Plenty's been written over the last year about the state of local venues amid COVID. But there's another key component of the Valley's music scene that's gone under-discussed: music festivals. These annual extravaganzas aren't just good for culture — they boost the local economy.
Phoenix New Times spoke to the producers of several such events — M3F, Innings Festival, Full Moon Festival, Phoenix Lights, and Goldrush Fest — to see how they've fared. (Emails/messages to other events, including Country Thunder, Arizona Roots Festival, and FORM, weren't returned.)
Whereas local venues closed fairly early in spring 2020, these fests had months to track the news and determine the best course possible.
"We were looking at quite a few crazy things, or tweaks here and there," says Heather Rogers, executive director of M3F, of a planned 2021 edition, which was ultimately nixed. "It just finally came down to having that conversation with each other and saying, 'Look, it's even more responsibility with this whole pandemic going on.' It was a better call."
Colter Stillwell, the director of Full Moon, had similar conversations with his staff.
"We didn't have any events over COVID, and we chose to not offer a product that's going to be anything other than what we'd provided in the past," he says. "I make that sound as if that was a very firm and clear decision. The reality is, it was made over the course of multiple months."
Meanwhile, Relentless Beats, the company behind the Phoenix Lights and Goldrush fests, promoted events throughout COVID. That includes a series of drive-in fests in summer 2020 as well as "pod concerts" in the fall. Owner Thomas Turner says his staff followed cues from other promoters.
"We watched a few nights at the other bars and nightclubs around town," he says. "And there was no negative feedback or publicity. Then, eventually, we had a show, and we did our first club shows with a capacity reduction of 35 percent. Then we slowly guided it up."
Some might disagree with Relentless' approach, but Turner said his shows "generated revenue that paid a lot of bills and kept employees afloat."
Regarding shows in recent weeks, "We thought we might be doing some socially distanced events, but there haven’t been requests at all or a demand for it at all," Turner says. "We realized that our consumers don't care or they're vaccinated now. We're like the sixth or seventh state to start, and we're really months behind these others." Turner also shared pictures of a packed event held in late May from Rawhide, demonstrating his point regarding fans' eagerness. (Turner says the event adhered to all necessary guidelines.)
Not every festival executive has the same laissez-faire attitude.
"I think a lot of people are running back to the festival industry right now, or back to partying and going to festivals," Stillwell says. "We're seeing there's a lot of baggage that's come with the past year, and we want to honor that and integrate that into our experience."
He adds that, despite how much these cancellations hurt workers and the larger industry, there were some upsides.
"The silver lining of this experience was that it was a much-needed break," Stillwell says. "Because the festival industry is so fast-paced, and where [the industry] was in 2020 was 'bigger, better, and do more.' It wasn't necessarily sustainable, either for the Earth or attendees or producers."
In a sense, though, that reset will translate to more dates and bigger ambitions. Goldrush will launch a new three-day outing for late September 2021, complete with a camping option. Full Moon is eyeing new events for fall 2021. Innings will be back in time for "the first and second week" of spring training 2022. And M3F is set for March 4 and 5, 2022, at Margaret T. Hance Park.
There are a few early challenges as fests continue planning in earnest. Tim Sweetwood, who serves as executive director for Innings, has concerns about proper staffing following upheaval in the events/hospitality sectors. Mask mandates are another area of possible tension.
Rogers says people should have the option to "wake up that morning and ... decide how do I feel today" about wearing masks, adding, "I think people are going to have to be a little more tolerant [about others not wearing masks]."
Sweetwood says that rather than push any measures specifically, fests should work alongside local stakeholders to decide on these measures. "The festival business is in the big crowd business," he says. "Safety of fans is always a concern, and now there's an extra layer to that. There may be a level that we have to work with local officials and reach a certain standard."
Stillwell says that ticketholders should have more power in emphasizing personal health.
"I think that festival-goers should demand a certain level of safety and consideration," he says. "After being cooped up inside for 12 months, I've had friends come out to clubs for 15 minutes and say, 'I've got to get out of here — I'm not willing to expose my body or my nervous system.'"
Stillwell says such "hybrid events" are "100 percent the future," adding that the industry could move to add in "online forums where people can connect and process the experiences they're having together." But he says that integrating streaming means more than turning on webcams.
"It's going to require significant additional work on the front-end to feel special, which is what we tried to do with hosting," Stillwell says. "Like, having skits and making it feel more curated and special than just trying to ultimately transplant the in-person festival experience onto the computer."
Rogers also said that this same spirit could foster more inter-festival collaboration.
"We definitely want to keep building the local awareness that Phoenix has all of these things to offer," she says. "We all look at each other and see what everyone is doing. It's trying to get other people involved that maybe have never been."
"I think before, with partying or clubbing or festivals, a lot of people felt a strong pressure to show up in a certain way," Stillwell says. "Like, 'I need to show up and I need to drink a bunch of Red Bull so that I can match the energy of the thing that's going on.' [Now, though], we want diversity, a kaleidoscope of different experiences."
Fests, Sweetwood says, are the final puzzle piece for a truly rejuvenated local arts and music scene.
"When you're in front of 25,000 people, and Dave Matthews is hitting the high note, you can't find that [elsewhere]. Hopefully that drives some extra business because people are more anxious for it than they ever were."