Artist Curated: Musicians Create Their Own World

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LIGHTS ON: H.E.R. performs at her own festival on Sept. 19. Courtesy Of H.E.R.

Aaron Greene, who manages Porter Robinson, still remembers what the beloved electronic artist told him several years ago, when Robinson and his team decided to partner with Goldenvoice to put on their own music festival, Second Sky, in Oakland, Calif.

“You play festivals all over the world,” the Slush Management owner and co-founder recalls Robinson saying, “but it’d be really fun to be able to bring my world to a bigger place where people could just completely immerse themselves and get lost.”

H.E.R., Shovels & Rope and Drew Holcomb are just a handful of the artists who, like Robinson, have also built their own events. For the artists’ managers, the undertaking of having their own festival is akin to having another client, with countless hours spent each week on getting the events up and running. The day after fans leave the festival grounds is when artists’ teams start planning the next year’s iteration.

artist-curated festivals is H.E.R.’s Lights On, which debuted at Concord Pavilion in the Bay Area city of Concord, Calif., on Sept. 14, 2019, selling 12,694 tickets and grossing $925,813.

The initial idea came from Live Nation Urban president Shawn Gee and Jeff Robinson, CEO and founder of MBK Entertainment, the company that manages H.E.R. When Gee and Robinson brought the idea to H.E.R. and MBK president and managing partner Jeanine McLean-Williams, they agreed it was the perfect move.

“We all looked at each other and we were like, ‘Cool, let’s do it,’” McLean-Williams says. “We were up for the challenge, and she was excited to be able to curate a festival around great music, musicality, musicianship, live R&B. It was an opportunity to create something that was a bit unique, and that was exciting.”

The event is produced in partnership with Live Nation Urban and expanded to two days, grossing $2.05 million and featuring H.E.R., Erykah Badu, Bryson Tiller, Ari Lennox, Ty Dolla $ign and more.

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HIGH WATER: Shovels & Rope perform at their High Water festival in 2019. Photo by Nathan Zucker

Artist-curated events are worlds created by the musicians themselves, where they can showcase their friends, inspirations, and up-and-comers they’re personally excited about.

“He had this idea to open the festival every year in order to get people in early so that everybody was really going into a learning experience,” Greene says of Robinson’s vision. “It wasn’t just, ‘Go to a festival.’ It was, ‘Hey, check out some stuff you might not know, some things that I’d love for you to see.’ And it’s been really successful because of that.”

Moon River and High Water, festivals put on by Shovels & Rope and Drew Holcomb, respectively, consider themselves sister-festivals. Live Nation’s Bryan Benson serves as the lead booker for both festivals, while Live Nation’s Ted Heinig executive produces both. Benson and Heinig work closely with Dogwood Artist Management’s Paul Bannister, who manages Shovels & Rope, and Paul Steele, an executive partner at Triple 8 Management who manages Drew Holcomb and co-founded Moon River.

“It just works because Bryan is so easy to work with,” Bannister said. “He has a lot of the same ideas, he’s got great suggestions. He knows exactly where we want to be but also has enough professional advice to help us understand why certain things will work better than others. And he crushes it every time.”

Festivals run by artists are more about realizing certain visions than anything else. From lineup to location to vendors, the events often boast a familial aspect.

“[Benson] helps us try to achieve a dream festival, and we pretty much get a version of that each year, but there are also lineups that will sell tickets in a specific mar- ket,” Bannister says. “It can’t just be a total blank check for Shovels & Rope or Drew Holcomb to go book all their favorite bands, because it might be fun for the 10 of us, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to sell thousands of tickets.”

On top of that, while personal relationships and artist wish lists form the basis of the lineups of many artist-curated events, it still isn’t easy to book everyone.

“It’s a conversation,” McLean-Williams says. “H.E.R. puts out her list of top artists. So you have your top tier and multiple tiers. Then we go through the list and we’ll start to reach out to relationships. Go to the agent. We have our contacts and start to go through to see who’s available. Who can fit the budget.”

In his position booking both High Water and Moon River, Benson has to work closely with the artists’ teams to ensure their vision is properly delivered.

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MEET ME BY THE MOON RIVER: Drew Holcomb performs at Moon River 2021. Photo by Charles Reagan

“It’s basically realizing the artist’s vision for the event,” Benson says. “I’m extremely lucky to be in a position to deliver and execute the vision that each of these amazing artists have for the festival of their dreams. To take what they imagine they would want their dream event to be and make that a reality is incredibly fulfilling.”

Artist-curated festival locations are often selected because they have significant meanings to the artists themselves. H.E.R. was born in Vallejo, Calif., so having Lights On in the Bay Area was considered a must. (In October 2021, the event was to expand with a second two- day installment at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., but that was postponed to 2022 due to the pandemic.)

Shovels & Rope and Drew Holcomb wanted their events to be in the states they call home, while Porter Robinson went in a different direction and selected the Bay Area because that’s where a good chunk of his fanbase lives. Second Sky is due to take place on Oct. 29 and 30 this year. Moon River will return on Sept. 10 and 11, while High Water is due to make its first event since COVID on April 23 and 24.

When it comes to finding vendors, these events frequently look toward what can best benefit local communities.

“With food and beverage and everything else on the local side, [it’s important to] really honor those communities and create something that fans want to go back to over and over again and just make it part of their yearly life,” Heinig says. “They are very excited that these festivals are in their communities.”

After COVID-19 pushed everyone off the road, the need to get back out and see old friends became more apparent. While everyone wanted to tour, artist-curated events turned into something more, from festivals into reunions.

“I think the familial aspect of [these festivals] was even more enhanced post-COVID where you kind of get your people back together,” Steele says. “It really is kind of like a reunion. I think we’re all trying to capture that experience.”

While tours provide comfort to audience members for one night, full-blown festivals allow an entire weekend to offer an escape with fans’ favorite artists. That sentiment became especially apparent over the past few years, and with live music fully returned, there is more gratitude than ever,

“There’s so much you can jump on that’s negative in the world,” Greene says. “It’s so special to be able to create something that’s totally the opposite.

“It feels like the world doesn’t exist when you’re there. That’s the feeling we’re trying to create and trying to hold.”