Sweet Leaf: Marijuana Begins Its Legitimate Entrance Into The Music Industry

David McNew / AFP / Getty Images
– Marijuana
LET YOUR FREAK FLAG EARN: A marijuana enthusiast at Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., in 2014. The legal cannabis business, estimated to be a multi-billion dollar industry, is a potential source of massive revenues for the music business.
The days when concertgoers had to sneak off to a dark corner to purchase their marijuana from those shady figures depicted on neighborhood watch signs are quickly becoming history, as nine U.S. states have legalized recreational use, medical marijuana is now available in a total of 27 states, even more have decriminalized and north of the border the entire country of Canada has opted for full legalization.  
Outside of North America, laws and enforcement vary, from notoriously permissive areas like Amsterdam to stricter nations like the U.K. Countries like Uruguay and cities like Barcelona have, in recent years, also taken steps towards legalizing recreational use.
The exploding North American cannabis market was estimated in 2017 to be worth some $9.2 billion and is expected to grow five-fold over the next 10 years to $47.3 billion, according to a study by Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics. No matter one’s political and social views on weed’s legalization (which is still a contentious issue and subject to shifting political winds), the market’s growth offers opportunities for the live music business.
The music industry has always had a relationship with “the Devil’s Lettuce.” Rock ‘n’ roll was closely tied to the counterculture movement that many associated with mind-altering substances, many hip-hop artists have openly touted their fondness for Mary Jane, and Addictions.com recently performed a study concluding country artists sing about weed more than any other genre. 
Historically in the U.S., even jazz musicians (see Louis Armstrong) were famous for their fauna-fondness.
The cultural connection between music and La Mota has meant use at many live events, and there has been a certain amount of “look the other way” when it comes to reefer, particularly at outdoor events.
“The concert industry, promoters, live entertainment people have spent our entire careers protecting our guests at our shows [if they are] using cannabis,” Jim Lewi of Starr Hill Presents told Pollstar. “We’ve been trying to work with local police and municipalities saying, ‘Look, if someone is selling drugs, causing trouble, or is a nuisance, absolutely arrest them. But if they are smoking a joint and having a good time, leave them alone.’ 
“That’s kind of how things have worked in the concert industry for so long.”
Now, in states like California where recreational weed use has been legal since Jan. 1 a path for legal consumption at public events is starting to emerge. California’s legal marijuana industry was forecasted to hit $3.7 billion and to increase to more than $5 billion by 2019, according to BDS Analytics (via Business Insider) .
Starr Hill partnered with The Emerald Cup, a long-running cannabis event, and its founder Tim Blake in 2016 and the two have initially been focused on trying to put on an event that avoids the legal grey areas and set a precedent for a by-the-book, 100 percent legal shindig. The 2017 Emerald Cup in Sonoma, Calif., saw 50,000 attendees enter the Sonoma County Fairgrounds to legally sell and consume marijuana – including smoking and vaping – in designated areas. 
Lewi said when the partnership was forged he was being approached by marijuana growers and accessory makers/distributors – vendors who were yearning for a legitimate event that they could do business at – and The Emerald Cup had the best reputation.
The Emerald Cup’s strong brand among broccoli lovers and the wealth of event production experience from Starr Hill have proven a winning combination, Blake said.
“We were doing [Emerald Cup] at a great level. But Starr Hill coming in, they were able to build that experience where they bring in NFL-type security so people come into the gates quick; handicap accessible flooring; all the little elements that a major event producer knows how to put into place to make the experience even more rewarding,” Blake told Pollstar. “The marriage between us has been a work of art, it’s been wonderful. Last year we had 500 vendors, and we had 1,500 companies on a waiting list trying to get in.” 
Santee Sioux Marijuana Resort
AP Photo
– Santee Sioux Marijuana Resort
Jonathan Hunt, a consultant from Denver-based consulting firm Monarch America, puts a cover over marijuana seedlings growing in the germinating facility on the Flandreau Santee Sioux Reservation in Flandreau, S.D. 

Changes in regulation haven’t done all marijuana-themed events favors though, as the Cannabis Cup – which began in 1988 in Amsterdam and came to the U.S. in 2010 – was denied a marijuana permit by the city of San Bernardino, Calif., this year, meaning it had to proceed without sales, samples or smoking of the sweet leaf, according to the East Bay Express
Similarly, Chalice Festival announced it was being postponed when Victorville City Council was less than welcoming of the cannabis event and the festival filed suit against California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control.
Still, as the legal sands shift, particularly in the Golden State, destination events may begin testing the waters to integrate chiba into the music festival economy. San Francisco’s gourmet music festival Outside Lands may be blazing the trail in this regard, having announced July 24 it is dedicating a specific area within the festival to ganja, appropriately titled “Grass Lands.” 
The area will be “focused on the celebration, education and integration of cannabis products into daily life,” but will not allow for the sale or consumption of marijuana, according to a representative of the company. Grass Lands is inviting 14 cannabis companies as partners for the event, including Highland Events, which claims on its website it “specialize[s] in curating the best cannabis experience at mainstream music festivals and venues.”
Attractions in Grass Lands will include a “Greenhouse” with trained “budtenders” to offer cannabis education, a “confectionary” with sweet treats, a cannabis-themed farmer’s market and a delivery service that will not bring attendees the sweet leaf on site but will bring it to their home after the show.
Lewi and Blake agreed there will be growing pains in the short term as regulators and organizers who previously operated on mutual understandings must now formalize relationships and expectations. Still, the two plan to expand the Emerald Cup to a second California city outside of Northern California and a Canadian city in 2019, with eyes open for other markets that can clearly delineate expectations that allow the event to operate within the law. 
Colorado was one of the first states in the U.S. to legalize recreational consumption in 2012, and Denver has been at the forefront of pioneering pot tourism. Councilwoman Kendra Black, who heads the city’s task force studying the impact of marijuana consumption areas, told Pollstar tourists cannot consume in unlicensed businesses [only one existing business has a permit for indoor consumption] or in public outdoor spaces, meaning their options are very limited.
“It is very difficult under the [current] business model to make money,” Black said. “I think private clubs could be a viable option. There are some operating in suburbs, but they are in a sort of legal grey area.” 
Despite the red tape, there is money to be made in pot, as Colorado reported $1.5 billion in marijuana sales in 2017, meaning nearly $247.4 million in combined tax, license and fee revenue. 
These numbers are attracting business figures from all different walks, including legendary promoter Michael Cohl, who announced May 18 he had joined the board of Civilized Worldwide, a cannabis media and lifestyle company. That board also includes Mitch Fox, former group president of Condé Nast.
Plenty of artists have also been eager to get into the business of chronic. Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa, and the Marley Family are “usual suspects” when the subject of stickyicky branding comes up, but many more artists are operating in the space. 
The Game actually bought stake in a Southern California dispensary, selling it to a national cannabis company last year.
Wiz Khalifa
Amy Harris / Invision / AP
– Wiz Khalifa
Night arrives for Day 1 of Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival with funny looking leaves and Wiz Khalifa in Florida March 3.
Iceland’s Sigur Rós has pioneered marijuana experiences by collaborating with Lord Jones to distribute Wild Sigurberry gumdrops during a “sound bath” featuring light sculptures and lo-fi music at Neuehouse in Los Angeles in 2017. 
Reggae mainstay Rebelution teamed up with FlavRx to release two strains of all-natural cannabis oil cartridges. 311 is associated with the Grassroots Uplifter, a vaporizer to be used with all kinds of e-liquids, e-juices and oils, and which is distributed through Speedweed, a medical marijuana delivery service. 
Longtime legalization advocates Slightly Stoopid have attached their name to strains and pot products, with marijuana and vape companies sponsoring their tours and booths at their events, which deal with the “cannabis lifestyle.” The band even pressed a 12-inch, functional record out of OG Bubble Hash, according to Jon Phillips of Silverback Artist Management, meaning the disc costs upward of $7,500, and the band plans to do it again for charity.
Phillips was first introduced to Slightly Stoopid by Brad Nowell of Sublime and has been working with the band for more than two decades. Cannabis has always been a part of the band’s brand, from events promoting the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and the original
“It’s a lifestyle, a movement, and now it’s here,” Phillips told Pollstar. “The fact of the matter is it’s become more acceptable, the stigma is gone, and the bands that I’ve worked with have always professed their affinity for it and the freedom that comes along with it.”
Legalization has also brought stricter enforcement onto bands like Slightly Stoopid, who proudly wave their cannabis-lifestyle flag, and Phillips said it is very much a market-to-market decision figuring out which brand activations, booths and sponsors will be appropriate for the local legal system and venue. 
Phillips said he would be curious how long it would take for there to be real movement from promoters like Live Nation and AEG to start embracing cannabis vendors and sponsors, as he has observed larger corporations being tentative. But it may be inevitable with that much money on the table.
“Do promoters want to get on the lifestyle bandwagon and support cannabis-branded tours? I would say of course, because that’s a big audience.”
Certainly Slightly Stoopid have developed a loyal audience. The band began its summer amphitheater tours in 2007 and Phillips bragged they have become a “rite of passage” within many cannabis lifestyle fans. This year’s run with Pepper and Stick Figure saw the band gross $332,723 at Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena At Harveys in Stateline, Nev., a venue it has played for each of the last four years, with increasing grosses every year. The band grossed $227,644 at the same shed with Iration, J Boog, and The Movement in 2017, and $204,531 the year before that with Eligh, SOJA, Zion I, and The Grouch.
Other bands are using marijuana branding to tap into new audiences. Kenny Vasoli, of the bands Vacationer and The Starting Line, recently teamed up with boutique cannabis grower Cherry Kola Farms on a strain called “Mindset,” which shares a name with Vacationer’s most recent album. 
“I’ve been a user of marijuana for all of my adult life. I’ve been very productive on it. It’s been very helpful for depression, anxiety,” Vasoli told Pollstar
While Mindset isn’t distributed at Vacationer’s shows or by Vasoli himself, he has lent his likeness and support for the cannabis strain, and said he has noted it is getting people talking about the band in a different way, connecting it with the “weed culture” audience.
Image Courtesy of Clarion Call Media
– Mindset
The album cover for “Mindset” by Vacationer.
Cherry Kola’s director of artist relations, Zach Falkow (a former music agent at Central Entertainment Group), told Pollstar he feels like the wave is starting to break on marijuana branding. Mindset is the first strain Cherry Kola has partnered with an artist on, but Falkow said he has reached out to heads of corporate branding at big agencies, management companies, and individual artists, and is getting all kinds of responses.
Beyond branding partnerships, Falkow said potential joint business opportunities between the marijuana and the concert industry include experiential events with different stages for different kinds of weed and fully integrated product launches.
Of course, the traditional counterpoints to the legalization of marijuana have been the negative effects that accompany the feelings of euphoria and its designation as a “gateway drug” which may lead to harder and more dangerous substances. Some of the main negative effects of marijuana, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, are the alteration of body chemistry that can affect regulation of mood, impair memory, induce psychosis, delusions or hallucinations in high doses, and, particularly in youth, affect brain development.
There is an obvious precedent of legal, mind-altering substances connected to the concert industry: alcohol. 
Lewi said: “When the concert industry and sports industry, the live entertainment industries, see a path to compliance, I believe at every sporting event, every concert, every space where there is alcohol sold, you will see cannabis infused products.”