Artist-run festivals offer big rewards and challenges

In mid-September, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals will take over Burlington, Vt.'s Waterfront Park for two days for the third annual Grand Point North Festival. Grand Point North is an artist-run festival, and from the start Potter herself has been involved in everything from the lineup to the logo.

"All the concepts of the whole festival--the compass with the wings logo, the name of the festival--that was all me, sitting at the drawing board into the wee hours of the morning," she says. Why do it? For the chance to not just curate a lineup, but create an environment for "our friends and fan community to experience music the way we feel it should be experienced."

The artist-run festival can be equally demanding and rewarding for acts that want the control and responsibility of creating their own event. Phish helped pioneer the genre on a major scale, beginning with 1996's Clifford Ball in Plattsburgh, N.Y. Today, annual artist-driven events include Zac Brown Band's Southern Ground Music & Food Festival, Mumford & Sons' Gentlemen of the Road Stopovers, Metallica's Orion Music + More, Wilco's Solid Sound Festival and the Roots Picnic.

Zac Brown Band's Southern Ground is a music and food festival entering its third year in Charleston, S.C., and second year in Nashville. (Ticket options last year included a four-course gourmet meal with seating onstage, just feet away from the acts.) ZBB manager Bernie Cahill's team at ROAR Management hopes to expand the festival into other markets in 2014, just as Potter--whose band performed at Southern Ground in Nashville last year--plans to eventually expand Grand Point North into other markets.

After two years, however, the two-day Grand Point North still hasn't turned a profit, Potter says. "Everything we were doing was really about building it, and recognizing that for the first couple of years we likely wouldn't earn much money at all."

"It would be a lot safer and, frankly, more lucrative for Grace to do her own show on the waterfront at a cheap ticket price and we'd pay her a bunch of money to play a traditional show," says Alex Crothers, whose Burlington-based company Higher Ground promotes and co-producers Grand Point North and Wilco's Solid Sound Festival in North Adams, Mass.

One of the upsides to artists running their own festival is being able to tap into revenue opportunities that wouldn't be accessible at other events, like concessions and parking. "The more of the ecosystem you can control, the more potential revenue streams that exist for the promoter and partners," Cahill says.

Similarly, with Mumford & Sons' upcoming Gentlemen of the Road Stopovers in the United Kingdom and North America, "we are pretty much able to control every aspect," the band's assistant manager Laura Taylor says, "from our ticket vendor and no booking fees to the food and drink concessions being top-notch and affordable."