“After 22 very enjoyable and successful years, 2017 was Virgin’s last V Festival,” Branson wrote. “At Virgin, we know firsthand how important it is to keep innovating and changing things up, which is why it is now time for us to look at new ways we can disrupt the industry to ensure music is a force for good.”
Now Branson, alongside Virgin Produced CEO Jason Felts and KAABOO music festival founder Bryan Gordon, will attempt to disrupt the festival industry with Virgin Fest, a music festival set to launch in the U.S. in late 2019 that he announced after the unveiling of his Hollywood Walk of Fame star October 16th.
“I love music. I love festivals,” Branson tells Rolling Stone. “The era of one came to an end [with V Fest] and it was important that in very little time that a new Virgin festival was born. Obviously, music is Virgin’s background. As we move into space and cruise ships and hotels, it’s important that we keep our roots through things like festivals.”
Organizers won’t announce specifics of the new fest until early 2019, but the two-day event will hold up to 25,000 attendees per day — there will be no camping or 24-hour facilities — and take place somewhere on the East Coast. “It’s going to have a lot of sunshine and an outdoorsy feel to it,” Felts says cryptically when asked about the location.
Launching a giant music festival in 2019 is the idea of either a genius or a madman. While 32 million people go to music festivals every year, previous tentpoles such as Bonnaroo and Sasquatch! saw their attendances drop significantly in recent years. (Sasquatch! announced it will not return in 2019.)
Headlines are none too subtle about the culprit of festival fatigue — at least three outlets have published pieces titled “Are There Too Many Music Festivals?” in the last year — and the proliferation of music festivals from coast to coast has come with its share of scams and letdowns, further scaring fans away. See: the still-burning flames of Fyre Festival. Or the jilted musicians who never got to play at XO Festival. Or the cancelled FYF Fest, Meadows Festival and LouFest, each toppling like dominos.
Branson and Felts are confident, however, that they’ll offer something different to entice fans that may be weary of the festival experience.
“The convergence of music, technology and innovation will be a key differentiator for us,” Felts says. “Most apps are just checking lineups and maybe there’s a selfie cam. There’s no real innovation. Imagine a world in which you go into your app and have your food or drink brought to you, have seat-to-seat chatting and click on your friend and have your friend meet you over at a certain stage. Imagine if you bought the general-admission pass and you got there and you think you made a mistake and want the VIP pass. Imagine a world in which you could go into your app and automatically upgrade.”
Felts adds that he wants Virgin Fest to have a “level of cleanliness that you would only typically get at a high-end festival,” including, as a press release notes, “eco-focused hydration stations and clean flushing toilets.” Sanitary conditions, while admirable, are hardly the sexiest selling point for a new festival, but Branson and Felts are undeterred.
“It starts with your venue. Having a festival out in the middle of a field with dust and mud is something we’re steering away from,” Felts says in a possible reference to Coachella’s Empire Polo Grounds. “We’ll be announcing our first venue, which is world-class, with appropriate facilities versus just sort of putting up stages in the middle of a field.”
As the number of festivals has increased, so too has criticism of the homogenization of its lineups. (Pitchfork revealed that the percentage of the same bands that played Lollapalooza, Coachella and Bonnaroo increased from 15 percent in 2005 to 32 percent in 2017.) Fans who flock from festival to festival may find it harder to differentiate between who played what, as A-list names like Eminem and Guns N’ Roses now view headliner festival spots as much as generic tour dates as unique one-off shows.
Music festivals exploded in number partly because streaming services did — offering abundant but purely utilitarian access to music and driving fans toward more intimate experiences. But now that they’re everywhere, these big bacchanalian fests have started to feel a bit cold and formulaic, too; enter artist-driven boutique festivals, and exit new Coachella imitators. Most of them, anyway.
“Virgin has always been able to change things up and shake up an industry, so I am confident that the team at Virgin Fest will be able to do the same with their festival, and choosing the lineup will be part of that,” Branson says. “While I plan to leave the curating of the lineup to the experts, I’ll make sure to keep them aware of my favorites.”
No acts have been confirmed for next year’s inaugural event, but the lineup will combine “today’s hitmakers, emerging, discoverable acts and artists that remind people of our [British] heritage,” Felts says. “We’re not going to have a carbon-copy lineup with any other festival out there,” he claims. “The top couple of lines will be recognizable acts, but they may not be super-Top 40. It would’ve been Daft Punk before Daft Punk was Daft Punk.”
Can fans expect to see any high-level reunions, a festival staple since Iggy and the Stooges’ 2003 Coachella performance? “One hundred percent,” says Felts.
When Branson started V Fest in 1996, the event, then called V96, grew out of Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker wanting to play two outdoor venues in two days. Asked what his biggest challenge was in the fest’s early years, Branson’s answer is immediate. “Neighbors,” he says, laughing. “They’re always the biggest challenge. Finding a site where we didn’t have too many neighbors and making sure all those neighbors were invited for free to the festival.”
In 2006, Branson launched the Virgin Mobile FreeFest, a spinoff held annually in the U.S. and Canada until it shut down in 2013. For Branson, Virgin Fest is a “rebirthing” of sorts from his past endeavors while keeping certain aspects alive.
“At Virgin FreeFest, you had to do a good deed in order to get a ticket to enter,” Branson says. “We want the spirit of this to somehow be present in Virgin Fest as well. I’m a firm believer that you can do good while having fun, so whether it’s being kind to the local community of the site or to your fellow festivalgoers, Virgin Fest will find ways to bring a sense of generosity to its event.”
Asked what keeps him up at night when planning the festival, Branson, known as much for his bravado as his billions, is resolute.
“Well,” he says. “The whole point is to stay up at night, isn’t it?”