How Splash House's Tyler McLean Went From College Kid to Festival Founder
McLean reflects on his summer poolside affair's growth & its impact on his hometown of Palm Springs.
As kids and teens across the country begin their summer breaks, nearly 6,000 adults unleashed their proverbial inner-kid across the city of Palm Springs, California, for the fifth consecutive year of the biannual desert rager known as Splash House. Scantily clad partygoers, known as "Splashers," armed with oversize pool floaties, bottles of Jameson and a flirtatious eye, packed into hotel elevators Saturday and Sunday, June 10-11, and made their way down to the weekend's free shuttle service to be transported between the festival's three prominent resorts: The Saguaro, The Riviera and Renaissance Palm Springs, a 1,000-person capacity hotel added this year to adjust for exponential growth.
Highly touted billings included Thomas Jack, Tokimonsta, TroyBoi, Tensnake, Kidnap Kid, Nora En Pure, Anna Lunoe, Lane 8 and the fest's first-ever hip-hop act SuperDuperKyle. Capacity at each venue was a sure sign that the underground had certainly risen with overflowing dance floors at sets like Amtrac, Bonobo, Jackmaster and Sacha Robotti. And that's a great problem to have.
This mentality spilled into Splash House's after-hours parties on Friday and Saturday nights taking over the Palm Springs Air Museum hangar with nighttime headliners including G-house star Malaa, Dirtybird favorite J. Phlip, extraterrestrial Lee Foss and Los Angeles-based newcomer Fritz Carlton, whose charisma behind the decks and tastemaker music selection resonated as one of the most fulfilling sets of the weekend.
It was 3:30 p.m. Saturday in the piercing heat as the event's founder, Tyler McLean, looked out with a wide grin over a growing sea of ecstatic patrons from his hotel room balcony at what many refer to as the flagship property, The Saguaro. "This is nuts," McLean quips as one of his bucket-list bookings, disco don Greg Wilson, incites a throwback '80s groove. The crowd across all three pools ranged from frat bros to self-proclaimed techno snobs to bass headbangers, united under one mantra: let your freak flag fly. Between The Saguaro's polychromatic decor, painfully beautiful people and hedonistic vibe, it was as if Studio 54 and the film Project X had a debauched lovechild.
Finally able to reserve a bit of downtime to reflect on his fantastical oasis, McLean talked with Billboard Dance about how his brainchild's meteoric rise is raising the bar for Southern California's festival climate and the profitable impact it's having on his hometown of Palm Springs.
Congratulations on five years of Splash House. You're from Palm Springs, so how much hometown glory are you experiencing growing the Splash House brand into the giant it's become?
I've been putting on parties probably through grade school. Before it was any specific music or genre that people were feeling, it was just about throwing a party and the experience of bringing people in the doors and showing them a great time. As music tastes and all that grow, it all hit for me and I was like, "How about I just throw a party in my hometown with great music" -- this is during, like, peak Vegas, that whole big-room club scene -- and I thought, "Why not throw the opposite experience?" So far, I guess people are liking it.
How has the audience shifted from the first year to now?
You sort of see a lot of similar faces, but they're all growing older every year. They just keep coming back. They might be five years older, but they are also mature in a lot of other different ways. Just like us as a show have evolved and matured in new ways -- how we're booking, some of the styles of music, the aesthetics of the event. As the event goes on, it becomes more of a music-devoted crowd.
What separates Splash House from other Southern California festivals?
Well, it's kind of hard to do live bands by the pool, I'll tell you that. [Laughs] DJs definitely work. Just the setting of the desert and Palm Springs -- everywhere around you is palm trees and mountains -- there's certain styles of electronic music that just fit perfectly with the setting and atmosphere. It all fits and makes sense for me. When we're booking, we're always keeping that in mind like, "OK, what's the venue we're at? How does this work?" It's a boutique festival. It's a spin on your standard festival; you don't have the big field and port-o-potties on a plot of land the beer gardens -- it's not that model at all. It's taking luxury and diversity of having balconies in your room from where you can see all your favorite artists and then jump down anytime you want to. To have the luxury to book three hotels and bigger and bigger artists and more eclectic lineups than ever is such a treat. I feel like the luckiest guy in the world to throw a festival for a living -- it's so cool.
What adversity did you initially face from local authorities trying to put together Splash House? And how is your relationship with the city now?
I was just this college kid that came out and wanted to throw a big party, and they're like, "OK, who's this frat boy coming in and wants to throw spring break out here?" We bought out The Saguaro our first year, and it took that to convince them to let us do something here. Thankfully, we sold most of the rooms, and it worked out pretty well. After that first year or two, the city finally came around and said, "Oh my God, this event is actually bringing people to the desert in 110-degree heat." And they're having the best time! They're leaving the desert in summertime with huge smiles on their faces, so obviously we're doing something right here. It took a lot of convincing, but it all paid off.
Sunburns and smiles.
Sunburns and smiles, for sure!
Is it easier booking artists now with a successful turnout record?
In terms of booking now, artists trust our process. Of course we're going to have headliners, we're a festival, but to have the opportunity to now mix in some different sounds and just pure disco or deep [house] is just awesome.
Splash House is already two weekends every summer, once in June and the other in August, but any plans of expanding the brand to other similar cities?
I don't know. I definitely won't rule it out. There's a point where you just keep expanding or you're happy with what is here. If you keep expanding, it becomes less and less cool. I think we have to always keep that in mind. We have something so awesome here, and this year was such a huge expansion for us because we added the Renaissance -- 1,000 hotel rooms that we bought, which is like half of all full-service hotel rooms in Palm Springs, and they're all full. For right now, my focus is on improving the aesthetics and operations of the event as much as possible -- the look of it, the feel of it -- rather than try to add another weekend or city.
What additional aesthetic element was your favorite this year?
We've been trying really hard on honing in on how we make these stages special and fit this environment. Outside of just a truss box, with some palms, how can we mix it up? This venue [The Saguaro], we played with the surroundings and built a mid-century modern house for a stage. So we have a full-on butterfly roof, mid-century modern furniture, a chimney, a little mailbox. So it looks like the artist is playing from the back balcony of a house, just playing to a house party. This was a pet project of ours this year.
What's been your most memorable moment at Splash House? Do you take time to reflect on what you create?
I always go back to August 2015 where we had Flume. It was the first time we had an edge-to-edge full party, and everyone is losing their minds about this Flume set. I stepped out, looked over the balcony and was like, "Woah," and got some goosebumps. That was a special moment to see that. I mean, there's always wild stuff I see in the hallways and elevators, but I don't need to tell you that.
Tickets to the August 2017 edition of Splash House are available here.