Last year, Live Nation Urban president Shawn Gee came to Jeanine McClean’s team at MBK Entertainment with an ambitious idea: Give their then-21-year-old artist H.E.R. a music festival. Sure, she was already a two-time Grammy award winner, but did a young artist have the stature to support a massive event?
“We said, ‘challenge accepted,’” McClean said during the "Evolution of Artist-Curated Festivals" panel at the 2019 Billboard Live Music Summit on Tuesday (Nov. 5). To McClean, this was an opportunity to create something that had never existed: a true R&B festival hand-crafted by one of its contemporary rising stars. But the pressure was immense: “We’d never put on a fest before, we didn’t know what brands would be willing to take a chance on a first-year festival, but we thought it was important.” And H.E.R. took the festival’s success personally. “Any artist [curating a festival] should be that invested. If not, they shouldn’t do it,” McClean said.
H.E.R.’s diligence in 2019 paid off. In 2020, in addition to San Francisco the 15,000-attendee Lights On Festival will have renditions in New York and in London, said McClean. “From now on, you’ll hopefully see more females — and more African American females — curating festivals, getting brand partnerships, because of this.”
Lights On Festival’s improbable success underpins the growing demand for artist-curated festivals in the U.S. Against the backdrop of juggernauts like Coachella, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, artist-curated festivals provide a counterpoint: Instead of aiming to please the most fans, aim to please the fewest.
Some of these niche groups are genre enthusiasts (like H.E.R.’s Light On festival), others are people from underserved music markets such as Virginia Beach (which hosts hometown hero Pharrell’s Something in the Water Festival) or fans who are just deeply invested in an artist’s backstory and vision, which is the story of Post Malone’s nascent Posty Fest — which just sold out 45,000-capacity AT&T Stadium in its second year.
“Post’s dad actually worked at AT&T Stadium for 14 years,” said UTA agent Cheryl Paglierni on the panel. “So everyone who worked on Posty Fest knew Post since he was a child… You can’t underestimate an artist’s value in their hometown.”
Malone’s personal tie with the venue overruled the financial picture, Paglierni added. When she advised him that other venues could be more lucrative, Malone never wavered from AT&T as the permanent location for Posty Fest. “It was about his connection — it wasn’t about the money,” she said. “And because Post is so brandable, we had 20 brand partners… We didn’t feel it was a big risk in terms of selling tickets.”
Posty Fest, and other artist-driven fests, hinge on super-fans — the premise that they will pay (and travel) to experience and celebrate their favorite artist’s vision. “If you’re a fan of J. Cole or Travis Scott, you want to experience a place and space that they’ve curated,” said WME agent Josh Kurfirst.
When a big artist is in the driver’s seat, their involvement can grease the wheels of production. “You have access to their Rolodex, which gives production a jumpstart that’s [otherwise] absent,” said Kurfirst.
“Last year [at Posty Fest], Travis and Post just did a straight swap [playing each other’s festivals] and they paid each other’s expenses. That’s a huge benefit,” said Paglierni. “Talent fees for the bigger festivals are so high, but when someone is coming to play for 'my friend,' they’re going to get a different number. That makes all the difference,”
Pharrell spared nothing when it came to organizing his hometown fest in Virginia Beach. “Pharrell went in guns blazing,” said Lesley Olenik, Live Nation vp touring. “He wanted three days and the best of everything to show people that Virginia Beach is on the map.” And an artist of Pharrell’s stature has incredible leveraging power when it comes to brand sponsorships to see that vision through. At Something in the Water, for example, competing brands like Adidas and Nike are sponsors, and whatever funds the sponsors give to the festival, they must match in donations to the Virginia Beach community.
“Artist-curated fests speak to the power of brand partnership,” said ScoreMore Shows founder Sascha Stone Guttfreund. “You can make money selling a 2,000-ticket event and lose money selling a 25,000-ticket event… It’s about managing expectations.”
Artist-curated festivals don’t even necessarily need a massive artist at the helm to be a success. The live electronic music space is proof. Gary Richards, AMF founder and president of LiveStyle North America, used his background in EDM to make long-running fests like Electric Zoo artist-focused.
“In electronic, there are few people that carry the kind of weight [of a Post Malone or Pharrell],” said Richards. The angle of the production, he continued, is always going to be more unifying and resonant than the curator alone.