Are Smaller Uber-Curated Festivals The Future? A Cluster Of Uniquely Programmed Events Are Creating A New Template For The Market

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Pasadena, CA – May 14: A fan wearing a Devo hat joins others in the crowd cheering for Devo as they perform at the Cruel World festival at Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Saturday, May 14, 2022. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The pandemic hastened the demise of a number of cherished boomer pastimes, from network television and physical media to movie theaters and restaurants.  One thing it couldn’t eliminate completely – even with a hiatus of almost two years – is the tradition of the summer music festival, which harkens at least back to the Newport Jazz (1954) and Folk (1959) Festivals and the grandaddy of all gatherings, Woodstock (1969).  Significantly, this year two fest visionaries, Newport’s George Wein and Woodstock’s Michael Lang died within months of each other, in September 2021, and January 2022, respectively.

Those outdoor fests would form the bedrock of rock’s modern era, with Dylan famously plugging in his Fender Strat at Newport Folk in July 1965 and four years later, Jimi Hendrix taking “The Star-Spangled Banner” electric at Max Yasgur’s farm, the yin to the Rolling Stones’ disastrous Altamont in late 1969, which seemed to put a permanent dent in the big-time music festival biz. 

My own pivotal festival memory was standing before a muddy field at a raceway in 1973 in Watkins Glen, the sound of a naked couple flopping around in front of me for what at the time was the world’s largest music festival (600K), featuring the Grateful Dead, Allman Bros. and The Band at their peaks. At that point, tripping my brains out, the future of the rock festival appeared nigh apocalyptic.

Of course, subsequent attempts at reviving the Woodstock magic in 1994 and 1999 proved increasingly disastrous, while Lang’s last-ditch attempt at a 50th in 2019 fizzled out ignominiously when Japanese backers pulled out and no venue would agree to host it. 

It was left, in large measure, to Goldenvoice’s Paul Tollett to reinvent the concept, taking Woodstock’s extra-musical lifestyle trappings to create Coachella in 1999 on a polo field in the desert in Indio, Calif., heretofore known mostly for its dates, by skillfully combining reformed rock icons with cult faves. That first year, Beck, Rage Against the Machine and Tool were the headliners, with the Chemical Brothers, Morrissey, Perry Farrell and Underworld on the undercard. Daft Punk’s 2006 appearance – billed below Depeche Mode – signaled the beginning of the fest’s electronic music/dance direction, and it has grown to the point where it is the most important festival in the world, its font size rankings scrutinized like the JFK Zapruder film (another boomer reference).

With Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival – whose very name seems a paean to Woodstock Music and Art Fair – Goldenvoice has created the closest thing to a working model for the modern music festival, which it is now spinning off into a series of far more manageable mini-Coachella fests taking place at Brookside Park, a golf course area adjacent to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. The last few weekends have seen the two-day ‘80s extravaganza Cruel World (featuring Morrissey, Blondie, Bauhaus, PiL, DEVO, The Church, Violent Femmes);  the ‘90s-‘00s post-punk Just Like Heaven (Interpol, M.I.A., The Hives, Santigold, Franz Ferdinand, Cut Copy, Modest Mouse, The Shins, Wolf Parade); with This Ain’t No Picnic slated for Aug. 27 and 28, featuring lineups on consecutive nights slanting dance and alternative, featuring headliners LCD Soundsystem and The Strokes, with Le Tigre, Jorja Smith, Kaytranada, Jungle, Phoebe Bridgers, Beach House, Idles, Turnstile and Sparks. 

General Admission for one day starts at $159 (plus fees) and goes up from there to a 2-Day Clubhouse VIP of $1,199 (plus fees) which includes an indoor, air-conditioned spot with free drinks during a happy hour from 4-6, sliders, pasta and hot dogs. The key, of course, is the amenities. As Chief Strategy Officer for Lyte, a reservation ticketing app that helps artists determine what size venues to play, industry vet Lawrence Peryer notes the current trend in ticket sales is strong at the top and bottom, but like the economy, weak for the midlevel seats. “The value shopper is going gangbusters, but people are still making last-minute decisions. I hope it’s not like the movie business, where grosses are up only because they’re charging so much for a ticket.”

7 Doug Aitken New Horizon photo by Jamie Barron
OZARK MOUNTAIN DAREDEVILS: Artist Doug Aitken’s “New Horizon,” a mirrored hot-air balloon, will be part of Bentonville, Ark.’s inaugural FORMAT Festival, which integrates music, art and technology.
Jamie Barro / Courtesy FORMAT

I attended Cruel World and was pleasantly surprised, once I traipsed all over the Rose Bowl parking lot securing my tickets and getting in, which was exhausting enough, it was not too crowded at the Sunday show, which was added when Saturday sold out.  The three stages were pretty far apart, but it wasn’t Coachella distances or hard to traverse efficiently once you got used to it. The remarkable aspect was the diversity of the crowd, anywhere from those in their 20s to their 60s and beyond, the goth-clad kids with their black eyeliner sweating in the hot L.A. sun.

Cruel World might as well have been dubbed “ROQ of the ’80s,” because that’s basically what it was, with Morrissey and Bauhaus always big West Coast draws, especially after Moz added the local Latino and Mexican market, who fell in love with his mournful countenance and camp romanticism. The Latin audience at Cruel World brought a welcome shade of brown to the mostly whiter pop crowd.

Goldenvoice has, in effect, created genre spinoffs for the ’80s, ’90s, aughts and beyond, a series of mini-Coachellas that target a specific demo/market and super-serve it. This type of curation seems to represent the wave of the future if we take a look around the country at other similar gatherings of the (very specific) tribes.

Take the Blue Note Jazz Festival July 30-31 in the Napa Valley, a well-curated event touching jazz, R&B, hip-hop and electronic held on the Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena, Calif. Headliners include the genius artist in resident Robert Glasper with special guests Erykah Badu, Ledisi, Flying Lotus, D. Smoke, BJ the Chicago Kid, Maxwell, Thundercat, Yasiin Bey & Talib Kweli as Black Star and more.  It’s a collaboration that came of Blue Note recording artist Glasper’s annual month-long Blue Note residency in New York, “Robtober.”

C3 Presents’ FORMAT, presented in partnership with TRIADIC, is dubbed “a new music, art and tech fest taking place in Arkansas’ Ozarks,” on Sept. 23-25, with an eclectic lineup that features Rufus Du Sol, Phoenix, Herbie Hancock, Khruangbin, Beach House, the War on Drugs, Nile Rodgers & Chic, Moses Sumney and Comet Is Coming, among others. C3 partner Charles Attal says it’s one of his “dream projects” to program the fest, located on the Sugar Creek Airstrip, a grassy, 250-acre surrounded by woods and the Ozark Mountains in Bentonville, Ark. 

Adam Zacks – the man behind the beloved Sasquatch festival, held at the Gorge Amphitheater in George, Wash., from 2002 to 2018 – is currently readying the second edition of boutique festival THING, Aug. 26-28 in Port Townsend, Wash, with a lineup that includes Father John Misty, Freddie Gibbs, Yves Tumor, Wet Leg, Modest Mouse, Faye Webster and Mdou Moctar, with a 6,500 attendance limit. 

Along with Goldenvoice’s trio of Brookside events mention above (along with two more events at Brookside: Palomino Festival on July 9 and Head In The Clouds festival, which GV does in partnership with 88rising, on Aug. 20-21), these music festivals represent the next wave of events looking to establish the kind of foothold that sell tickets without even a lineup being announced with more manageable capacities and user friendliness with an eye towards super-serving individual markets. Goldenvoice is leading the way with offerings that seem to hit the sweet spot between nostalgia and passing the torch. Many parents were seen schlepping their kids, hopefully passing on the tradition of attending live music events, some to relive their youth, others to catch up on what they might have missed.

“It’s designed to attract people who are excited about discovering new music,” Zachs told Pollstar about THING in April. “We’re 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.”