Behind the Rise -- And Risks -- Of Artist-Driven Dance Music Festivals

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Jasmine Safaeian
Porter Robinson performs at Second Sky festival on June 15, 2019 in Oakland, Calif. 

Fans have never known Porter Robinson to cut corners, but his inaugural Second Sky Festival took perfectionism to a new peak. Staged on the June 15-16 weekend at Oakland’s Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, Second Sky was the realization of a years-long dream that began with Robinson’s 2014 album, Worlds.    

In the months of planning alongside festival giant Goldenvoice, Robinson obsessed over every detail. The star DJ/producer/musician handpicked the lineup, penning heartfelt rationales on Instagram for each booking. He arranged a running order for the single stage, scheduling his own set as Virtual Self at noon so fans would arrive early. He ensured each artist had access to a vast LED wall and lighting rig. He oversaw the creation of interactive art pieces that brought the Worlds album imagery to life on-site and tinkered with graphics so the website background moved just right. He even selected the food vendors, working with his illustrator to theme each one for the weekend, and consulted on the backstage catering.   

“This was as detailed and deep as a curated event can get,” says Danny Bell, Goldenvoice’s senior talent buyer.   

While Porter Robinson’s attention to detail is rare, artist-curated festivals are multiplying across the U.S. Following the 2018 debuts of the Gorillaz’ Demon Dayz Festival and Post Malone’s Posty Fest, this year’s newcomers include Pharrell’s Something In The Water, H.E.R.’s Lights On and J. Cole’s Dreamville Festival.     

In dance music, the trend has its own idiosyncrasies. It’s common for DJ/producers to curate a stage at a festival, or headline a themed event with a handful of like-minded acts. Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre is a hotspot for this model, hosting the likes of Rezz Rocks and Big Gigantic’s Rowdytown against an Insta-ready backdrop.   

Pulling off a festival, though, requires certain star power and a willing audience. By assuming full creative control, an artist takes on real risk: Fans won over by the intimate magic of music now expect a flawless day out, with all its in-built unknowns. But the dance artists succeeding in this space are offering fans singular experiences and departures from standard-issue dance mega-festivals.

For every success story, there’s a flipside. Excision’s bass-worshipping marathon Lost Lands returns to Ohio this September for its third year, but that’s a rare run -- Disclosure’s U.K. festival Wild Life went three years, but hasn’t returned after its 2018 "hiatus." This March, Bassnectar staged his first Deja Voom festival in Mexico’s Riviera Maya, while Above & Beyond cancelled its Anjunabeach event in the same location after fans protested the high cost. (One possible explanation is that while both trance and bass music inspire loyal followings, bass heads are accustomed to splurging on destination weekenders like Electric Forest and The Disco Biscuits’ Camp Bisco.) Meanwhile on June 25, Kaskade announced the cancellation of his Sun Soaked Festival, which had been set to launch its third year on July 13-14 in Long Beach, Calif. 

Robinson and Goldenvoice went into Second Sky knowing the stakes. The producer cites Coachella as his favorite festival, which set the bar high. (Goldenvoice is also behind Tyler, the Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival, launched in 2012 and arguably the strongest artist-curated festival on the market.) “It’s so risky and I was definitely anxious,” Robinson tells Billboard over email. “There’s so many things that can go wrong - and if I’m merely playing and not hosting a festival, none of those things reflect on me.”

Robinson had planned a 15,000-person single-day festival, but added a second show after the first sold out in seconds. “Porter has created a rabid fan base because it’s rewarding being one of his fans,” says Bell. Second Sky festival director Kyle Casey adds, “His fans interact on the Internet all the time, whether it’s on Instagram, or Reddit or any number of channels. This is a real, visceral experience for his community.”

For potential ticket buyers, that "community" aspect gives artist-curated festivals a unique edge. Fans are more likely to trust an event if they know what to expect, both musically and in the crowd and ambience. The chance to spend an IRL weekend with like-minded believers can be a potent selling point.

Like Bassnectar, Seattle electronic outfit Odesza targeted Mexico’s Riviera Maya for its first Sundara Festival in March. They partnered with CID Presents, whose usual clients include Phish, Luke Bryan and Dave Matthews. “CID had never really done the electronic side before,” says Odesza’s Clayton Knight. “It was new territory for both of us.” Packages began at $1,000, which increased the pressure to deliver. “Sticker shock is very real, and an all-inclusive resort can be daunting,” adds Knight. “We had to make sure the value was there."

They created this value by making the small Sundara lineup, which included RL Grime, Alison Wonderland, Tokimonsta and Bob Moses, stretch across three days by asking each act to perform two unique sets -- thus offering fans unique sonic experiences unlikely to happen at any other festivals. (Odesza did three, including a yoga DJ session.) The overall experience, from food options to transportation, mattered more than marquee acts.

“You can have the best lineup in the world," Knight says, "but it doesn’t matter if no one can get in and out.”

Odesza started considering their own festival after their first Holy Ship! voyage in 2015. The cult cruise, started by Gary Richards (a.k.a. Destructo) in 2012, is dance music’s O.G. artist-run festival. (For Richards, the precedent was set by Perry Farrell’s early Lollapalooza bookings: “You’d have Ice-T and Nine Inch Nails on the lineup -- you could tell there was someone with heart behind it.") While Holy Ship! is coming ashore in 2020, with the Dominican Republic resort-based Holy Ship! Wrecked, its creator is no longer on board. In his new role as president of LiveStyle North America, Richards now curates the competing FriendShip cruise and the All My Friends Festival in downtown LA.

Unlike other artist-curated festivals, Destructo’s profile grew in step with his events. As his HARD events increased in size and popularity, in time fans were waving signs and wearing t-shirts with the slogan "In Gary We Trust." “It probably started on those first cruises,” says Richards. “I remember seeing people with my face as a fathead. A lot of people learned about new artists through the cruise, and I haven’t steered them wrong yet.”

While many artists dream of assembling their own lineup, Richards warns it’s tricky to make a wish-list real. “Competition is way, way more intense than it’s ever been,” he says. “Now everyone’s got a four-year plan, and I’m just trying to throw the party. It’s big business. Some of my old friends are too expensive,” he laughs.

But pre-existing relationships arguably do help. Porter Robinson called on high-profile friends like Madeon and Cashmere Cat for Second Sky -- not to mention a surprise Skrillex set on day two -- while also using his platform to showcase emerging artists Kero Kero Bonito and Anamanaguchi. “Not many algorithms would recommend Anamanaguchi to Porter fans,” Robinson reasons, “But there’s so much shared DNA between the two projects, and I just know Porter fans would love them.” Like Destructo, Robinson has earned the full trust of his devotees, who’ll gladly follow him to new musical discoveries.

Australian DJ and label boss Nina Las Vegas, who played both days of Second Sky, found the experience of an artist-curated festival liberating. “I can play whatever the fuck I want -- the weirder the better,” she says. “You need to have a fan base that wants to take risks with you. Porter is a rare player in this game for that reason.”

While behemoths like EDC, Ultra and Coachella still dominate the U.S. dance festival market, artist-curated festivals represent a meaningful shift. “The established festivals are solid as can be,” Richards says. “For new ones popping up, I think the question is always: does this festival have a point of view, and does it make sense?"

Multi-stage extravaganzas can be impressive but impersonal, requiring talent play for a too-brief hour on a massive lineup offering something for everyone. But with total control of the experience, artists can forge a deeper connection -- as Odesza’s Knight says of Sundara, “We wanted to give fans as much Odesza time as possible.” (Or, in the ever-tactful typings of Deadmau5: “Here are my options, go play EDC with every fucking DJ in the world, or corner my own fucking market.”) Most acts also prefer using their social media to boost something they really believe in over a mega-promoter’s bottom line.

“Boutique festivals are the new normal,” says Matt Colon, Steve Aoki’s longtime manager and YMU’s U.S. music director. “It’s happening in nearly every entertainment form -- gone are the days of 100 million people watching M*A*S*H.” But, as Colon emphasizes, not every DJ/producer with a decent following can pull it off. “You need to be doing [a curated festival] for more than the money,“ he says. “If it goes poorly, it can be a very public failure. Done right, though, it deepens the relationship with fans in a way no singular concert can match.”

“The risk is not having a clear vision,” echoes Bell. “Porter went into this thing knowing exactly what he wanted.”

For the artists gambling their reputation, the measure of success is personal. “If your fans are happy and you break even, that should be considered a success,” Colon says. Odesza’s goal was no attendee going home feeling their vacation money was wasted. For Porter Robinson, it was seeing his dream made real.

After playing out the final piano notes of his Worlds setlist at Second Sky, the headliner took the mic. “The point of this thing is to share my favorite music,” he said, leading the 15,000-strong crowd in a cheer for each act. As he left the stage, the LED wall beamed a crystal-clear promise that is arguably the goal for every dance artist launching their own event: "See You Next Year!"

Festivals 2019