Nashville is country’s mecca, Los Angeles churns out pop stars, and New York’s a rock bastion, but what about Phoenix? While we can’t compete in size or scope, the city’s music scene excels elsewhere.
“It’s a bunch of different social groups who are into different things,” Playboy Manbaby singer Robbie Pfeffer wrote via email. “As soon as I think I understand it, I’ll discover a group of 10 bands who all have their own thing going that I never knew existed.”
So it was a big enough deal last fall when Superfly, the company behind Bonnaroo and Outside Lands, debuted the Lost Lake Festival. A big-time national promoter shone a massive spotlight on the Valley, generating heaps of attention (and millions in economic impact, per Phoenix radio station KTAR-FM). But with the cancellation of 2018’s festivities, it seems the story’s unchanged, with Phoenix losing valuable momentum in its continued emergence as a nationally celebrated musical destination.
“I imagine the Phoenix festival scene grew a little too fast and too quickly, and it’s starting to settle,” said Vito Valentinetti, co-founder of the website Music Festival Wizard.
It’s a bitter pill made easier to swallow with the news that Lost Lake isn’t some fluke. In 2017 and 2018, several big-name festivals canceled, including Los Angeles’ FYF Fest, Pennsylvania’s Karoondinha, St. Louis’ LouFest, and California’s XO Fest. Regardless of the reasoning, Valentinetti noted that these are all part of a greater festival bubble.
“We’ve been running MFW for 10 years and the idea that there’s a festival ‘bubble’ has been around nearly the entire time. Festivals get canceled every year for a variety of reasons — poor ticket sales, local backlash, and the weather, just to name a couple. I do think that we’re more hyperconnected now that we were 10 years ago, so these failures see far more visibility.”
What caused the festival bubble? John Largay, who runs McDowell Mountain Music Festival (M3F), said it’s the nebulous economics of promotions.
“It’s partially the result of a positive pacing in the economy,” Largay explains. “People spend more money on music in a vibrant economy. You had bands making $30,000 or $40,000 now turning down $200,000. It all puts on a sense of pressure, and festivals are victims of how many tickets can and will they sell. If a big-league act gets paid $500,000, how many bands can sell that much to recoup and get the best value?”
As a result of steep prices and competition, many festivals rely on the same pool of popular, reliable bands. In spring 2017, Pitchfork did the math, finding the “homogeneity of the American and Canadian festival scene.” (Car Seat Headrest, for instance, played nine out of 23 major festivals in 2017.) Lost Lake, it seems, was no different.
“With Lost Lake, the lineup just wasn’t inspiring,” Valentinetti says. “The Chainsmokers and Imagine Dragons? Boring. A far more interesting autumn lineup was just down the road at Desert Daze Festival.”
Speaking of attractive, large-scale musical celebrations, another recent Phoenix addition, Innings Festival, debuted in March to heaps of praise. However, some in the Valley remain unconvinced: Pfeffer called it a “trash” fest for not booking local acts, while Largay felt booking atop M3F’s dates was a “bullying tactic.” (C3 Presents, which also promotes Lollapalooza, did not respond to requests for comment).
Part of the issue of money and band diversity is that, ultimately, larger fests are a business, and “If the money isn’t there, they won’t stick it out as a labor of love, which is really the heart of many of these music festivals,” Valentinetti says.
Others in the Valley are showing their “love” with different approaches to pushing Phoenix’s culture perpetually forward. As the president of Stateside Presents, Charlie Levy has been booking Valley shows since the mid-’90s. Regardless of status, Phoenix’s scene has changed radically in a short time.
“You have more Phoenix bands going on tour, like a ton of metal bands, and that wasn’t necessarily happening a few years ago,” Levy says. “You have bands that are local, but they’re touring constantly.”
Furthermore, Levy is unsure cities require a culture-defining festival.
“Does Pittsburgh have a festival? They could have the biggest festival in the country and I wouldn’t know. It seems like there’s more of a focus on doing what we have to do to grow. Just plugging away and going to shows and not being involved in a million things. We’ve built our own thing, like Day of the Dead in Tucson. And FORM — it’s cooler than Coachella and one of the best in the world. Someone from Chicago has to go, ‘Oh, FORM, we don’t have that.’”
Levy’s comments strike at what truly makes Phoenix unique: an inherent desire to build the scene in a way that reflects its core values, to reflect the growth and diversity inherent in every dive bar and concert hall.
In 2017, when Levy’s Stateside axed the prosperous Viva PHX fest, they did so not because of economic pressure but because, as Levy told the Arizona Republic, “If we’re gonna do it, we’re gonna do it right.” Similarly, Largay believes it’s about stirring the people into creating something significant for our shared consumption of arts and culture.
“[Phoenix] wants culture and to support that local angle. Culture exists where you participate in it. When you walk the streets of Chicago, you don’t ask what’s going on — you know. We [M3F] want to build 20 weekends of energy and not a single event. The more people that participate, the more vibrant it will become.”
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