Isle of Light Fest Brings Cutting-Edge Bands to Dominican Republic

Hilda Pellerano

Twin Shadow perform during the 2014 Isle of Light Festival.

The festival, which features Haim and Run the Jewels, aims to be a cultural exchange between the U.S. and Dominican Republic.

Right when the music festival market seems to have reached its saturation point, a new event crops up that offers something new. Such is the case with Isle of Light, an intimate single-day festival in the Dominican Republic that is curated more like a SXSW showcase than a party in the Caribbean.

The boutique festival's second installment is this weekend, and will see Run the Jewels, Chromeo, Soul Clap and around 5,000 fans descend on a harborside field in Santo Domingo. The pre-party, which takes place at a club downtown, features DJ sets by Haim's Danielle Haim and Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig. Last year's event sold 3,000 tickets and featured Twin Shadow and The Juan MacLean

"Our target audience is recent college grads who are, frankly, music connoisseurs," said Luis Betances, who founded the festival last year with No Shame Records' Marco Vicini, Phil Hoelting and Morgan Lebus. They estimate that 80 percent of their audience is locals, and 20 percent come from the United States. 

Billboard spoke with Betances -- who does A&R for No Shame and is based in the Dominican Republic -- about the event's beginnings, and what it's like to launch a boutique festival when global gatherings like Coachella and Lollapalooza are king. 

Why the Dominican Republic?

Two years ago, No Shame wanted to do a showcase to record live performances. We did it in the Dominican Republic because this is where the label's owner is originally from. It went so well -- something like 1,500 people showed up even though it was invite-only -- that sponsors started asking us when we'd do another one. 

Some might call your lineup 'hipster.' How does it come together? 

We look for acts that wouldn't normally play in the Dominican Republic, like American pop festival acts, and local acts that we think will translate. It's a culture exchange, which makes sense for Santo Domingo because the city has so much history. It's huge for locals because there's a clientele here whose musical tastes aren't being catered to. We have big pop festivals, and EDM has become a bit of a craze here, but there aren't really any rock or indie events. We wanted to make one. Chromeo was a no-brainer. They've been all over the radio here, and the Dominican Republic has a huge electronic music community, so they ticked all the boxes. And Run the Jewels was a later addition when Warpaint pulled out, but man, it worked out so beautifully. To involve hip-hop in this cutting-edge way was a perfect fit. 

What's with the lack of rock festivals in the Dominican Republic? 

For years, the bands that toured here were kind of recycled or past their prime, like Journey and Toto and Air Supply in the late '90s. We were a decade-and-a-half behind. But with the internet, people have more access to new music. They're not just fed everything by the radio or MTV -- they're more free to develop their own tastes. 

How is it different marketing a festival in the Dominican Republic as opposed to in the U.S.? 

Pre-sale is slow in this country, and that probably makes our American partners nervous. But it's not unusual. People here buy physical tickets rather than buying them online because they don't always feel it's safe to put their credit cards on a website. So a week before last year's event, we had sold maybe 500 tickets. But by the day of, we'd sold 3,000.

What are the biggest challenges facing a new festival?

Promotion, and that's because the event is not 100 percent proven yet. It's still building. Plus, we're small so we don't pay the kind of fees that larger festivals pay, so at the end of the day the bands are taking a gamble. One thing we offer is a weeklong vacation after the festival so the bands can hang out and get to know the country. 

Who is your target fan and where are they coming from? 

Our audience is students and recent college graduates who are, frankly, connoisseurs of music. For example, last year we invited WhoMadeWho, a band from Denmark who've made, like, eight amazing records. SXSW gave them a lot of buzz a couple years ago, and when I turned Chromeo's tour manager onto them, he was blown away. So for us it's not necessarily about having the biggest names, but about offering proper music that you know will deliver.

Courtesy Photo
Phil Hoelting, Luis Betances, Marco Vicini and Morgan Lebus.