What makes a music festival work?

So, I wasn't originally sure if I'd have a blog on my website. Mostly because I don't think people really care about my opinions enough to spend much more than a tweet's worth of time on sharing them. That being said, every once in a while I have a thought that is worth expanding on and today I was thinking about Music Festivals.

It seems like smaller and more specialized music festivals are becoming more and more popular each year. I've had the opportunity to attend a few of them over the past few years; some have been great, but some have completely flopped. It had me thinking about what sets the really great festivals apart from the ones that never returned for a second or third year. I've come to the conclusion that the most important factor in the success of most festivals is an embrace of the existing culture where the festival is being held. 

Let's start by looking at the first festival experience I've had. Back in 2015 I ended up with a free pass to mumford and son's gentleman of the road tour. It was a two day traveling festival that set up shop in an enormous, empty field in Waverly, Iowa.  The lineup was stacked and their mission was simple.  The website read, "These are the Stopover rules: Arrive early, stay late. Don’t miss out on camping. Hear as many bands as you can. Take the party from the stage to the town. Eat the local food, drink the local drink. Say a friendly hello to new faces. Have as much fun as humanly possible. See you on the road."

As you can imagine, this experience was well thought out and well executed. Camp grounds sat adjacent the main stage and the entire festival was walking distance from downtown Waverly. Attendees were encouraged to make the trek into town to experience local music, food, and additional festivities that were accessible with or without a festival wristband. This festival was, at it's core, a celebration of small town culture. They brought the stage and the music but everything else was the local's.

Let's now move to my favorite weekend of the summer, 80/35. Named after the intersecting highways of Des Moines, 80/35 is maybe the best annual celebration of local music and arts culture I've experienced. The entire festival takes place in the heart of downtown Des Moines with a large main stage area that spans the majority of western gateway park. That's where the festival layout really gets interesting. The only ticketed area of the entire festival is the main stage. everything else is free and open to anyone. With four more stages and all  the vendors sitting just outside the ticketed area, the entire community is welcome to come downtown and take part in the festivities.  

This also encourages ticket holders to spill out of the main stage area and into the streets of Des Moines. I can't think of a better way to get people to experience your city than luring them in with their favorite artists and then hooking them with what your downtown already has to offer. On top of that, many of my best memories from 80/35 have been made at one of the  after parties. Sometimes the hardest decision of the weekend is which local venue to end up at after the festival grounds close for the night. Many of the local acts from the festival will end up playing a second set or DJ for few hours at one of the already well established music venues within walking distance from the festival. It's the perfect showcase of the rich music culture that exists in Des Moines all year round.

As I wrap up this thought, I think the main take away is that a good festival doesn't always succeed from it's own singular identity like we see with the Coachella's or Bonnaroo's of the festival world. More often than not, success comes from an extension of the culture that already exists before the stages are built or the first tickets are sold. And the best way to extend that culture into the festival is to emphasize the importance of local food, drink, artists, and all around character of the city,  as a major roll in the overall festival experience.