The Beauty Of Boutique Festivals: ‘Warm, Heartfelt And Personal’

JonBatiste Treeline22
Born To Play: Jon Batiste performs at Roots N Blues Music Festival (now known as Treeline Music Fest) in Columbia, Missouri, on Oct. 8, 2022. Photo by LG Patterson

Sometimes the concept of “the bigger, the better” doesn’t hold true. While large-scale festivals in bigger markets may make national headlines, draw more attendees and yield higher grosses, boutique festivals and the secondary markets they’re often based in have a charm all their own – from providing a more intimate experience for fans to benefiting their local economies.

Boutique events take place across the U.S., including MerleFest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, April 27- 30; BeachLife Festival in Redondo Beach, California May 5-7; Pickathon Music Festival on Pendarvis Farm in Happy Valley, Oregon, outside Portland, Aug. 3-6; and the String Cheese Incident’s Suwannee Hulaween in Live Oak, Florida, Oct. 26-29.

Tracy Lane, co-producer and co-owner of Treeline Music Fest (formerly known as Roots N Blues Festival) in Columbia, Missouri, Sept. 29 through Oct. 1, explains that although the festival grounds at Stephens Lake Park offer a 15,000-capacity, that’s not necessarily their goal.

“Our sweet spot is really 12,500 because we want there to be space; we want that family environment,” Lane says. “There’s a lot of acreage that we rent, which is open and gives people that opportunity to spread out a little bit – or you can have that rock ’n’ roll experience right down in front of the stage, shoulder to shoulder.”

Lane says when she and co-producer/owner Shay Jasper formed Trio Presents LLC in December 2019 and bought the rights to operate the then 13-year-old Roots N Blues Festival, they sat down and wrote out their code of ethics for the event – with an emphasis on the multi-generational experience.

“We continue to say the heart of our mission is to remove the barriers around live music,” Lane says.

As Lane pointed out during 2023’s Pollstar Live!, you don’t stop loving the experience of live music at any age. And so to welcome the whole community, the organizers enhanced ADA on-site transportation to include 20 accessible carts and drivers to assist fans with limited mobility or vision, as well as providing a nursing mothers’ station with multiple separate bays.

Land and Jasper decided to switch the festival’s name from Roots N Blues to Treeline to create a name that represents growth and that speaks to the expansion of the branches, or genres, of music they expanded into including hip-hop, as well as plans to add more pop and rock.

After making a historic statement for the need for gender parity in the music industry by hosting a women-led event in 2021, Roots N Blues returned in 2022 with a lineup that continues to expand the definition of roots, while being balanced in regard to gender and generation.

The Oct. 7-9 fest was topped by Wilco and Tanya Tucker on Friday, Jon Batiste and Chaka Khan on Saturday and Bleachers and Old Crow Medicine Show on Sunday.

The 2023 lineup is expected to be announced in late April.

Booking acts around radius clauses can be tricky, especially for an event like Treeline, which is located between two major cities, St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri. That said, there’s also an advantage to being in the Midwest for fans willing to travel as the festival is located less than a full day’s drive from just about any other major market.

Lane says the biggest challenge is Treeline can’t pick a consistent date because Colombia, Missouri, is a a college town and therefore the event is always set after the University of Missouri games are scheduled.

Laurie B. Kirby, president and owner of FestForums, offered this insight: “The larger cities are often saturated with competing events that include theater, sports, and more. Smaller cities are hungry for live music and thus are more receptive to smaller acts and curated events.

Organizers can take advantage of lower production and venue costs and talent routing through larger cities nearby. Plus, the promoters are closer to their communities and can leverage local resources.”

Rendy Lovelady, who produces Gulf Coast Jam Presented by Jim Beam, spoke during the 2023 Pollstar Live! Panel “Big In Peoria: The Boutique Boom & The Power Of Secondary Market Festivals” and said: “Leverage is our middle name,” in regards to all that goes into their event. “You have a town that has 100,000 people and you bring that economic impact. It has power within the community.”

The Gulf Coast Jam is set for June 1-4 at Panama City Beach, Florida, with a lineup featuring Morgan Wallen, Miranda Lambert, Kane Brown and HARDY.

Lane praises the community of Colombia as being very progressive and one that supports the arts including literary, visual arts and film festivals, along with the music festival.
Treeline organizers work closely with the city departments because they rent the grounds of the public park.

“We always strive to provide as much economic impact as we can. We have not had a post-pandemic economic impact study, but we plan to this year.

“The last year that we operated before the pandemic in 2019, the economic impact study showed that we generated $1 million a day in our community. That’s $3 million dollars in three days,” Lane says.

Asked her thoughts on the label of boutique, Lane says, “Most people would consider us a boutique festival because of its size and because of the market that we’re in. We embrace that title. … We see ourselves as a boutique festival, but when it comes to genre, we’re trying to become more expansive.

“We like it because to me it represents this ideology of authenticity of honesty, of something that’s very warm and heartfelt and personal.”