The new partnership Knitting Factory has forged with Spaceland Presents and Moon Block to present the fifth annual Desert Daze psychedelic rock festival in Joshua Tree, California, marks a new phase for the company, as the multi-faceted indie firm ventures into the festival game for the first time in its 29-year history.
Among the acts announced so far for this year’s Desert Daze, set for Oct. 14-16 at the Institute of Mentalphysics, are Suicide, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, the Sonics and Deerhunter. The expansive 420-acre site is unique among festival settings.
The Desert Daze partnership is the latest in a series of notable moves in the past few years for Knitting Factory Entertainment, which has seen the company expand beyond venues and live entertainment into record labels, management, bars and restaurants, and media and marketing. “We’ve always been known for being a very curated, creative, down-to-earth promoter, honest and reliable, and the next step or phase for us is to get into the festival game,” says KFE CEO Morgan Margolis. “It’s one place we haven’t really played with.”
The combined resources, relationships and buying power of the three Desert Daze partners enables a significant expansion of this niche indie-music festival, which grows from one day to three, across multiple stages at the Institute of Mentalphysics and Joshua Tree Retreat Center. Last year’s festival took place just north of the Salton Sea in Mecca, California, and featured headliners Warpaint, Failure, Minus the Bear and RJD2, along with 40 other acts.
Now Knitting Factory can add festivals to its growing portfolio. “For the longest time, I have been trying — like everybody else, I’m sure — to put my finger on launching the right festival,” Margolis tells Billboard. “We do a bucketload of outdoor shows, 20 to 25 this summer from Idaho to Chicago, but we’ve never done a Knitting Factory partnership on a festival.”
Desert Daze is the brainchild of Moon Block’s Phil Pirrone, whose team includes his wife, Julie Edwards Pirrone, half of the rock duo Deap Vally. Margolis says Mitchell Frank, president of Spaceland Presents, Knitting Factory’s partner in the downtown L.A. concert venue the Regent, brought him the idea of partnering on Desert Daze. “It seemed kind of in our wheelhouse and the right moment to expand this from a one-day into a three-day event,” he says, adding that Knitting Factory’s role in the partnership is primarily supporting “Phil’s creative dream.”
“Obviously, the purse strings are there, so we can help grow the festival and back him on that front,” Margolis says, “but also provide support in every area where he might need help, whether it be talent buying, production, operations, ticketing or on-the-ground personnel.”
Margolis describes Desert Daze as a “curated, very focused festival,” and, despite the expanded grounds, capacity will be kept “manageable” at about 7,000 to 10,000 projected attendance this year. “We’re not trying to commercialize it and turn it into something giant,” he says. “Right now I can say that; who knows what will happen in five years? But I think that Phil has done a tremendous job in keeping it under control and a really ‘DIY’ fest. I don’t want to step on that. We’re not a big corporate giant, that’s not what the company is. We just want it to kind of be organic.”
The site itself should be a draw. Established in 1941 by British writer, mystic and teacher Edwin Dingle — known as Ding Lee Mei to his followers — the Center for Mentalphysics occupies 420 acres of pristine desert land in Joshua Tree. The center’s numerous teaching facilities, cottages, pools and ponds are used today not only by students of Mentalphysics, but by retreat groups seeking a desert getaway.
“It’s a pretty trippy place,” says Margolis. “I would love to go back in time and see what that crowd was like back in the ’40s and ’50s, hanging out at the Mentalphysics institution in Joshua Tree. It’s a gem.”
The challenge now, Margolis says, is finding the balance between compelling talent and strong production values and financial discipline.
“When you go to the agents and say the word ‘festival,’ the numbers start to jump, so what we pay for a one-day event compared to a festival and three days becomes a much higher number for us,” Margolis explains. “It’s all about trying to keep it manageable, keep our costs down and keep our production budget healthy. We’re very much about keeping the sound systems, the production value and how the bands are treated at a top level.”
One eyebrow-raising aspect for Desert Daze is the festival’s timing and location; Desert Trip, the Goldenvoice-produced mega-event featuring the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Roger Waters, The Who and others, is also taking place in the Southern California desert the same weekend (and the previous one), a fact Margolis is “quite aware” of, he says. “We’re a different vibe, a really different show. I don’t think we’re in any way popping that old-school heritage rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a different world.”
The move into the Desert Daze partnership raises KFE’s profile at a time when independent promoters are an increasingly rare breed. KFE now operates three Knitting Factory concert houses and books talent for a multitude of non-operated venues and events across the country. The firm has designed, built, staffed and continues to run three Federal bar and restaurant entertainment complexes over the past five years. Other KFE ventures include Knitting Factory Records and Partisan Records; artist management in Knitting Factory Management and a strategic partnership with the Van Johnson Company; and multiple alignments and ownership stakes in other marketing and media enterprises, including Step Marketing and Media, the Connect Group, Liberal Arts House PR and the Talkhouse.
Music remains at the heart of the KFE brand. “I want to be known as one of the prominent promoters out there. I want us to be a go-to promoter,” Margolis says, adding that Desert Daze “fits into the mold of what we’re doing.”
Bu so does a brewery, given that KFE has been in the food and beverage business for many years now with its Federal bars. Margolis says a brewery is indeed “on our docket.” That said, the CEO is cautious of over-extending by having too many irons in the fire “We expanded very rapidly in some areas, and we felt some pain points on that and had to pull back a bit,” he says. “We’re looking for the right partners. I love that [Desert Daze] is very much Spaceland, Moon Block and Knitting Factory. It’s not as daunting as it would be if we were taking the whole thing on ourselves. And I think there will be more partnerships as we grow.”
As for what’s next at KFE, Margolis says it depends on what opportunities present themselves. “We have a very specific strategic plan,” he says, “but sometimes we’ll shift if something exciting comes at us. I wasn’t looking for Desert Daze, it came at me, and I was like, ‘Wow, that looks really interesting and cool, and something I’d want to check out myself.'”
Desert Daze lineup (talent to be added):
The Brian Jonestown Massacre
The Black Angels Performing Passover In Its Entirety
Keynote Address By Andrew W.K.
Closing Ceremonies With Saul Williams
Thee Oh Sees
Here We Go Magic
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down
Fat White Family • Meatbodies • Deap Vally • Deakin (Of Animal Collective)
Lumerians • Gary Wilson • Life Coach (Jon Theodore + Phil Manley)
Ryley Walker • Wand • Audacity • Dios • Teebs W/ Live Band
Vinyl Williams • Part Time • Yonatan Gat • Death Valley Girls
Fart Barf • Kiev • The Mattson 2 • L.A. Witch • Feels • Glitter Wizard
Thee Commons • Drab Majesty • Death Hymn Number 9 • Jjuujjuu
The Birth Defects • Cellars • Sugar Candy Mountain • Mind Meld
The Dream Ride • Sloppy Jane • Numb•Er • Bodegas • Solar Sons
Mad Alchemy Liquid Light Show
The Blindspot Project