The Indie Alternative: Boutique Festivals Help Salvage 2021 And Continue To Grow

BeachLife 2021
JP Cordero / Courtesy BeachLife Festival
– BeachLife 2021
Living the Beachlife: Portugal. The Man’s set during BeachLife 2021 in Redondo Beach, Calif., which brought hit after hit to the affluent, concert-hungry locals Sept. 10-12.

The ongoing reopening of the concert and live events industry – and the speedbumps along the way – has relied on music festivals, which vary widely in size, scope and quality. Major events taking place and going well such as Lollapalooza in late July have been huge for the business, artists, fans and industry alike.

The situation has led to a duality where the major event producers are the safest bet in town but also under the most scrutiny and, in the case of a Bonnaroo, nearly impossible to replace if they get canceled, for whatever reason. Meanwhile, independent operators in what is considered one of the riskiest types of event may provide an alternative, with nimble, well-established events with strong local backing. The situation sees some events potentially growing at a time when putting on any event is still a mighty challenge.
“We had about as heavy of challenges as you can imagine,” says BeachLife Festival co-founder Allen Sanford, who owns the Los Angeles Hermosa Beach club Saint Rocke and along with business partner Rob Lissner put on the second-year Redondo Beach-side festival Sept. 10-12 without a hitch – at least to those attending. After having to cancel and reschedule the second-year event from May 2020 to having to make the call in January for this year, “The reason we decided to have the festival in 2021 is we made the commitment to not ending this year with a defeat. We knew not a lot were going to try it, but it’s a very tight-knit community and if anybody could pull off a festival, this community could do it.” 
BeachLife 2021 featured a slew of hit-makers, with mostly a tilt to the 40-and-over crowd and elder millennials, topped by Counting Crows, Ziggy + Stephen Marley and Jane’s Addiction along with current hit-makers like Portugal. The Man, Cage The Elephant, Fitz & The Tantrums and ‘90s favorites like Sugar Ray and The Wallflowers.   
The event saw organizers go great lengths to create a comfortable environment for artists as well as fans. At just under the 10,000-capacity “mass gathering” size in Los Angeles County – also related to refunds that were offered without question – fans who tested negative or provided vaccination status were free to choose whether to wear masks during the event. 
With the onus on event producers to figure out logistics, COVID protocols and, of course, manage or incur any financial risk, agents, managers and fans are all benefiting from hard work put on by event organizers.
“We have put an emphasis on being more inclusive and artist-friendly versus transactional,” says Denny Young of Elevation Festivals, which recently put on both the WonderBus festival in Columbus, Ohio, and WonderStruck in Cleveland, which saw 45,000 fans combined. “Are we going to put you in front of more people than Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza or Austin City Limits? The answer is no. But, are we going to put you in front of more people than you would play in front of in Columbus or Cleveland, and would we pay you more money for it? The answer is yes.”

Courtesy Elevation Festivals
– WonderBus
Life’s a Wonder(bus): Events like Elevation Festivals’ WonderBus in Columbus, Ohio, (pictured) and WonderStruck in Cleveland can turn B-markets into must-plays, according to the agents and artists playing them.
Young notes the great lengths required – and expense – to provide onsite testing for fans during a time when major sporting events largely require neither testing or vaccination. 
“We took a lot of heat from people that didn’t want to show vaccination or take a test,” adds Young, whose events hosted the likes of  Wilco, Kesha, Portugal. The Man and others, who got a good look in what is often considered a tough market – and during COVID, too. “Then, the people who were vaccinated and tested said we weren’t doing enough! I wanted to pull my hair out, knowing they could go to a college football game next week and not have to do anything.”
Nevertheless, “I’m proud of our team,”  says Young, adding that the artist and backstage areas were locked down, and he appreciated artists like Wilco and Kesha traveling in their own bubbles and therefore limiting the chance of impacting his own events. “I feel very fortunate we got both festivals in and didn’t have a single incident.”
Agents and their artist clients, of course, always like having options, and successful events in difficult markets are more than welcome.
“The smaller festivals, the towns really love them,” says High Road Touring’s Matt Hickey, who mentions Hinterland Festival in Iowa that moved 15,000 tickets in one day. “You can take that BeachLife Festival and put it in any town in America and it would do well – that setup, the location, that kind of manageable footprint. They’ve obviously figured it out. I hope, as an agent, you see more cities embrace these kinds of events.” BeachLife has a lease for 10 years at the city’s beachfront, with Sanford saying the plan is to put on two events there next year. 
Boutique festivals also provide premier artist-development opportunities, adds Hickey.
“Having those things in markets that can be kind of harder to push through at a certain level, where you kind of hit a ceiling in some of these markets, those kinds of events can help you push to the next level,” says Hickey, who represents Portugal. The Man, Brittany Howard and many others. “God bless Denny [Young] and people like him who are doing those things. They can really help where an OK market becomes kind of a real market for an artist.”
While offering heightened amenities and convenience to the fan is paramount, just as important is artist hospitality, says Young, who plans to expand the “Wonder” events to additional Midwest cities in the near future.
“I had a person working artist relations for the Cleveland festival who said, ‘You spend an enormous amount of money on the green room, artist dressing rooms, catering and all of that, you should knock out half of what you do,’ said Young. “I said that our difference is our size, the fact we’re independent, we’re only accountable for ourselves and I can spend whatever I want on the green room and artist dressing rooms with no one looking over my shoulder. Every artist that has ever played one of our events has said, ‘That’s one of the best events I’ve ever played.’”