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Artists Should Run Music Festivals and Here’s Why

Travis Scott’s Astroworld Fest proves artist-run festivals work

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Offset, Quavo and Takeoff of Migos perform at Astroworld Fest. / Gary Miller/Getty Images

Like clockwork this year, celebrities once again flocked to Coachella, Governors Ball and Ultra Music Festival—the annual fests backed by major organizations. But more than ever before, stars and music fans in 2019 showed up in droves to festivals that were run by artists like Pharrell Williams, Chance the Rapper, J. Cole, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Drake and Post Malone. It’s certainly a banner year for artist-run festivals, most recently capped off by Travis Scott’s Astroworld Fest and Tyler, the Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw

 

The list of stars who performed or appeared at these artist-run festivals is a who’s who in music and entertainment: Megan Thee Stallion, Young Thug, Kanye West, Meek Mill, DaBaby, Rosalía, The Internet, Kali Uchis, Ari Lennox, 21 Savage, B2K, Marilyn Manson, Solange, Rapsody, SZA, Big Sean, Lil Uzi Vert, J. Balvin, Trey Songz, Saweetie, Diplo, Janelle Monae, Migos, Jaden Smith, ASAP Rocky, Stormy Daniels and Kylie Jenner. 

 

During this decade’s first few years, Jay-Z, Drake and Tyler debuted their respective festivals—Made in America, OVO Fest and Camp Flog Gnaw. But it wasn’t until the past few years that the idea of rappers running their own festival went from novelty to commonplace. Chance the Rapper and Lil Wayne’s festivals came next. And this year alone, we saw the festival debuts for Post Malone, Pharrell, J. Cole and Travis Scott.

Artist-Run Festivals Were Inevitable

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Gary Miller/Getty Images

ONE37pm traveled to the second annual Astroworld Festival to experience Scott’s vision of a festival in his hometown of Houston to see what a festival run by an artist is like.

 

Rappers getting into the music festival-organizing business was inevitable if you factor in the yearly demand for festivals and the gaudy amounts of money people willfully spend to travel and have fun at those experiences. The average customer who purchased tickets to Burning Man and/or Ultra through the popular secondary marketplace Vivid Seats this year traveled more than 1,000 miles per festival, according to Vivid Seats. For Burning Man, those same people traveling the distance between Spain and France also spent $1,255 for seven days in a Nevada desert.

 

Festivals are big business, but one that’s ripe for change.

 

Coachella, Lollapalooza, Burning Man, CMA Music Festival and Ultra and Stagecoach all saw declines in the average cost of a ticket sold on Vivid Seats, with Coachella and Stagecoach each experiencing a double-digit percent decline year-over-year. Meanwhile, Scott’s Astroworld fest saw a roughly 7 percent increase in the average price of tickets sold on Vivid Seats, placing the 2-year-old festival in the top ten of all festivals in that category for 2019.

Artist-run festivals are the future, albeit a confusing one.

This all underscores a larger point that was put on display this past weekend at Astroworld Fest: Artist-run festivals are the future, albeit a confusing one.

 

Hip-hop is a genre built on rebellion because disruption was the only means of breaking music conventions that often held the genre back due to gatekeepers in the industry. MTV didn’t play hip-hop music videos for years and the Grammy Awards didn’t even respect the genre enough to have any award until 1989, years after hip-hop was making waves on the charts. But with hip-hop now being the most-consumed genre in the world since 2017, times have changed. The percentage of hip-hop performers at legacy festivals Austin City Limits and Bonnaroo have doubled since 2014, and surpassed the alternative acts’ percentage for the first time in the festivals’ history in 2018. For hip-hop artists that have watched the music industry change for decades, like Houston legend Trae tha Truth, hip-hop artists running their own music festivals was bound to happen.

 

“Why not? We’re in the game of getting money, and by any means, you have to do what you have to do,” Trae told ONE37pm backstage. “You watch so many festivals make millions and millions off of everybody. Why not step up and make your own?”

Artists Have Earned Fans’ Trusts

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Gary Miller/Getty Images

At its best, an artist-run festival is a fan’s first-ever chance to walk through their favorite rapper’s full creative vision: the lineup, the location, the CBD pre-rolls and Ferris wheel rides are handled by someone whose creativity and taste you trusted with years of attention and admiration instead of a faceless concert organizer you may only care about once a year only if the lineup is good. Dreamville Records’ strategist and operations manager Derick Okolie, in an interview with REVOLT, described J. Cole’s Dreamville Fest as the first time “where Dreamville is going to be a place.”

 

Astroworld Fest felt like what it may be to walk through the mind of an artist whose mind runs on raging. Held at NRG Park, the festival is an homage to Houston culture with legendary DJ Screw’s extensive catalog for purchase at a Screw Shop pop-up, a 30-minute set from Houston rap legends Paul Wall, Bun B, Trae tha Truth and others as part of the Houston All-Stars. 

 

Megan The Stallion’s DJ, J Bone, told ONE37pm that Megan prepared all week for her performance because the pair barely get to perform in the rapper’s hometown due to her meteoric rise taking the rapper all over the world for shows.

 

“This is a monument for the city. We don’t have any music festivals here. This is the second year, and it’s getting bigger and bigger,” DJ J Bone said. ”I salute Travis because the authenticity has been amazing.”

 

When ONE37pm asked Megan the Stallion backstage if she’d launch her own festival, she replied as such:  

Brands Are on Board for Artist-Run Festivals

Inflated replicas of Scott’s head, in gold and silver, decorated the festival grounds. When Gucci Mane’s sudden absence due to travel problems pushed Megan Thee Stallion’s much-anticipated hometown return performance back over an hour, it was Scott’s DJ Chase B who did an impromptu set with a surprise appearance from Scott that kept the energy going. Every nuance of Astroworld Fest felt handcrafted by Scott’s vision, from art installations to brand partnerships, a belief that Tyler Phillips—Bacardi’s U.S. director of lifestyle and culture sponsorships—can attest to for artist-run festivals in general.

 

“It really gives them an opportunity to curate the exact experience they want for fans. Not just on stage, but around the stage, and Travis does that best,” Phillips said. “He has to approve every piece of it. Everything from the merch to where people are selling donuts needs to fit the theme. That is the wave because they’re more pleased with it and consumers really feel like they’re a part of his world and not just watching a show.”

 

It’s no surprise that brands are taking notice and jumping on board. Bacardi has been a sponsor at Astroworld Fest, Pharrell’s Something in the Water and J. Cole’s Dreamville Festival in a 12-month span, so the liquor brand has a unique perspective on the future of artist-run music festivals. Last year, Astroworld Fest was pretty bare of big brands, as companies like Bacardi simply tested out their involvement in the unproven festival on a preliminary basis. Bacardi mostly provided bottles for the bar with no branded activation as they typically do at music festivals such as Governors Ball and Coachella. That all changed after Scott sold 40,000 tickets last year before even announcing a lineup and then sold more than 50,000 tickets the same way this year. 

 

“It’s been great this year, honestly, because we were so much more invested. They got involved with us much earlier. We were able to get a feature cocktail for the whole festival that we’re actually selling throughout Houston called the Sicko Mode Soda,” Phillps said. “We were able to start the engagement and alignment much earlier, which made it much easier to create stuff that Travis’s team and we loved.”

Kinks Need to Be Ironed Out

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Gary Miller/Getty Images

An artist on a festival lineup usually has to trim down their usual hour-long setlist for concerts in half for festivals, focusing on tying in as many fan-favorite songs as possible. When your only creative expression at a festival is not only relatively short but one of many, fan expectations factor in more to how the set is put together because it is your only way to entertain.

 

When the artist is the central creative vision for an entire festival, most importantly being the deciding factor on the lineup, the festival becomes a reflection of the artist’s interests. As a fan, there’s this presupposition that an artist you identify with enough to spend hundreds of dollars to fly and bask in their festival vision must also be one who shares your same musical tastes. When it works, you get Kanye West surprisingly emerging on stage to rapturous rage from the Astroworld crowd. West is directly tied to Scott’s musical beginnings, as Scott noted before introducing his mentor.

In those moments, artist-run festivals exemplify its advantage over other festivals: a singular musical taste that a festival full of people have prescribed to ensures almost guaranteed enjoyment.

In those moments, artist-run festivals exemplify its advantage over other festivals: a singular musical taste that a festival full of people have prescribed to ensures almost guaranteed enjoyment.

 

Pay attention to the “almost” in that last sentence. Hours after West and Scott’s prolonged embrace after West’s performance, a public show of solidarity following a recent disagreement, the worst of what an artist-run festival can be was unfolding at Camp Flog Gnaw. Fans feverishly speculated for months whether Frank Ocean would be the surprise guest. The normally reclusive singer released “DHL” and “In My Room,” after being relatively absent from music for the past few years. The latter song was released a week prior to when the Flog Gnaw surprise guest was meant to perform. Everything seemed perfectly aligned for Ocean to appear, yet Tyler never hinted at Ocean being the surprise guest. 

 

What Tyler, the Creator did do by adding a surprise festival closer, and what Scott did by not releasing a festival lineup with artist set times until an hour before the festival, is a bit more daring: They banked on their fans’ trust in their vision and converted it into ticket sales.

 

Surprises are basically assumptions presented as gifts. Scott assumed his fans would enjoy seeing his curated list of artists and not want to refund their tickets once the lineup was revealed. Tyler assumed his fans would share his love of watching Drake, Billboard’s anointed Artist of the Decade close out the festival. Only one of them was right.

The problem was that many vocal fans assumed Tyler would know they wanted Frank Ocean. The fans assumed, since Frank and Tyler are close friends and collaborators, and the fact that Frank oddly has never had a set at the festival in its seven-year history, there was no way Tyler would think of bringing anyone else out. Tyler’s assumptions manifested as Drake, and his fans assumptions manifested as a chorus of booing that reverberated from the Camp Flog Gnaw around the world via social media, revealing a disconnect between what artists view as “entitlement,” what fans view as “expectation,” and whose view was wrongfully disregarded. 

 

There are definitely kinks that need to be ironed out before rappers running music festivals reach the stature of the biggest festivals around the world. The highest average ticket cost for a single-day at a festival run by a rapper since 2015 was the second day of Drake’s OVO Fest 2019—the average sold price of a ticket to that show on Vivid Seats was $366. That’s almost twice the $185 price of the average ticket sold price on Vivid Seats for J. Cole’s Dreamville Festival this year, but only good for the 25th highest price for all festivals since 2015.  

 

The value of a ticket being resold isn’t entirely indicative of how good a music festival was, but it does give a look into how much people are willing to give to experience an artist’s vision of a festival. After watching people scale fences, get hospitalized, and yell “Sicko Mode” so loudly in unison you forget Drake never showed up, Astroworld Fest being one of the 10 most valuable resold festival tickets matches up with it being one of the 10 most memorable festival experiences of 2019 and a promising look at what artist-run festivals can accomplish in the next decade.

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