Spotlight: FORM Arcosanti's Zach Tetreault on Creating the Anti-Festival 'For the Art and Beauty of It'

Tonje Thilesen 
Zach Tetreault 

"I don't think that you can find what we have here anywhere else."

As far as music festivals go these days, there seems to be a common sentiment that more is better. Whether that means expanding Coachella into two record-breaking back-to-back weekends; regions that brim with multiple FOMO-inducing music events each year; cruise ship extravaganzas sailing exotic Bahamian seas; or just stacks on stacks of talent scheduled for yet another local festival, there are a lot of reasons to feel like the U.S. market is at peak-level saturation. Yet within it all, over the past five years FORM Arcosanti has managed to build a reputation for itself as the "other," welcoming just 2,000 people annually to its event, which will be held this upcoming weekend for three days at a one-of-a-kind location in the Middle of Nowhere, Arizona.

"I don't think that you can find what we have here anywhere else," says co-founder Zach Tetreault. "I don't think you can go to any festival in the world and see the bands and the artists that you're seeing at FORM play in a 1,500-cap amphitheater on the edge of a cliff in the desert."

Tetreault is drummer for the band Hundred Waters, and the idea for FORM was born during his time touring in support of their 2012 self-titled debut album. He describes the group then as "the pinnacle support band for a lot of bigger acts," opening up for The xx, Alt-J, Julia Holter and Skrillex's Full Flex Express Train Tour with Diplo, Grimes and more, and he estimates his band played about 200 shows in the year following that release. Tetreault recalls the band feeling burned out around the time they were scheduled to perform at the Sasquatch! Music Festival in Washington near the end of their cycle and longing for the kinds of house parties and art shows they came up playing around Gainesville, Fla. "It had kind of gotten to a point where we had forgotten what it felt like to do a show just for the art and beauty of it," he says.

With that in mind, the band started looking into different locations around the country where they might be able to perform and regain some of that feeling, including various national parks and -- through a recommendation by a friend who studied architecture -- the experimental, self-contained town of Arcosanti in central Arizona, about an hour north of Phoenix. When the band moved from Florida to Los Angeles, they made a stop at Arcosanti along the way and Tetreault says they knew instantly it was exactly the sort of venue they had been seeking. 

In 1970, Italian architect Paolo Soleri, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, began construction on Arcosanti, founded on a concept of "arcology" that combines architecture and ecology to demonstrate how urban design principals can be applied with a low impact on nature. Tetreault says the small population of about 100 that lives there year-round welcomed his band into their home for a weekend and invited them to hold a concert in the town's existing amphitheater. "We really just felt the energy of this place and were blown away by how much infrastructure was already here and how beautiful and sort of utopic it is," he says. 

After that first event, Tetreault says, "It just felt so good" that he and his bandmates knew they had to "give it another go and expand on the idea." From there, they developed the concept of an annual festival and have been running with it since with a shared "harmony within the site and the festival ethos," he says. "We really work together and learned a lot from each other." Now Tetreault, who has an MBA from the University of Florida, works with a core team of about 10 people during the year that expands to 25 around the festival, in addition to dozens of volunteers who turn up to help make it happen. 

Of course planning a festival -- even a relatively small one -- in such a remote location is "riddled with difficulties," as Tetreault puts it. He says he arrives to the site a week and a half early, just to brace himself for the many challenges he will have to face producing the event. Along with seeing the festival through with nearly 50 performances this year by Beach House, Skrillex, Courtney Barnett and others, as well as a full schedule of talks, panels and other cultural programming, there is the challenge of preserving the location. Those efforts include everything from shuttling guest to the festival from an off-site parking lot to managing a "really refined" waste management system to just making sure guests don't trample all over the native environment. 

"All the bells and whistles and things that you want to do to make the experience good cost money and we have very little money to work with," says Tetreault. "And people will find anything to complain about, so we just have to address everything possible and get ahead of it and try to create the best possible experience for everyone with very little resources in a very difficult site.... On the surface things might look super smooth and polished and wonderful and like everything's running beautifully, but behind the scenes there's always someone freaking out."

One last minute change up that surely caused some freak outs was news announced Wednesday that headliner Chance the Rapper would not be performing Friday night due to "unforeseen scheduling conflicts." (Flying Lotus will instead fill in for him with his 3-D live show and the festival will still support Chance's SocialWorks philanthropy with a donation of all net profits.) Tetreault wrote in an email that they were "definitely disappointed" by Chance's cancelation, but emphasized that it would not determine the weekend's success. 

"FORM isn't and will never be about one artist," he said. "It's about a community that gathers out of mutual respect and admiration for art, culture and humanity. It's as much about the interaction you have with the person standing next to you during a workshop as it is the first and last artist who takes the stage. That's the message we want to get across, not who the biggest name we booked is. We hope to work with Chance in the future and we also can't wait to present Fly Lo's 3D show this weekend."

As recognition for FORM Arcosanti grows, the event is faced with its own limitations. With just 2,000 tickets at $350 for the three days, the profit margin is slim and Tetreault calls it a "massive jigsaw puzzle of budgeting." (He credits sponsors for helping make it happen, eschewing gaudy activations for what he calls more "organic and symbiotic" engagement.) And while Tetreault says they have looked into expanding the capacity, right now they're more focused on further refining the experience at Arcosanti and are creating new FORM festivals in other markets. (He says announcements on those will come later this year.) Still, unlike the larger festival budgets that largely support acts' summer touring, FORM relies heavily on good will to book its acts. As an artist himself, Tetreault understands the value of creating a positive experience for the talent and that has translated into a word-of-mouth recommendations within the music community. 

"Everyone is always blown away by the respect that they get from the audience," says Tetreault. "Even if we're talking about a show at 2 p.m. in the main amphitheater, you can hear a pin drop. There's no excuse in this environment to be disrespectful and the pure intention of this place reflecting that is very apparent to first-time artists that come here. The intimacy of this event and the intentionality of it is always the most surprising to people who are here for the first time, so I always get that from my fellow performers and friends who come that they're just so pleasantly surprised by the amount of love and respect that they get from the crowds."

SPOTLIGHT:

I've learned to step back and look at the bigger picture in what I'm doing. What makes it special. It's easy to convince yourself that you need to do things a certain way because that's how everyone else is doing them, but it's much more rewarding to take the difficult path.   

I knew I was committed to music when I sat down at a drum kit for the first time. the way it felt to intuitively and almost primitively express myself with no filter. It changed my life instantly and I knew music would always be a part of my life.

I never had a problem doing many things at once or working under pressure. I love multitasking and seeing things come to life after tons of hard work. That's probably why I enjoy putting the festival together and also why I'll usually tour manage for my band when we're out on the road.  

It's good to have the ability to put work aside and enjoy your life and be with your loved ones and be with yourself. That's maybe the biggest thing I've been working on this year and it's still proven to be the most difficult at times. Perhaps it was turning 30 and perhaps it was just realizing that I need make time for things that make me happy outside of work. 

I am learning to be patient. To talk less and listen more. Learn names. Treat people with respect. I've learned more in doing so than I could ever have imagined. 

Spotlight is a new Billboard.biz series that aims to highlight those in the music business making innovative or creative moves, or who are succeeding in behind-the-scenes or under-the-radar roles. For submissions for the series, please contact spotlight@billboard.com.