Q’s With Adam Zacks: From Sasquatch! To Thing: How The Fest Market’s Changed Over 20 Years

Adam Zacks
Photo by Chase Jarvis / Courtesy Adam Zacks

Adam Zacks is now in his second year programming THING, a boutique festival held Aug. 26-28 in Port Townsend, Wash., on the stunning Olympic Peninsula. With a stellar lineup that includes Father John Misty, Jungle, Freddie Gibbs, Sparks, Yves Tumor, Wet Leg, Modest Mouse, Faye Webster and Mdou Moctar, the 6,500-cap event is markedly different from Zacks’ previous gig: programming Sasquatch!, a much beloved and larger festival.

Held at the Gorge Amphitheater in George, Wash., the festival, which launched in 2002, attracted some 30,000 attendees before the plug was pulled in 2018. Pollstar caught up with Zacks to find out more about the vastly different fests, the state of the festival market now and how Jack Johnson going for a swim almost blew his set time.

Pollstar: When did you first get involved in festivals?

Adam Zacks: I started at the University of Oregon in 1991 in Eugene.
I did a festival called the Oregon Grind, not the best name in the world but that was the first festival.

Who played and how’d it go?

Jimmy Cliff headlined. In hindsight, I had no idea at all what I was doing and we somehow just figured it out and pulled it off, but those were different times.

Where did you go from there?

After college, I went to work for Double Tee Concerts in Portland, a solid independent promoter. I was the producer of The Grateful Dead shows in Oregon when those came through. Shortly after, we produced the HORDE Festival so I got a bit of experience doing festivals though not creating them quite yet.

The jam band scene and The Dead are sort of the underpinnings of the industry with the way they treated fans, sound, line-ups, merch, ticketing, etc.

100%. That’s right on the money from my perspective.

What were your moves after that?

Five years later I went to work for House of Blues Concerts in Seattle where they had a concerts office and the Gorge Amphitheatre contract. Very shortly after arriving,

I went to the boss’ office with an idea. I wanted to do a festival at The Gorge. I did have the name Sasquatch and Jeff Trisler greenlit it and then it was off and running.

How special a place is The Gorge?

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SASQUATCH! 2012 Music Festival – Photo by Christopher Nelson

It’s really on the level of the Grand Canyon. It’s almost not worth talking about because it sounds like you’re overhyping it. You really have to be there and witness it to understand how special it is. Someone made a documentary about it called “Enormous” that captures some of it, but it doesn’t take the place of being there in person.

Can you swim?

If you want to brave walking down cliff walls, you can go down to a river. One of the first shows I booked was Jack Johnson. When it came time for him to get on the stage, no one could find him. He had walked down to the river and didn’t tell anyone. Took a little swim and then it took him way longer to get back than he realized. He gets back, pops over the fence in the backstage area and was like, “Okay, let’s go.”

Sasquatch starts in 2002, right as the mega festival market with Coachella and Bonnaroo was kicking off.

Coachella was a couple years in but both Bonnaroo and Sasquatch started the same year, on opposite ends of the country. Both recognized the vacancy in the market of the European festivals that were totally happening. The touring festival model had wound down. There was no more Lollapalooza, HORDE, or Lilith Fair, which ran
its course. So we both happened to recognize that same opening there.

How was the first year?

In the first year, the challenge was pitching something based on a name and a location and trying to convince bands to sign up. We got some luck the first year. It was just a one-day festival and sold out in advance, that took everybody by surprise. We started modestly with one day and slowly grew adding days and capacity over the years until it got much, much bigger.

Some festivals take a gigantic swing right away and that is an extremely risky venture. One advantage is The Gorge has built-in infrastructure with concerts all summer, so there wasn’t the expense of having to build out a venue for a festival.

Who played the first year?

It was such a funny, random smattering of bands. Ben Harper and Jack Johnson played. That first year was more connected to the jam scene than what it became. But also Blackalicious, Galactic and Reggie Watts. Maybe not even a dozen acts. It was very different than what it became.

What was the attendance?


Was it profitable?

Yes, very profitable.

It’s a regional market mostly, right? What was your competition?

Seattle’s Bumbershoot is a legacy festival that’s been around since
the early ’70s and an enormous and hugely popular festival. I’m a dual citizen born in Canada and was sure to include whatever the hot Canadian up and coming acts were to draw people from British Columbia. At one point, over 30% of the audience was Canadian. There was Squamish and Pemberton, kind of EDM festivals that came and went. Other than that, just kind of competing with Coachella because they had such strength and were able to dictate terms even more back then than now.

House of Blues was bought by Live Nation. Did that have an impact?

I didn’t really experience that relationship because I left (House of Blues) in 2007 and continued to do the festival with Live Nation, but wasn’t inside the company so I didn’t have that perspective.

What happened in 2018?

The final three years of the festival saw declining sales and increasing costs. The proliferation of festivals, talent expenses, and competition for talent went way, way up. And the core identity of Sasquatch be- came indie music broadly – eclectic but with an indie aesthetic. That had a huge wave in the 2000s and kind of petered out as different types of music came to the forefront, namely electronic music. It became not profitable after being slam dunks for many years and we decided to put it to bed.

It’s interesting how festival tastes change. Now Coachella often doesn’t have rock headliners, you see more pop and hip-hop, maybe EDM or whatever. What happened after you put Sasquatch on ice?

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THING 2019

I should have gone to Hawaii for a year and just chilled out. These things take a lot out of you. It’s no joke creating and producing each festival. There was a real community around Sasquatch of voracious music lovers and that’s what Sasquatch became known for. I felt this obligation to keep something going for that audience. So that’s when we started up the THING Festival, which is in Port Townsend, Washington, and much smaller, a boutique festival. It’s 6,500 capacity and more targeted towards music discovery.

I recently went to the Olympic Peninsula and was struck by its beauty.

The site is surrounded by forest on one side and the other side looks out on the Puget Sound and the Olym- pic Peninsula. It’s just spectacular and the town is really charming.

It’s a Victorian seaport so there’s all these little Victorian-style buildings and attracts a lot of artists and retirees, it’s phenomenal. The site itself, Fort Worden, has a really cool history. “Officer and a Gentleman” was filmed there, which is kind of funny. It’s been converted into what they call a lifelong learning center with mostly arts activities.

Is there camping?

There’s a bunch of different types of housing, lots of hotels, vacation homes, people Airbnb their houses. We took over the County Fairgrounds and turned that into a campground. There’s campgrounds run by the state in this forest and on the beach and there’s Victorian officers quarters on site. People can rent those and there’s tons of bedrooms, one of the houses has 16 bedrooms.

The lineup looks great and eclectic. Jungle, Father John Misty, Sparks, Wet Leg, Mdou Moctar, Yves Tumor, Goose, Adrian Younge. What’s your booking strategy?

Music discovery. It’s designed to attract people who are excited about discovering new music. We have an incredible radio station in KEXP, a non-profit station, and music discovery is their mission. There’s a culture and a support system around that here. Other than that, just continuing the vibe and the thread from Sasquatch and trying to take a step forward with representation and make sure the audience we want, which is everyone, is as inclusive as possible, to see a version of themselves on stage.

Have you partnered with anybody?

This is with Seattle Theatre Group, which is where I work and is a non-profit organization.
They have three historic theaters in Seattle: The Paramount, The Moore and The Neptune Theatres. We book 700 shows between those three theaters. This is sort of a special project outside of our venues.

How’s it been securing talent, selling tickets and establishing a new festival with what we’ve been through the last two years?

To me it’s a thrill to book. It’s a different type of stress than it was when I first started. It’s far easier and sales are good. We’ll probably need all summer to sell it out. We got to live through coming out of this pandemic to make sense of what’s going on with ticket buying patterns, on everything, not just festivals.

This must be so much easier if Sasquatch was 30K and this is 6.5K.

It turns out that’s just not the case. Unlike The Gorge, it doesn’t have all the infrastructure built, so instead we are building and bringing everything in.

Are supply chain and the labor shortages an issue?

Everything pretty much across the board has become more expensive and labor’s difficult to find in almost all industries including ours, but it’s also a pretty fun thing to work at, so maybe it’s not as challenging as some other industries.

How many stages?

There’s two main stages and a zeppelin hangar that’s been converted into a seated theater and a 300- seat little art deco theater where we do variety show type of stuff.

How did the first one go?

Great. It sold out. It was a two- day festival the first year and this year it’s three.

So it doesn’t go all day or night?

Well, there’s no overlapping sets. That’s something I learned from doing this over the years.

That’s kind of a dream. Quality over quantity.

I don’t wanna put any value judgments on anybody, but there’s a lot more to this than the financial aspect that dominates planning these events. Some of these festivals are extremely successful and profitable. Nothing I’m saying is criticism. For my values, it’s important to impact culture and be thoughtful with our choices around who we program. It feels like, from time to time, the industry gets away from that.