Splash House, FORM Arcosanti and Other Boutique Festivals Prove Bigger Isn't Always Better

Gerry Maceda/Retna Ltd./Corbis
Moby performs at Splash House Palm Springs Pool Festival on June 14, 2014 held at Hard Rock Hotel In Palm Springs, California. 

In April, Diplo tweeted that "skipping Coachella is the new Coachella," and got thousands of social media high-fives in response. Among them was YouTube sensation Tyler Oakley who tweeted back, "literally me, let's hang out this weekend in L.A. instead."

As overstuffed mega-fests like Bonarroo and Las Vegas' Electric Daisy Carnival swarm with kids, peacocking bloggers and aggressive brands, there's a growing contingent of fans who yearn for simpler times. On the rise: such boutique festivals as Desert Hearts and Basilica Soundscape, which average around 3,000 attendees and offer intimate experiences and obscure lineups aimed an older, in-the-know crowd.

The concept isn't new -- California's fast-growing Lightning in a Bottle, which combines DJs and wellness lectures, and the artist-curated All Tomorrow's Parties festivals have been running for more than 10 years -- but it's gaining momentum. Some boutique festivals, like the Burning Man-inspired Further Future fest, which took place May 1-3 outside Las Vegas, are invite-only. Others, like the free Hundred Waters-curated event FORM Arcosanti, happening over Memorial Day weekend in the Arizona desert, required attendees to apply. Sustain-Release, held Sept. 11-13 near New York's Catskill Mountains, capped attendance at 500 people.

Not surprisingly, these exclusive happenings are attracting interest. Splash House, a bi-annual festival in Palm Springs, Calif., that throws pool parties with major DJs like Moby and Flume, has seen steady spikes in attendance at each event since its 2013 launch. Organizers expect 3,000 fans per day at this June's installment, up from 1,200 in 2014.

But the demand isn't just coming from fans. Splash House founder, Tyler McLean, 24, said it has become a boon for venues and artists. "It's street cred," McLean says. "My first year, I was begging agents to send me their artists. Now, everyone wants to be involved."

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Finding a revenue structure can be tough, but it's not unusual for artists to perform for significantly lower rates, from around $500 for emerging acts to $10,000 for mid-level bands. But what's lost in fees is often gained in bragging rights, and the opportunity for artists to return to a less familiar market. A Day in the Desert, for example, takes place in Joshua Tree on a stage carved out of hundred-foot boulders. "Artists hear that and go, 'where do I sign?' says Marisa Brickman, the event's organizer. "It's a great story." Similarly, Tim Gould, an agent for Clandestine Artists and the talent buyer for Desert Hearts, says that offering artists a unique experience can help keep booking fees low. "Some of these acts want to stay the whole weekend, get the whole experience, and they're often willing to take significantly lower fees because of it."

As the generations raised on Lollapalooza and Coachella age, it makes sense that a gentler breed of festival would arise. "Just because you can't go dance to techno for 15 hours doesn't mean you lose it completely," says James Barton, head of dance music for Live Nation. "There will be a market for festivals designed for the 31-year-olds, not just 21-year-olds."

A version of this story first appeared in the May 30 issue of Billboard.