Brandi Carlile

What Does It Mean to Be an Independent Festival in 2019?

Brandi Carlile, Whitney, Taking Back Sunday and more discuss how certain indie festivals have found success in a system commanded by mega-companies.

Independent festivals are becoming more vital by the day.

Live Nation, the world's largest presenter of live music, dominates the American festival space. Five years ago, it purchased a controlling stake in C3 Presents, the producer of major festivals like Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, and at the time, the largest independent company in the industry. Earlier this week, Live Nation bought out Superfly's remaining minority share of Bonnaroo, effectively ending the indie organizer's role in the festival it helped found. Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) often goes head-to-head with Live Nation, boasting a formidable festival portfolio including Coachella, Firefly, and New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest. When some called for Coachella boycotts upon hearing of Philip Anschutz's history of donations to highly conservative organizations, that idea quickly became untenable under the shear breadth of live music controlled by AEG.

Autonomy is important; quality can truly set a festival apart. Today, indies deliver some of the industry's most uniquely curated festivals, untethered to the something-for-everyone demands of big ticket promoters, free to dive into less commercial sounds and scenes. "So many festivals now have indistinguishable lineups," says Brandon Stosuy, co-presenter of the Hudson, N.Y.-based festival Basilica Soundscape. "Some of these festivals just feel like pop-ups for corporations; they don’t feel like music festivals. I think the ones that don’t feel like that are the ones that are interesting."

We profiled eight notable indies -- with no formal ties to Live Nation or AEG -- all of which offer fascinating insight into 2019's festival season. Some helped build the festival industry a half-century ago; some cater to devotees of niche genres; some are spinoffs of music publications; some avoid major corporate sponsors. All are organized around important cultural communities.

"Indies create community," says Mike Petryshyn, owner of Riot Fest Music Co. and co-founder of the Chicago punk institution. "If an indie festival loses that, they lose their purpose."


When: Aug. 24-25
Where: Commodore Barry Park in Brooklyn
Headliners: Jill Scott, FKA Twigs, Kamasi Washington
Single-Day Ticket: $50-$70 (depending on purchase date)
Weekend Pass: $130
Producer: Afropunk
Held since: 2005

Every summer for the past decade-and-a-half, boundary-pushing black music has convened in Brooklyn to rock out at Afropunk. Now a multi-pronged media company, Afropunk was born out of a titular 2003 doc by co-founder James Spooner, which championed black youth within the predominantly white punk subculture. By 2017, the fest had spread to Paris, Atlanta, London, and Johannesburg, though the home base of Brooklyn remains its epicenter. While Afropunk has faced abuse allegations and leadership turnover in recent years, the quality of its lineup has remained impressive. And good luck finding another festival so celebrated for its attendees' sense of style.

Quintessential Performance: In her return to Afropunk Brooklyn last year, Janelle Monáe was unstoppable.

Further Listening: Atlanta's ONE Musicfest is celebrating its 10th anniversary (Sept. 7-8) with headliners Gucci Mane and Rae Sremmurd, along with a Three 6 Mafia reunion and a Kawan Prather-led superjam featuring Pharrell Williams and Usher.


When: Sept. 13-15
Where: Basilica Hudson in Hudson, NY
Lineup Includes: Low, Waxahatchee, The Body
Single-Day Ticket: $45
Weekend Pass: $80
Producers: Basilica Hudson, The Creative Independent
Held since: 2012

Thrown in a cavernous, near-150-year old reclaimed factory, Basilica's every note of drone, noise, industrial and otherwise experimental music seems to resonate forever. The nonprofit, solar-powered arts center has played host to the likes of Deafheaven, Explosions In the Sky and serpentwithfeet over the years, alongside boundary-pushing art installations, and in between sets, readings from like-minded writers and poets. Fans could be watching a sitar and tabla performance one moment, then taking in searing black metal the next. There are no corporate sponsors, and all the (very good) food comes from local vendors around the cozy, riverside city.

Samantha Marble
Zola Jesus performing at Basilica Soundscape in 2017.

Artist Testimonial: "So many festivals these days are catered around sponsors, catered around numbers; the acts are just things to put on a flyer that will bring people to spend money on beer," says Zola Jesus, who got a very different experience playing Basilica in 2017. "There’s not really a backstage, you’re just hanging out with everybody, so it’s a very communal feeling," she says. "It’s one of the last few bastions of purity in the music industry."

Zola Jesus describes the Basilica crowd as "patient listeners, open-minded people who like to be challenged musically." After playing in 2015, HEALTH frontman Jake Duzsik remarked, "I never saw so many tasteful tattoos."

Further Listening: Outsider audiophiles should also consider Big Ears Festival, which showcases pop, folk, electronic and modern classical music in spacious venues throughout Knoxville, Tenn. The 2019 edition already took place in March, but signs point to the fest's 12th run arriving next year.


When: July 4-7
Where: Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana
Headliners: Missy Elliott, Mary J. Blige, Maze featuring Frankie Beverly
Single-Day Ticket: starting at $87
Producer: Essence Communications Inc.
Held since: 1995

Aguably America's top destination for R&B, Essence is one of several examples of enduring indie fests modeled after publications. Conceived to mark the 25th anniversary of the black women's lifestyle mag Essence, the festival has become such a NOLA insitution that it's now celebrating its own 25th. You'll scarcely find a year where Mary J. Blige or Jill Scott haven't graced the main stage, while Prince, Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, and Kendrick Lamar have also headlined the massive football stadium over the years. Aside from the music lineup, 2019 features a keynote speech from Michelle Obama, alongside the fest's usual emphasis on lifestyle touchstones like business, beauty, cuisine, and social justice through its vendors, panels, and exhibitions. Production is handled in-house by Essence Communications Inc., which is owned by Essence Ventures.

Quintessential Performance: With the Roots, Erykah Badu and Scott all on the Essence Fest bill last year, they combined forces to perform the Grammy-winning Things Fall Apart classic "You Got Me."


When: Sept. 27-29
Where: Monterey Fairgrounds in Monterey, Cali.
Lineup Includes: Diana Krall, Chris Botti, Snarky Puppy
Single-Day Ticket: $45-$65 (depending on day), $20 for youth, students, and military
Weekend Pass: $155 for adults, $55 for youth, students, and military
Producer: Monterey Jazz Festival
Held since: 1958

One of the oldest festivals in America, Monterey Jazz has hosted legends like Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Cannonball Adderley and Dizzy Gillespie. An early guiding principle was gathering the world's top jazz talent in one place to see what one-of-a-kind collaboration would ensue, and with over 500 artists each year over the 20-acre fairgrounds, Monterey Jazz remains a spectacle. It's also been a nonprofit since the very beginning, and invests heavily in jazz education.

Jim Stone
Christian McBride performs during the 2014 Monterey Jazz Festival.

Artist Testimonial: Since 1994, Monterey Jazz has selected a commission artist to compose a new project specifically for the weekend. This year it's six-time Grammy winner Christian McBride. He's planning a tribute with his big band to the late jazz trumpeter Roy Anthony Hargrove titled Roy Anthony: The Fearless One. "[He] was not only a personal friend and cohort of mine for over 30 years, but one of the most important musicians and bandleaders of the modern jazz era," McBride says. "[There's] a long list of great composers that have been commission artists in the past, so I’m deeply humbled to be one." Additionally, McBride is being honored as the fest's 2019 showcase artist, for which he'll perform numerous times across the weekend, showcasing different areas of expertise.

Further Listening: On the opposite coast, McBride is also serving as artistic director of Newport Jazz Festival. It's set for Aug. 2-4, with Herbie Hancock, Common, Kamasi Washington and Thundercat leading its lineup. Held annually since 1954, it has long been the model for the modern music festival. Which brings us to...


When: July 26-28
Where: Fort Adams State Park in Newport, RI
Lineup Includes: Kacey Musgraves, Sheryl Crow, Maggie Rogers
Single-Day Ticket: $90
Weekend Pass: $210
Producer: Newport Festivals Foundation, Inc.
Held since: 1959

Entering its seventh decade, Newport Folk is an American insitution -- its history synonymous with the '60s folk revival, civil rights movement, and Bob Dylan's famous electric set. Two 21st-century developments define the fest today: in 2008, founder George Wein entrusting new executive producer Jay Sweet to infuse its lineup with the burgeoning indie folk movement in and three years later, its profile raised by modern acts like the Decemberists and Avett Brothers, transitioning to nonprofit status. Today, every artist is given a budget to make a charitable donation to a music program of their choice.

Artist Testimonial: "Before we even had a song, when it was just a concept, I knew Newport Folk was the right place to debut the Highwomen," says Brandi Carlile. A veteran of four Newport Folk lineups, Carlile and the new country-folk supergroup -- which also includes Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby -- hand-picked the Rhode Island festival for their first proper set before their lineup was even solidified. "[We're a] classic country band we put together to elevate the conversation about women in rural American music," Carlile says. "Newport was 50-50, playing men and women before that was even talked about. I always knew it was a place I could play new music and have a shot at equal status as a headliner."

Carlile connected with Wein for the first time last year -- "I knew I was meeting a rock star," she remembers -- and has come to love the environment that Sweet nurtures amongst Newport Folk artists. "Last year I didn't leave the festival until 3:30 am -- I got in so much trouble with my wife," she laughs. "I got on a boat and went to the end of town with Jay. We went to an aftershow and then to a bar where Deer Tick was playing. To my amazement, everyone was still there: Lucius, Leon [Bridges]. We got up and sang with Deer Tick -- this crazy, punk rock karaoke vibe."

Further Listening: Although this list is U.S.-centric, Carlile is also keen on Canada's Edmonton Folk Music Festival. Set for Aug. 8-11, the fest's 40th run features Carlile alongside kindred spirits like Jason Isbell and Hozier.


When: July 19-21
Where: Union Park in Chicago, Illinois
Headliners: Haim, Isley Brothers, Robyn
Single-Day Ticket: $75-$95 (depending on purchase date)
Weekend Pass: $150-$200 (depending on purchase date)
Producers: Pluto LTD and Pitchfork
Held since: 2006

Built in the image of the critical pub that's shaped many a music taste this generation, the Chicago edition of Pitchfork Fest (a smaller offshoot in Paris has been held annually since 2011) continuously books genre-hopping lineups that look outside the conventions of today's mainstream festivals. Virtually every left-of-center rapper, rock band, pop artist, or noisy experimentalist playing has been championed by the site's review section. As Pitchfork's editorial purview expanded from predominantly indie rock in the late 2000s, so have the festival's bookings: this year features a particularly only-at-Pitchfork trio of headliners and across the lineup, more than half of the performers are women. They've been trendsetters on the shopping front, too: record sales and gig poster sales -- increasingly common at festivals in recent years -- have been staples at Pitchfork since its early days.

Artist Testimonial: As Sunday evening's third-highest billed artist, the falsetto-friendly folk-rock duo Whitney is set to give tracks from its forthcoming sophomore LP Forever Turned Around (out Aug. 30 on Secretly Canadian) their live debuts in front of a hometown crowd. "They do an amazing job of taking the temperature of Chicago," says vocalist-drummer Julien Ehrlich, pointing out their tradition of handpicking exciting locals before most of the industry has caught on. "This year it's [R&B/pop artist] Tasha -- she's blowing up," guitarist Max Kakacek says. "They must’ve given her that spot a while back, focusing on Chicago musicians who are just getting out there." Past local alumni include Jamila Woods in 2017, and in 2010, Smith Westerns, the garage rock band Ehrlich and Kakacek got their start in.

Further Listening: Set for June 28-30 in western Massachusetts, Wilco's Solid Sound Festival features two sets from Jeff Tweedy and company, along with Courtney Barnett, the Feelies, and plenty more indie rock deep cuts.


When: Sept. 13-15
Where: Douglas Park in Chicago, Illinois
Headliners: Blink-182, Slayer, Bikini Kill
Weekend Pass: starting at $129.98 (depending on purchase date)
Producer: Riot Fest Music Co.
Held since: 2005 (Initially held across several clubs, moved outdoors in 2012)

Many who grew up going to the Warped Tour every summer graduated to Chicago's Riot Fest every September. Specializing in all things punk and punk-adjacent (Run the Jewels and Nine Inch Nails have headlined in recent years), Riot Fest carved out its niche as a reunions specialist, booking the Replacements for a trio of 2013 comeback shows (weekends in Denver and Toronto were also held then), the classic lineup of the Misfits for its first show in 33 years in 2016, and a year later, Jawbreaker for its first major performance since 1996.

Artist Testimonial: With the exception of 2016, emo standbys Taking Back Sunday have played Riot Fest every year since 2013. "We started out with Victory Records based out of Chicago, so we built a fanbase up there," says vocalist-guitarist John Nolan. "It’s always been a second home-type show." This year, the Long Island-bred band is participating in another Riot Fest tradition: playing classic albums in full. TBS has 2002's Tell All Your Friends and 2006's Louder Now in tow, while Nolan is looking forward to seeing the Flaming Lips perform their 2002 landmark, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.

Quintessential Performance: A Jawbreaker reunion seemed improbable through most of the 2000s until Riot Fest brought the punk legends back together. Here's the magic moment that opened their set:

Further Listening: Now in its 18th year, The Fest is a punk insitution, booking hundreds of bands across 18 venues in Gainesville, Fla. This year's Fest, set for Nov. 1-3, includes Jawbreaker, Less Than Jake, Joyce Manor and the recently-reunited Jawbox.


When: July 26-28
Where: Franklin Music Hall in Philadelphia
Headliners: Code Orange, Saves the Day, Gorilla Biscuits
Single-Day Ticket: $39.50
Weekend Pass: $99-$109
Producer: Joe "Joe Hardcore" McKay
Held since: 2006

Punk's heavier side has long enjoyed a stronghold in the American northeast, where the demise of the festival Hellfest -- a scene staple for nearly a decade -- left a void during the mid 2000s. Into its place stepped Joe McKay (better known as Joe Hardcore), a Philadelphia-based union cement mason and hardcore devotee who parlayed his love of the music into a new festival. Alongside a small crew of collaborators, he still oversees nearly aspect of This Is Hardcore himself, spending nights and weekends throughout the year booking its lineup.

Artist Testimonial: This year marks the 7th TIHC appearance for new gen hardcore warriors Code Orange. "The first year [2012], we played first and we were more ecstatic about that than anything up to that point," drummer-vocalist Jami Morgan remembers. Now first-time headliners with a Grammy nomination under its belt, Code Orange appreciates Joe Hardcore's passion even more. "He’s a construction worker waking up at 4:00 am every single day and he finds time to do this," Morgan says. "He really does not gain anything from it. There have been many years where he’s had to take losses on it and it’s been hard for him, depending on where the scene is at."

One area where TIHC lags behind other festivals is gender parity, as the Instagram account Book More Womxn points out. Code Orange guitarist-vocalist Reba Meyers sees it as more of a deep-seated issue across hardcore than an indictment of the festival specifically. "Until the state of local hardcore scenes are more equally represented by females as they are by males, the fest can’t be, either," she says. "Local hardcore scenes need to fully encourage young women to join bands and make them feel comfortable being in that environment. Once those real changes are made, more diverse young bands will blaze forward and the rest should happen naturally."

Quintessential Performance: For years, filmmaker Sunny Singh's hate5six has been an online goldmine for raucous, well-edited videos of hardcore performances; naturally, he's documented TIHC frequently. "A lot of times, it's the springboard to your popularity," says Morgan, who points to Turnstile and Power Trip as fellow bands who have benefited from the platform. Above, find Code Orange's 2017 TIHC set, captured by Singh in all its barricade-free mayhem.