J. Cole’s Dreamville Charts A Future For Artist-Curated Festivals


Artist-curated festivals were supposed to be the future.

We live in a cultural moment where fandoms become identity. With some acts, the line has always been blurry between appreciating an artist’s music and embracing a lifestyle. Think about Deadheads or Juggalos or the KISS Army. But what was true for only a handful of acts is increasingly universal.

With the steady success of the megafestival — and the revenue they generate — coupled with rabid fans wanting to consume everything their favorite artist touches, artists saw curating a festival as creatively and financially tempting.

In 2020, COVID happened, shutting down mass gatherings of all kinds. A year later, the deadly crowd crush at Travis Scott’s Astroworld laid bare the danger of associating an artist’s brand too closely with something that can turn tragic, and the pre-2020 fervor of artist-curated festivals cooled.

The environment that created the demand from fans is still there. An artist-run festival brings the creative mind of a favorite musician into a real place that can be explored. That’s a Ferris wheel J. Cole picked out at Dreamville. These are artists Pharrell Williams chose at Something In The Water. A festival is immersive in a way that an arena show can’t be.

What’s tougher, post-Astroworld, is that the artists themselves are now acutely aware that the festival — and everything that happens during it — will inevitably be tied to their brand and reputation. It’s two sides of the same coin.

Even through all the turmoil, J. Cole’s Dreamville at Dorothea Dix Park in his hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, has survived and succeeded, which is remarkable, considering its first edition, scheduled for 2018, was canceled due to Hurricane Florence and it missed two other years because of the pandemic. But the Dreamville team has seen it through. The 2023 edition will be another sell out, with 40,000 people expected on each of the two days.

Adam Roy, Dreamville festival co-founder and president, told Pollstar ahead of the April 1-2 event that authenticity sells and fans have innate bullshit detectors.

“It feels as though some festivals might try to fabricate the culture but aren’t necessarily living and breathing it day-to-day. Plus, an artist curating their own festival isn’t as easily swayed by outside influences or short fads – an artist sticks to what they know and love, and that vision is reflected in the unique lineups and performances you see come together at Dreamville. It’s not a response, but a reflection of our identity and that of our fans,” he says. “When Dreamville asks an artist to join the lineup, those acts ultimately bring that much more energy to their show not because they are obligated to, but because of the artist-to-artist appreciation. It brings a different atmosphere to the type of performances not seen at other festivals.”

Certainly, lineup construction is critical. J. Cole calls on his Dreamville Records family to fill spots, but the festival isn’t a commercial for his label and he has enough respect to score appearances from the likes of Drake and Burna Boy. Roy says that creates a situation that’s akin to a family reunion: it’s a chance to see beloved faces and the act of gathering fulfills the same human impulse as the archetypal pilgrimage home to see the family.

“It represents a larger community. It’s not only about the performers themselves but about bringing our fans together,” he says. “In the past, touring was the only opportunity for our fans to come together. Dreamville Festival has now become our signature annual event where all levels of the brand come together, allowing fans from across the world to join us here in North Carolina where this story all started.”

Those are all high-minded concerns and those are important, but the prosaic nuts and bolts can’t get lost in the metaphysical mists.

“It’s easy to get wrapped up in the grand vision of what we want to bring to our fans, but you can’t forget about the foundational aspects of what it takes to run a festival – safety, infrastructure, transportation, production,” he says.

There is incredible risk to reputation and brand for an artist to tie themselves to festivals, with all the stochastic variables and innumerable details which need to coalesce to meet the expectations the fans have imagined.

But there’s reward, too; not merely dollar-and-cents but in the long-term bonds the events can create.

Artist-run festivals may be the future still.