Curating the Lineup: The Rise of Artist-Controlled Festivals
It’s no secret that musicians earn a significant percentage of their revenue from touring. What they recoup from streaming — which now undergirds the music industry more than ever — represents mere drops in a bucket compared to the financial control they wield through ticket and merchandise sales. As singer-songwriter and producer Mike Errico explained in the New York Times, “The advice given to the creative generators of this multibillion-dollar industry is still one that would be recognizable to a medieval troubadour: Go on tour.”
Tours offer some modicum of control for musicians. Beyond that practically-annual tradition, festivals are fast becoming another area where artists can exert similar command. Artist - curated festivals are on the rise, and now include, among others, Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner’s Eaux Claires, the National’s Homecoming Festival, Shovel & Rope’s High Water Fest, Jeff Tweedy’s Solid Sound, Pert Near Sandstone’s Blue Ox Music Festival, and even Drake’s OVO Festival (though the latter is backed by Live Nation, and meant to serve as a showcase for Drake’s label).
Such events wrest some level of authority back from typically conglomerate-backed experiences, and fall under the ballooning trend of extraneous branding opportunities that more and more musicians implement to build upon their name—radio shows, curated playlists, pop-up stores, and more.
The spurt in artist-curated festivals comes as festival business is booming. Thirty-two million attendees reportedly buy festival tickets each year. In fact, Coachella—arguably the biggest U.S. music-based event—drew about 125,000 people over its 2017 schedule. In response, the number of festivals has exploded. Recent additions like Okeechobee Music Festival and Adult Swim Festival now vye for a piece of the market—the former filling a gap in the state’s meager festival offerings, the latter growing out of the channel’s ongoing foray into music. Even Indiana’s literary-focused Granfalloon: A Kurt Vonnegut Convergence touts performances from Father John Misty, Waxahatchee, and Shabazz Palaces this year.
A festival’s economic impact comprises a big reason behind a city’s or company’s choice to mount that kind of production. According to Variety, in 2016, Live Nation reported more earned income than top labels Sony and Universal Music Group combined. (Having purchased leading ticketing agent Ticketmaster in 2010, however, they are being investigated by the Department of Justice for possibly breaking antitrust laws.)
Despite their fleeting nature, festivals have a lasting impact beyond revenue streams.
Jonathan Wynn, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, argues in his book, “Music/City”: “Mayors and city stakeholders get a ‘signature’ event, CVBs (City Visitor Bureaus) get something to promote for visitors, chambers of commerce get an influx of tourist dollars, musicians get to play to new audiences, local businesses get customers, residents may secure temporary employment, even police get paid time and a half.”
But the onslaught of festivals has arguably led to repetitive lineups.
“Without historical perspective, it’s hard to tell whether festivals are growing more similar, or just more numerous, pulling from a finite pool of bands touring each year,” write music journalists Rob Mitchum and Diego Garcia-Olano. For Pitchfork, they investigated whether musical festival lineups were getting worse, and saw how an overlap generally occurred between small to mid-sized festivals.
The same, however, could extend to the bigger names as well. This year, Eminem is slated to headline Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Governors Ball.
Once-distinct experiences have blurred as they’ve become increasingly reliant on the same pool of artists to curate attention-grabbing lineups.
(And let’s not even get started on the equally important issue of overly male-dominated lineups.)
Economics aside, there’s also a certain cultural cache—a branding of “cool”—that festivals promote, or at least try to. It moves beyond exactly who fans might see, and involves elements like setting and amenities. Newer festivals attempt to provide attendees with a more memorable experience, i.e., the Vonnegut festival throwing some music in the mix alongside readings and lectures. Adult Swim, meanwhile, claims to offer a “cultural festival like no other” because it integrates television show premieres, live gaming, and comedic performances. Additionally, many brands are increasingly leaning on musicians’ cache to build out their own. Run the Jewels will curate this year’s Adult Swim’s music lineup, while last year, the National curated one evening of Pitchfork’s Paris Music Festival.
Artist-curated festivals are equally invested in branding and city-growth goals, but their claim to offer attendees a more personalized experience—compared to the conglomerate nature of Coachella and others—is an interesting development on the festival circuit. In a statement on the High Water Festival, Shovels & Rope said, “This festival is a chance for us to have some fun and show people a good time in our own backyard, while also supporting the local businesses and nonprofits in our community.”
But aside from those metrics, there’s a deeper experience artists aim to offer fans, one conjoining their image, brand, and even industry friendships.
The lineup for High Water Festival reads like an extension of the kind of music Shovels & Rope might listen to in their downtime: Jason Isbell, Band of Horses, Brandi Carlile, Shakey Graves.
Tweedy’s Solid Sound festival, meanwhile, partners a strong music lineup with activities like yoga, theater, and even a scavenger hunt—lending a summer-camp feel to the whole affair.
And then there’s 30 Seconds to Mars’ actual summer camp, Camp Mars, which is less about a festival per se than it is a retreat for adults punctuated by two special performances from the band.
Eaux Claires perhaps embodies the artist-curated festival more than any other. Now entering its fourth year, the festival uses Vernon’s hometown setting of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, as a starting point to reimagine what a festival could be. During a Reddit AMA, Vernon said, “We are concentrating very hard on being different; not for being different sakes [sic], but trying to find out what only we can do.”
Eaux Claires continues to reconfigure itself each year, revealing how artist-curated festivals arguably have more flexibility. While they have investors and backers like any major-name festival, they are also driven by a vision that does not solely revolve around a bottom line. Each subsequent version of Eaux Claires has integrated feedback in an attempt to improve user experience.
This year, to offset the mushrooming number of attendees who seem to be there for reasons other than the music—a complaint Vernon articulated while playing with John Prine on Friday’s early-evening mainstage set in 2017—the festival has declined to announce its lineup. Eaux Claires has instead asked attendees to trust the creators.
“We’re excited about the names,” organizers said on Instagram. “But we’re gonna drib and drab it out, let it flow like smoke, because we want this festival to fly or fall on feel. It’s not about the bands, it’s about the collection of art and artists reacting with the collection of you.”
While some have bemoaned the risk of paying for something without fully grasping what they’ll receive, the festival has so far sold out of its Tier I and Tier II passes. (Worth noting: Newport Folk Festival famously sells out months before they announce a lineup, but they do eventually announce performers.)
Lineups are the lifeblood of any music festival, but Eaux Claires has been playing with what that needs to look like since the event began. In 2017, organizers cut in half the number of billed acts to augment the collaborative possibilities. “If you have 26 bands, that doesn’t mean you just get 26 performances,” Michael Brown, Eaux Claires’ creative director, told Billboard. Dessner explained in 2015, “I think some of our most favorite musical experiences have come out of these communal experiences with friends. Even from when we were kids, that was sort of the way we socialized, hanging out and playing music….So I think it’s just a natural extension of that.”
No matter what the schedule suggests, breakout jam sessions regularly take place across the festival’s grounds, and musicians often pop up during others’ sets in some special capacity. For example, in 2016, Jenny Lewis invited The Staves and Lucius—both on the bill—to sing with her. Whether songs or sets, such moments are exactly what modern-day music fans appreciate and seek to share across social platforms—playing into that notion of culture cache. When Chance the Rapper surprised festival-goers in 2016 by helping close out Francis and the Light’s set with Vernon on the final night—performing Francis’ single “Friends”—cell phones were raised and recording. Chance wasn’t on the lineup that year, so his presence imbued Eaux Claires with an almost Coachella-like feature moment.
Over at Coachella, special guest appearances during its headlining sets are a given. Beyoncé used her recent Saturday slot to bring out Jay-Z and reunite Destiny’s Child.
It was a singular performance sure to be talked about as part of the festival’s history (not least of which because she was the first black female entertainer to headline there).
Rather than the superstar glitz and glam of Coachella, Eaux Claires’ collaborations are far more intimate and feel closer to jam sessions than any major entertainment spectacle. As such, they reflect Bon Iver’s musical and personal branding, and become one asset in a larger portfolio that extends beyond album sales and streams.
In fact, collaborations—those special types of feature—help propel single sales and streams, so discovering a potential musical kinship on stage that can help drive a musician’s livelihood after festival season makes such moments all the more worthwhile.
The collaborations upon which Eaux Claires has built and staked its name extends beyond the weekend itself, creating a feedback loop that begins with the festival, reaches the recording studio, and inevitably makes its way back to the festival.
Nathaniel Rateliff recently featured Lucius on his song “Babe I Know” (off his new album Tearing at the Seams) after they crossed paths at Eaux Claires. Others, including Jenny Lewis, Sufjan Stevens, The Staves, and Chance have collaborated in similar ways after playing together at the festival.
Much in the way streaming has freed musicians from a strict album-release cycle by offering opportunities to drop projects beyond that timeline, the growth of festivals has opened the doors to new endeavors. Where musicians now curate playlists, plan pop-ups, and play one-off special concerts like anniversary shows or holiday-themed events, they can also build festivals in or near their hometowns, help invest in their community, and take greater control over what has, in many ways, become a cookie-cutter experience elsewhere.
But artist-curated festivals don’t necessarily offer a more authentic experience, and such talk should be curbed lest these events develop a false aura.
Anything operating on the margins of the mainstream shouldn’t register as innately more or less authentic. But there’s an undeniable sense of symbolic value that surrounds artist-curated festivals.
As more artists attempt such festivals—or at least curate them alongside a partnered brand—it remains to be seen how long they will remain as special as they now seem. But for the time being, they’re an interesting addition to how musicians are not only engaging and disseminating their personal brand, but also pushing back against the mainstream festival experience.
By Amanda Wicks, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.
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