Inside the Boutique Festival Boom
This spring, the Eaux Claires festival – founded by Aaron Dessner of The National and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver – made a startling announcement: It would not share any details of its lineup ahead of time.
“It’s intentional as a way to get out of the headliners’ arm race,” says Dessner, who helped choose the soul oddball Swamp Dogg, the electronic producer Jlin and the rapper-poet Noname for the July 6th-7th Wisconsin event, along with indie stalwarts like Sharon Van Etten and the Dirty Projectors. “We want unknown artists or people coming with a project completely outside of popular music structures to feel as valued and vital as some band that’s playing hits.”
This is a quietly radical stance in the crowded world of music festivals. As these events have proliferated in recent years, the competition for high-profile headliners has led to increasingly homogeneous lineups. Not only do festivals pull their headliners from the same tiny pool of commercial behemoths, they tend to orient the rest of the bill around the same genres and performers – a mixture of buzzing indie rock, pop and hip-hop acts.
But smaller artist-driven festivals aren’t subject to the same constraints that hamstring their mega-sized counterparts. “That’s part of the appeal: You get to choose [who plays],” says Damon Albarn, whose second Demon Dayz festival is set to take place in Los Angeles in October. “I’m playing festivals at the moment, and sometimes it’s not exactly what you want to hear before you go on stage, what precedes you.”
At Demon Dayz L.A., he’ll share the bill with a handpicked group of acts, including several former collaborators, that shares his wide-ranging aesthetic sensibilities, like neo-soul singer Erykah Badu, Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen and Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux. Albarn sees the lineup as “a mirror of real America,” adding, “It’s weird if you don’t have that [cultural diversity] represented.”
If Albarn emphasizes breadth at his festival, Foo Fighters are drilling deep into a single genre – rock – with their second edition of Cal Jam, named after the seminal 1974 event that included performances from Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. The lineup for the latest edition of Cal Jam ranges from founding fathers (Iggy Pop) to fresh-faced newcomers (Greta Van Fleet), from cross-cultural rock fusion (the Spanish-language Smiths tribute band Mexrrissey) to indie hardcore (Metz). “When we think Cal Jam, we think, that’s cool, we’re bringing back the Seventies rock festival,” says Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins. “We would probably sell tickets faster if we just called it the Foo Fighters concert. But it’s our wink and nod to our influences.”
As the number of major festivals balloons, so does the number of adventurous, artist-driven events. The National, for instance, recently decided to throw another festival at the end of September titled “There’s No Leaving New York,” with performances booked from Jason Isbell, Cat Power, U.S. Girls, Phoebe Bridgers and more.
“A festival provides a platform to be very creative,” Albarn says. “You can be as creative as you want to be.”