-off party Oct. 25, featuring gourmet comfort food and performances from Dawes and Todd Rundgren.

Choudhry, the Aurelian Marketing Group CEO and former director of entertainment for the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, told Pollstar that the idea behind the festival is to inspire people “to choose a life of passion instead of a paycheck.”


What prompted you to launch this event?

The emphasis for the start of Life is Beautiful is two-fold. One is the desire to fundamentally change the way festivals are curated. … Festivals [are] becoming a bit more complex. Instead of a music festival, you have a music, food, art festival. Other components are getting added but the consistency that I’ve seen … [with] this new generation of festivals is that they’re not focusing to the depth that they need to – to speak to each individual category’s audience directly. So a music, food and art festival, as it is today, doesn’t speak to foodies, art enthusiasts and musicians independently. It’s usually leading with one of the categories … So what I wanted to do was create a festival that spoke to people who are hyper-passionate about each category independently.

Life Is Beautiful [has] four independent categories – music, food, art and learning that were created with the depth and focus, programming and talent that will allow them to stand alone and therefore be independently attractive to that category’s enthusiast. And then the idea was to lump it all together in one festival, one weekend. …

From a festival perspective [I] just wanted to create something new. … After 10 years in entertainment to create an experience that was anchored in some sort of benefit to a community. So the effects could be more lasting than just a moment-in-time event. And that’s where I ended up partnering with the Downtown Project in downtown Las Vegas … a community that was in a dire need of culture. [The project is led by] an independent investor, [Zappos CEO] Tony Hsieh, who was focusing his efforts on fixing that problem.

You mentioned you’ve spent many years in entertainment. Is this the first festival you’ve put on?

No, the first festivals I did [were] in 2009 and 2010. It was the Food Network’s Food & Wine Festival. That was my first. I was really focused on food. And then when I left Atlantic City, I moved to Vegas to become the entertainment director for the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. When I opened that property, I focused 80 percent of my attention on music. So this is my second festival but I’ve been programming large events for some time. And then on the festival-history front, that’s where Another Planet, our partner, comes into play heavily. They do Outside Lands and Treasure Island Music festivals. So we’re a first-year festival but as a group we’re not a first-year company.

With Another Planet booking the lineup did you get a say at all about the acts or the type of genres featured?

The booking process basically had three components to it. One was Another Planet’s relationships … in the festival world [and] the second part was my music team. Craig [Nyman], who leads our music department internally, has a tremendous amount of experience with Vegas music, so he had an idea of what’s going to really resonate in this market.

And then from my perspective it was all about the brand and all about the story we were trying to tell. Life Is Beautiful is an inspirational festival in nature. We’re trying to inspire people to build a better community and to follow their dreams and to ideally choose a life of passion instead of a paycheck. So [fans] can be at this festival [and] get exposed to people that have obtained tremendous success in their careers by doing what they love – and if that inspires them to do that on their own, that’s a win for all of us. And I think all three of those perspectives – Craig, in our internal music team focusing on Las Vegas, Allen Scott and the Another Planet [team] focusing on festivals overall, and then my perspective on the brand and what we’re trying to accomplish emotionally – has allowed us to create a really good lineup.

I received an email from your PR rep calling Life Is Beautiful the largest rock festival ever in Las Vegas festival history. What specifically makes it the largest ever? Is it the number of acts or the number of fans expected?

Well, it’s both. Vegas has a tremendous amount of entertainment… but on the festival side it’s never really been able to gain a lot of traction. [Electric Daisy Carnvial] is the first big festival to actually succeed in this market, so on the electronic side, they kind of own the category. … The last very public example of a rock festival in this city was Vegoose. [It was] a two-day festival, did 40,000 people in [the] first year and saw a decline each year after that. So, both in the number of bands and in the number of people we’re expecting, we’re going to exceed that festival tremendously. And before us, that was the biggest.

What’s the capacity for this festival and how many fans are you expecting?

Well, the beauty of the footprint [is] we’re producing a festival in 15 city blocks in downtown, which gives us a tremendous amount of opportunity in that we’re using a lot of historic venues and a lot of unique city spaces – open lots, city streets, existing venues – which give us a really interesting festival experience, but on top of that, we have a limitless capacity we can expand to. Almost limitless. I don’t know what the numbers are going to net out at [but] we’re thinking somewhere in the 25 to 35,000 a day, on average.

What’s the plan for the shows that are going to be held outdoors?  

We have six stages that are outdoors. For four of them, we’re rehabbing the spaces that they’re in. So, for example, both of our main stages were in big empty lots that were, until a month ago, rubble, and they were never really going to be paid attention to. So we went in and flattened them into essentially parking lots. The idea is that after the festival they become useful spaces again to the community. But what we’re also doing for both of them is wiring and powering the lots to allow for people to come back through and draw up stages a little easier and a little cheaper. So a big part of our focus is rehabbing the community or developing the community. … One part of it is our beautification efforts to take these blighted properties and to be able to [turn] these into something that looks more aesthetically pleasing. The second is having a useful space, turning a lot that was rubble into a parking lot that was much needed in downtown right now.   

Before you got involved with the partnership with the Downtown Project, did you know you wanted to hold the event downtown?

I knew when we were creating the event that I wanted to embed it into a city. I had literally no experience with downtown when I moved here until probably two years ago when I got introduced to [Zappos CEO] Tony [Hsieh] by a mutual friend. He took me on a tour and showed me the entire footprint, showed me what his vision was for downtown and it just came together perfectly. This city’s got so much history. It’s not the Strip, it’s where Sinatra got booed off the stage at his first residency. It’s where a lot of great musicians got their start back in the 50s. And to be a part of the rebirth of that era, or that space is pretty tremendous.

… A lot of people ask me what the festival’s definition of success is … [To me, it’s a success if] the people who live here, the guests that stay here, the businesses that operate here … all see the festival as a part of pride for themselves and for their city. And if that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t matter how financially successful the event is. … It’s incredibly important that we’re blended into the community from the get-go.

Can you talk a bit about the food component?

It’s pretty incredible. What we’ve done is developed a full food and wine festival inside this event. So we have 60 chefs doing … a full, Moroccan bazaar-style culinary village. We’ve got two demonstration stations that are powered by Sub Zero, where celebrity chefs are going to do culinary demonstrations at 45 minute intervals back and forth. We’ve got tastings and lessons and private dinners and a lot of really hands-on experiences. In addition we have a pretty comprehensive beverage program with Works Beverage. We’ve got what we call the Alchemy Garden, which is a big beer and wine … garden …

On the art side, we have a full theatrical program. We have Cirque Soleil bringing six shows … “Rock of Ages,” “Million Dollar Quartet” … and a slew of others.

And then we have a full graffiti and official art program. We have 12 graffiti artists coming in and doing large-scale murals on the side of big buildings downtown as part of the beautification efforts. In addition we’ve got an old motel that we’re gutting and remodeling into an artist-in-residence program. Artists are basically going to be using each individual room as a workspace.

And then the last part is the learning part. We have over 30 really intellectual speakers coming in to be part of the entire event. Everyone from the cast of “The Buried Life” to the founder and CEO of Zappos to the founder of WordPress to the founder of Snapfish. Just really, really impressive people coming in.

And going back to the food for a second, you mentioned the chefs doing demonstrations on stage. Is that going to be in-between some of the musical performances? Or is that going to be on a separate stage?

We have two separate tents that have big, like Food Network-style kitchens set up. That’s in a separate area, so all the stuff is running simultaneously. So when you get to the festival … [you’ll] have the opportunity to see [chef] Cat Cora doing a demonstration, Passion Pit on stage, the founder of WordPress and three UFC Fighters speaking, a theatrical performance and a graffiti artist working. You get to pick and choose between all of those at any given time.

Can you talk a bit about the Culinary Crawl you’re offering?

What we wanted to do was give people the opportunity to really dive into the culinary side if they wanted to. The Culinary Crawl is … three hours, three restaurants. It’s a progressive dining tour. The idea stemmed from a conversation with Cat Cora. She wanted to see something that was a little more reminiscent of her dining experience when she was a kid. She remembered going from house to house in her neighborhood with her family, eating at a number of different locations. We wanted to recreate that, so … you’re going to spend an hour at each one of the restaurants, with two chefs per restaurant doing a custom course. It’s really intimate, it’s really hands-on. You get to spend some quality time with the chefs.

I was looking through your website and noticed that the Culinary Village is going to feature more than 50 restaurants with all of the dishes sold a la carte for $10 or less. With the tickets for the Culinary Crawl priced at $130, that’s nice that you offer both ends of the spectrum.

One thing we wanted to do was make sure that the festival ticket was reasonably priced. So, for $160 (the 2-day general admission pass), you get access to all of the chefs, all of the demonstrations, the music, all the speakers, all the art programs and the theatrical programming. It’s all under one umbrella. What you eat is your choice. We wanted to make sure it was priced in a way that people could try multiple things.

Photo: AP Photo / Las Vegas News Bureau, Glenn Pinkerton
Mandalay Bay Events Center, Las Vegas, Nev.

And as far as the theatrical components – your website lists a number of Cirque du Soleil shows. Is that just a list of shows that are happening in Vegas during the event? Or will the shows actually be performed in the area as part of Life Is Beautiful?

They’re actually happening in the area. We’ve a really good relationship with the people from Cirque and that’s how it all started. … What we wanted to do was show the Cirque shows, specifically my favorite, “The Beatles LOVE.” We wanted to show them in a fundamentally different way, to give people an idea of the scope of entertainment that they produce. What we’re doing with the Cirque shows – five of them will be produced in the middle of Fremont street, right in the middle of the street. We wanted to create more of a flash-mob-style performance … full sound, full lighting but do mini-sets. So each show is going to [be] a five to 15-minute performance right in the middle of the street.

“[Beatles] LOVE” for example, is bringing 40 performers for their 15-minute set. The sixth show is “Michael Jackson One,” that’s going to be on the main stage.

So those shows are going to be included in the ticket price?   

Yep! It’s not the full 90-minute show that you’d see at the Mirage but it’s a really, really strong performance for 15 minutes.

Going back to the lineup, you mentioned that Electric Daisy has a handle on the whole electronic scene as far as festivals in Vegas. So, was it really important that Life Is Beautiful focus on rock? Or did you let Another Planet have free reign over the lineup?

I set the tone very early on as far as what kind of festival we were going to be. I did not want to be an electronic festival. I wanted to be a festival that had a lot of soul. One of the things that I’ve got a tremendous amount of experience with is the history in Vegas and what it means to be a part of Vegas. I wanted to bring that back in a big way. … The electronic movement is incredible but there are other people who produced those types of events. We’re trying to create something that really dives back into what made Vegas great 50 years ago and show the world a different side of Vegas today. … We have hip hop and we have electronic on the lineup, but we curated those artists based on that core of what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re an inspirational festival; we want people who are hyper-passionate about their craft. Honestly, we want people who are a little edgier and have more of an unique feel and Another Planet drove that home.

Photo: lifeisbeautifulfestival.com

I saw you have The Killers on the lineup, which formed in Las Vegas.

If we were going to do this the right way, we had to pay tribute to the bands that have made Vegas a household name for music as opposed to just partying. And The Killers have … done that more than anyone.

Your website says “the urban surroundings of the Life is Beautiful venue provide a perfect backdrop for what will be an eclectic and permanent street art program.” So, the street art that’s being curated for the festival will remain downtown?

We’re installing all of it in the two weeks leading up to the festival and during the festival, but all of it is staying up when we leave. It is amazing the response we’ve gotten. There’s this local artist who … [said], “I can’t believe D*Face, one of the graffiti artists, is going to come down and bless our city.” The impact of having these incredibly well-known artists come in and basically accredit Las Vegas or accept Las Vegas into their own culture is pretty tremendous so that’s something that’s going to live on long after [the festival is over].

Tickets are available now. For more information visit LifeIsBeautifulFestival.com.