How FORM Arcosanti Turned A Hippie Desert Enclave Into The Talk Of The Festival Biz

Carlo Cavaluzzi

Daniel Caesar performs at Arcosanti’s amphitheater at FORM’s 2018 installment.

Florence + The Machine hit the road next month for a conventional string of dates: Two nights at Red Rocks, a headlining slot at New York’s Governors Ball, several arena gigs.

But the beloved indie-rock band’s tour begins in a less-expected locale. On May 10, Florence + The Machine descend on Arcosanti, an experimental enclave 70 miles north of Phoenix in the Sonoran Desert, for the sixth iteration of FORM Arcosanti.

“I’m still in shock that they’re going to be a part of our festival this year,” says Zach Tetreault, co-founder of both FORM and Florida electronica act Hundred Waters. With good reason: FORM holds fewer than 2,500 participants, meaning Florence and fellow headliner Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals will play to crowds of hundreds, easily the smallest audiences either will encounter this year.

Those bookings – along with other acts such as Skrillex, Kaytranada, DJ Koze, Khruangbin and Snail Mail, who will perform at the event from May 10 to 12 – represent something of a coup in the often-corporate festival sphere, especially when considering that FORM has existed only since 2014.

Jasmine Safaeian

The Arcosanti amphitheater assumes a different character by night.

Tetreault learned about Arcosanti earlier this decade from a friend who studied architecture. Established by architect Paolo Soleri in 1970, the town was a pioneering example of arcology – a portmanteau of “architecture” and “ecology” – the movement that sought to maximize urban efficiency while minimizing environmental impact. (Legend has it that George Lucas took inspiration for the “Star Wars” planet of Tatooine from Arcosanti.)

“I had a curiosity for unconventional places to do concerts at the time,” says Tetreault, who visited Arcosanti while road-tripping in 2013 and was “fascinated” by its artistic, cooperative community. FORM arrived the following year, when Hundred Waters staged a glorified album release show and invited artists including How to Dress Well, Majical Cloudz and Julie Byrne to share the bill.

When Hundred Waters was just getting off the ground, Tetreault united with Alex Hoffman and industry vet Mike Feinberg – all three were working at Grooveshark in various capacities at the time – who became integral members of the band’s team and subsequently helped to create and run FORM.

As FORM’s de facto COO, Feinberg, who has held prominent roles at House of Blues, Dim Mak Records and more, helps steer the festival’s business end – a tall order given that the festival is independently promoted.

“We deal with a lot of the typical challenges that a small business does,” says Feinberg. “Money being tight, managing cash flow, trying to grow with modest resources and taking risks without a safety net. … We’ve all poured years into this thing strictly on sweat equity.”

Though tickets began at $349 this year, FORM’s first two installments were free-by-application, and the event subsisted on sponsorships and patronage-level ticketing. “It drew a lot of people that really had the right intentions and just a lot of great music fans and a great spectrum of people that were doing things in the creative community,” Feinberg says.

Courtesy of FORM Arcosanti
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Organizers cite Solange’s 2017 set as a pivotal moment in FORM Arcosanti’s development.

Acclaimed indie acts such as Four Tet and Thundercat played FORM in its early years, but Solange’s 2017 set proved pivotal. “It was really, really fantastic because she brought her whole band and choreography,” Tetreault says. “Seeing something like that in the intimate Arcosanti amphitheater was insane.” Other festival performances he saw of Solange’s high-concept A Seat at the Table show that summer “just didn’t hit the same way” as at FORM. “We can do anything,” Tetreault recalls thinking afterward. “I can book anyone that we can get to and convincingly tell them that we can do it and we can do it right.’”

Solange’s performance initiated a “domino effect,” according to Feinberg, that attracts top-tier talent annually: “Word gets around from artist to artist and from agent to agent.”

Financially, “the math only goes so far” – Florence unsurprisingly nets a bigger check at an arena than at a small fest in the desert – but FORM’s ethos compensates. Beyond music, this year’s program includes a literary conversation between Florence Welch and Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova, a talk by Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors and a poetry reading by Yrsa Daley-Ward.

And, crucially, the festival fosters a collaborative atmosphere. “There are so many missed opportunities when everybody brings all these amazing artists, musicians and creators together every single weekend,” says Feinberg, referencing the impersonal “cattle call” of many major festivals.

“There’s so many festivals out there and there are so many arenas that you can play,” Tetreault says, “but there are only so many 2,500-cap festivals in a microcity in the middle of the desert. It’s a really special thing that we have. I don’t take it for granted.”