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"The festival scene has changed everything for musicians and bands. We're just thankful to be a part of it," says Adam Grace of alt-country act Truth & Salvage Co. "There's so many bands and so few slots to fill. It feels really good to kind of be in the club. It's so important doing it just to reach multitudes of people. We know one Bonnaroo performance in terms of fans can be worth three months of touring. So, business-wise, they're great gigs. That's why everyone wants to do them."
For fans, it's an opportunity not only to see dozens of bands (many they may not know much about) but a chance to share an experience. Like the '60s festivals that were their ultimate inspiration, these are social events as much as concerts. Many — Coachella and Country Thunder — feature campsites, encouraging groups of friends and family to go together and spend the weekend there.
"Once you go into these big stationary festivals, it's about location. It's a reason to want to be in that place," Lyman says. "I think some people try to [set] up in any parking lot just thinking it's going to work. Coachella has the hipster Palm Springs culture, and it's beautiful. I think people remember the sunset at Coachella as much as the artists sometimes."
Such considerations are exactly what attracted McDowell Mountain Music Fest founder Jon Largay to move the event to Margaret T. Hance Park for its 10th time out. The fest had been held at Largay's since-shuttered restaurant/club, the Compound Grill, the past three years, and for six years before that at WestWorld in Scottsdale.
When negotiations to return to WestWorld broke down, Largay found a more willing partner in the city of Phoenix. The city welcomed the $3 million to $4 million in revenue MMMF brought to downtown, in addition to $400,000 in taxes. From Largay's perspective, Hance Park has capacity for 10,000 — more than double the roughly 4,500 who attended each day — leaving plenty of room for people to move around and for MMMF to add those numbers down the road.
"It's along the light rail and [has] a lot more geographical access for a lot of people. So we feel we're moving in the right direction," Largay says. The March date represented a change for MMMF, as well. "We moved it up a month, and we got out of Coachella's shadow. We also lose an awful lot of fans to New Orleans, so we got away from Jazzfest and bought ourselves about 10 degrees [of cooler weather]. I think all of those elements are a positive."
Largay also secured a camping area south of the park to preserve that element of the festival. He estimates that 30 percent of his audience comes from out of state. As owner of Westpac Construction, Largay has contacts with contractors who help him pull together the festival and make it profitable with in-kind donations and sponsorships. It's allowed the nonprofit fest to donate more than $700,000 to charity the past nine years.
"It isn't any different than a job site. The circus goes in, the circus goes out. The logistics of what we do and how we do it go hand-in-hand with the role we play as a contractor," Largay says. "But without the support of our sponsors, we would not be able to do it. It would not make economic sense."
Location also is a bonus for Country Thunder, housed at spacious Canyon Moon Ranch in Florence. This is Country Thunder's 20th anniversary. In that time, it's become one of the biggest country-music festivals in the nation. It brings in nearly 80,000 people over four days and contributes about $7 million to the Arizona economy.
Besides the country bar on the grounds, Moonshine Willy's, it's also notable for a campground that features 5,000 slots that sell out, ensuring a lively communal feeling. (There also are shuttles running from area hotels.) It's this idea that Tollet was pursuing in putting Coachella so far from big metro areas — encouraging people to leave behind their daily world and wholly embrace the weekend.
Another evolving aspect of big music festivals is the wide variety of entertainment available. Besides the music, there's more to do than eat and drink yourself unconscious. Last year's Country Thunder boasted zip lines, a water slide, mechanical bulls, and hot-air balloon rides. And just because it's a country-music festival doesn't mean it's deaf to EDMs ascendance — for the second year, it had DJs spinning in a dedicated area after the mainstage shows.
"Our attention is quite a bit on auxiliary things for people to do who maybe don't care for the kind of music or the artist we have on at certain times of the day," says Country Thunder president Brian Andrews. "We're not looking to entertain 20,000. We're looking to entertain 500 here, 1,000 there, and give them something to do other than listen to music."
Of course, all the balloon rides in the world won't compensate for a crappy bill. Since taking over Country Thunder four years ago from founder Larry Barr, Andrews' company has ponied up for big-name stars Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, Alan Jackson, Willie Nelson, and Kid Rock. Last weekend's fest brought in country chart-topper Lady Antebellum as well as past Country Thunder performers Toby Keith and Eric Church.