The Hottest New Act in the Music Industry? Curated ‘Experiences’

June 16, 2019, 11:00 AM UTC

When Wilco fans converge on western Massachusetts at the end of this month for the group’s Solid Sound Festival, a lucky few will get up onstage the first night to sing with the Chicago indie-rock group as winners of a live-band karaoke contest.

It’s the latest example of how Wilco connects with fans at the fest, which began in 2010 at Mass MoCA, a contemporary art museum in a 13-acre complex of renovated factory buildings in North Adams, Mass. At the previous Solid Sound, in 2017, the faithful voted online for which album they wanted to hear Wilco perform in its entirety. In 2013, fans nominated cover songs for the band to play, resulting in a set that included tunes by the Grateful Dead, Daft Punk, and Abba. And the very first year, the band members took turns sitting in a dunk tank, waiting for festival-goers to drop them into a big tub of cold water with a well-thrown ball.

“That wouldn’t happen on a typical night on tour in New York,” says Wilco bassist John Stirratt. That’s exactly the point: Solid Sound was among the first in an expanding array of boutique music fests that offer fans a chance to interact with bands in a more intimate way than heading down to the local venue when the group comes through on tour, or braving the crowds at the big-name mega-festivals. Hosting their own festivals also lets bands break out of the age-old “record an album, hit the road, repeat” cycle in favor of events that bring the audience to them.

To attract fans to small-scale destination festivals, artists often oversee the whole concept, including the setting, the musical lineup, and even food vendors and ancillary activities such as a comedy or film component. “You’re giving fans a more curated experience in your world,” Stirratt says.

Many musical acts have moved to offer curated experiences in recent years. Vermont rockers Grace Potter & the Nocturnals have hosted their Grand Point North festival in Burlington every summer since 2011. Members of Bon Iver and the National created the Eaux Claires festival in Eau Claire, Wis., in 2015. Americana duo Shovels & Rope has put on three incarnations of its own High Water Festival in North Charleston, S.C. Indie-rockers the Decemberists did two years of a band-curated event called Travelers Rest in Missoula, Mont. Heavy metal band the Deftones last year offered Día de los Deftones, a one-day festival in San Diego. Singer and rapper Pharrell Williams organized Something in the Water in Virginia Beach, Va., in April. The R&B singer H.E.R. this week announced a one-day festival in Concord, Calif., in September.

“Where you’re seeing a lot of growth in the festival market is in those smaller boutique festivals, and particularly the ones that have a very clear point of view,” says Alex Crothers, whose company Higher Ground Presents books performers for Solid Sound, Grand Point North, and five other artist-curated festivals.

Having a distinctive point of view is much harder with big festivals, Crothers says. Mega-fests such as Austin City Limits in Texas, Bonnaroo in Tennessee, Coachella in California, or Lollapalooza in Chicago can draw upward of 75,000 people per day. (In fact, they have to to remain financially viable.) Bringing in such large audiences requires booking a broad range of performers that don’t cater to any one musical taste. By contrast, High Water this year attracted about 10,000 people to a festival with a musical lineup, and food events built around regional cuisine, that reflected Shovels & Rope’s aesthetic.

Andy Felder and Ashley Pascoe were among those attending. After three years of going to the much larger Hangout Music Festival in Alabama, the Brooklyn, N.Y., couple liked the lineup better this year at High Water. They bought VIP tickets for what they would have paid for general admission at Hangout, and were impressed by the whole weekend. “It was very much a thoughtful sensory experience,” says Felder, 38. “You could go to this thing just for the food. The setting was beautiful, it’s in this old retired naval facility, and everything comes together in a really rich way.”

Jessica Lillian, 35, also went to High Water this year. The Connecticut resident has preferred smaller festivals, including Solid Sound, after a bad experience once with heat and crowds at Austin City Limits. High Water had the dual benefit of performers she wanted to see, in a city that Lillian likes visiting. “It was a combination festival and vacation,” she says.

That kind of music tourism—building a vacation around a concert or festival—helps account for the success of genre-themed concert cruises in the Caribbean and the growth of destination festivals at all-inclusive resorts in places like Riviera Maya, Mexico or Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. After feeling crimped by the crush of mega-fests, the Kentucky rock band My Morning Jacket in 2015 launched One Big Holiday in Mexico with the promoter Cloud 9 Adventures, before moving the festival this year to a larger resort in Punta Cana.

“If it’s your festival, it’s like playing at your home,” says Patrick Hallahan, drummer for My Morning Jacket. “You’re bringing all of your diehard fans to the location and playing for them. Anybody that’s there wants to be there and came down there of their own accord. If you’re playing a larger festival, people are there to see you but they’re also there to see 25 different bands.”

Narrowing the focus to one band, and a handful of related acts they’ve chosen, is a sign of the cultural self-sorting happening in other areas. “Everything is getting very fragmented,” says bassist Bob Crawford of the Avett Brothers. The folk-rock band’s third At the Beach festival, scheduled for Feb. 27-March 2 next year in Punta Cana, is already sold out. “You can create a very specific life for yourself where you don’t get these outside influences. Be it politics, music, whatever it is. Having your own festival is just another aspect of the times we’re living in.”

Indeed, some bands that don’t have yet have their own festivals are considering it. After performing on the hard-rock cruise ShipRocked earlier this year in the Gulf of Mexico, Papa Roach has started planning its own festival. “It’s the artists curating the culture for the fanbase, and that’s what the fans want,” singer Jacoby Shaddix says. “It’s not some guy sitting in an office picking what he thinks will be cool.”

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