Through the early 2000s, Phoenix wasn't much of a music festival city. Outside of Lollapalooza's initial stop in 1991, significant music festivals were virtually nonexistent in the Valley. Festivals weren't the monstrous industry they are now, but as the scene began to grow and expand from a few festivals to a handful and then to a dozen, Phoenix showed no sign of landing a major weekend of music.
That began to change in 2004 when the McDowell Mountain Music Festival first proved that Phoenix could host a festival beyond small genre-specific radio-sponsored events. Just over a decade later, Arizona's relatively infantile festival scene will get one step closer to national recognition when Kanye West headlines the final day of Summer Ends Music Festival on September 27.
If you ask McDowell Mountain Music Festival talent coordinator and public relations director Nate Largay, Phoenix's music scene has been developing for years; it's just taken some time for festivals to really take off in the area.
"You can go back to the bands that started here in the late '80s and '90s, like the Meat Puppets, and see that there's music in Phoenix's blood," Largay says. "All these venues and festivals that are popping up, they could make Phoenix into a destination on the national scene. It's just a matter of time."
As Largay points out, Tempe and Scottsdale's cultural scenes consisted of little more than bars, clubs, and tiny local venues a decade ago. These days, both cities host events (musical and non-musical) worth traveling for, and even downtown Phoenix's emerging scene is beginning to get recognition.
"I think downtown really needs to flourish for a little while before it really becomes a destination for music; it's been going through such a transformation," Largay says. "I also think the schools need to get behind the local music scene. Look at cities like Boston and New York. They have schools that feed the younger crowd for the music scene. If a school like ASU got behind it, Phoenix could really build a scene from the ground up."
"In most places, the festival season is summer. The thing that makes it unique is our festival season is when a lot of other places in the country couldn't even think about having stuff." — Brannon Kleinlein, Apache Lake Music Festival
While Largay believes that both a top-notch collegiate music program and a major iconic outdoor venue would be huge steps in furthering Phoenix's music scene, he acknowledges that Lucky Man Concerts' recent interest in putting on a handful of major festivals each year at Tempe Beach Park has helped thrust Phoenix into the national music scene.
Tom LaPenna, Lucky Man's owner, believes that his company's line of festivals could be a glimpse of the future, and the well-known names he's bringing in for the four-day Summer Ends Music Festival — such as Hozier, Brand New, J. Cole, Big Sean, and Kanye West — could become a more regular sight for the Valley in years to come.
"Lucky Man Concerts has created 'boutique festivals' during certain times of the year that we feel can grow and become successful long-term festivals," LaPenna says. "We are just one of many companies that promote festivals in town, however, and we are happy with the variety of events that are being produced in the area."
Aside from Summer Ends, Lucky Man also has the Pot of Gold Music Festival in March and now the Monster Mash Music Festival in October. Tempe Beach Park has played host to the festivals so far, and LaPenna doesn't think they'll be moving anytime soon, considering that it's centrally located and the city of Tempe is plenty supportive of them.
Of course, just because you have a seemingly perfect location and solid lineup for a festival doesn't mean that everything goes as planned. Last year, a storm rolled through the Valley during the second day of Summer Ends and forced the main stage bands into the Marquee Theatre, while many smaller acts were outright canceled.
"We can never plan for a weather event like what happened last year, and I am hopeful it never occurs again," LaPenna says. "We took a very large loss on last year's festival but are confident in the event this year and its future in becoming a staple for everyone to look forward to. We will have cancellation insurance for all future events, which will safeguard the huge financial investment we make in the festivals. However, if weather occurs, there is not much we can do but pray."
As anyone who's lived in the Valley for a while can attest, Phoenix's weather can be a tremendous benefit just as easily as a huge storm (or 115-degree weather) can ruin an afternoon. Brannon Kleinlein, founder and organizer of Apache Lake Music Festival, believes the area's climate is one of the main things that could elevate Phoenix into the national music festival scene.
"The timing of festivals in Phoenix is the biggest thing," Kleinlein says. "In most places, the festival season is summer. The thing that makes it unique is our festival season is when a lot of other places in the country couldn't even think about having stuff."
While the Valley's winter weather is already a draw for many vacationers coming from colder climates, it also means losing a huge chunk of "residents" for a few months of scorching heat. Although summers make it tough for many event promotions to maintain a year-round schedule, Kleinlein believes the budding music scene could lead visitors to Phoenix beyond retirees, golf enthusiasts, and spring training fans.
"Say you're living in the Midwest and can come to Phoenix to see some of your favorite bands play at a festival in the middle of the winter," Kleinlein says. "That helps the entire music culture of Phoenix. It helps the venues and the other stuff around them to put Phoenix on the map, nationally. It means more bands want to play and people will want to come out. As long as there's still demand for it, you're going to see more festivals and more venues."
For those promoting the events, the rapid growth of Phoenix's music festival scene over the past decade is obviously a positive, for the most part. Otherwise, festivals can bring some unintended repercussions to the music scene if you're not directly benefitting from them.
Charlie Levy, owner of promotion company Stateside Presents and the venues Crescent Ballroom and Valley Bar, has seen some of those residual effects firsthand. Stateside's Viva PHX festival is a perfect example of downtown Phoenix's expanding scene, but the two-decade veteran can feel the impact at his own venues.
"Less artists want to tour through Phoenix now instead of playing a big festival," Levy says. "They play a festival and then they don't want to do a regular show a few months later. From the headliners of the festivals to smaller bands who would play club shows, they're not touring through Phoenix as much because of the festivals."
Levy says he's not much of a festival guy, but he's still got some advice for those looking to put on a festival (or any other event). Considering his track record, young promoters should take note.
"Any time you put on any event, whether it's a festival or a small club show, it's going to be twice as much work as you realize. Oh, and it'll always cost more than you think it will," Levy says.
Ultimately, Arizona's festival scene can grow and expand as much as it wants, but it's still about the fans. It's the audience that will sustain these types of concerts, no matter how hard promoters try and what big-name headliners come to town.
"It is the end of summer," LaPenna says. "Come out, enjoy some great music with friends, and have a wonderful time at our shows."