Sasquatch! is now cited as one of the nation's best music festivals, mentioned alongside Tennessee's Bonnaroo and California's Coachella, thanks in large part to founder and promoter Adam Zacks. This year's 10th-anniversary festival is getting more attention than ever — it's the first to run four days, starting Friday.
It’s only a few days before the start of the sold-out Sasquatch! Music Festival, and promoter Adam Zacks is spending a Thursday afternoon rubbing eyes in the U District. Considering the amount of work involved in putting on the four-day festival at the Gorge, you’d expect the eyes to be his. They aren’t.
Instead, they belong to a 90-year-old bust of King Neptune, on the wall inside the Neptune Theatre. As part of his “day job” with the Seattle Theatre Group (STG), Zacks is overseeing a restoration that will turn the former movie theater into a multiuse venue for music and film. “These eyes were so covered with dirt that no one had any idea they shone,” he said. “They’re beautiful.”
While Neptune’s dirty orbs might have little to do with Sasquatch!, Zack’s attention to detail is a big part of what has made the festival he founded in 2002 such a success.
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“I’m kind of a detail-oriented guy,” he said.
For Zacks, 38, that means keeping an eye on everything from carbon-emission-offset credits, to campground recycling.
Sasquatch! now is cited as one of the nation’s best music festivals, mentioned alongside Tennessee’s Bonnaroo and California’s Coachella. The Washington event recently earned a full-page photo in The New York Times. And this year’s 10th-anniversary festival is getting more attention than ever — it’s the first to run four days, starting Friday.
“We’ve tried to not get too cocky too fast,” Zacks said. “Last year we sold out a month in advance, so we decided to add the fourth day.” This year, the event sold out in February, one week after single-day tickets went on sale.
“Slow and steady is what wins the race,” Zacks said. “The goal is to survive.”
Against the odds
Sasquatch! has done more than survive — it has thrived in an era when the larger concert business has struggled. Concert ticket sales industrywide were down 15 percent last year. Much of that decline came from weak sales at outdoor venues, called “sheds” by the industry, where promoters often have been forced to reduce lawn seats to $5.
A four-day pass to this year’s Sasquatch! costs $285, and Zacks and partner Live Nation had no trouble selling out the 25,000-seat venue. Zacks says Sasquatch! works because the bands are rightfor the youth-oriented audience.
“At the same time sheds are struggling with classic bands,” he noted, “there is growth in midlevel groups, who no longer require traditional media to build their audience. Which is a way of saying that because of the Internet, they’ve been able to hold an audience without having to depend on a hit song. The bread and butter of Sasquatch! is those bands.”
The success of Sasquatch! is even more notable considering that other large-scale touring festivals, such as Lollapalooza and Lilith Fair, have downsized, or folded.
And while headliners such as Foo Fighters, Death Cab for Cutie and Wilco certainly move tickets, Zacks is proud that Sasquatch! has developed a reputation as a place where fans can go to see upcoming talent: “It’s been a catalyst for music discovery, that has helped to foster this notion that it’s cool to go see 15 bands you’ve never heard of before. By the end of the weekend, you have a new favorite band.”
Others in the industry cite Zacks’ commitment to musical diversity as central to his vision.
“The key to Sasquatch’s success is that Adam is a true music fan,” said Ben London, former director of the local chapter of the Recording Academy. “He learned from the early years of the festival that superstar acts don’t necessarily make a great festival. He curates Sasquatch! like an amazing iTunes playlist that he would want to listen to himself.”
“Adam is one of the most creative bookers in the western U.S.,” added Dave Meinert, mastermind of the Capitol Hill Block Party. “He’s created Sasquatch! out of thin air, with both huge acts and breaking bands, while keeping it profoundly Northwest. And he’s a good guy to boot.”
From the beginning
Zacks grew up in Olympia and started his promotion career while attending the University of Oregon. He ran a student concert series, putting on shows that made money and energized crowds.
“Before I took over, they had been booking Arlo Guthrie, and the like,” he said. As with most promoters, his duties entailed booking bands, arranging venues, marketing tickets and then counting up losses or profits.
“My first show was Public Enemy, and Rage Against the Machine,” he said. “I was shocked that for the first time in a long time the university actually made money. I was hooked.” After college, he moved to Portland and ran the Roseland Theater.
Zacks came to Seattle in 2001 for a job with promoter House of Blues. There, he organized the first Sasquatch!, which initially was a single-day festival that focused on what can be described best as indie rock music — it has since become more diverse, but the vibe is still laid back and low key. He left House of Blues in 2008 to join STG but has kept a partnership with his old employer — now a division of Live Nation — to put on Sasquatch!
Zachs says the setting of the Gorge was integral to the idea of Sasquatch! “There had to be some magic quality to a site,” he said. “It had to be beyond the booking, beyond the cool factor, it had have some ‘Disneyland factor.’ The Gorge is just extraordinary — you can’t re-create it. Short of doing something in the Grand Canyon, there is nothing like it.”
Sasquatch! has expanded in the past decade, with more tickets, more days and more bands. Yet, even with dozens of headliners, the natural setting is still the star of the show.
“Every band seems to have a reverence for it,” Zacks said. “They change their attitude immediately when they arrive on the site.” At the second festival, in 2003, Coldplay mentioned the locale between nearly every song.
Booking an outdoor festival in Washington state for Memorial Day weekend is not without its challenges, and there was even very recently some snow on the site. In the past decade, it has rained during Sasquatch! only four days out of 20 show dates (compare that with Bumbershoot). In 2006, however, a hailstorm hit during Neko Case’s set that was “biblical,” according to Zacks. Videos of the occurrence are still popular on YouTube.
That storm proved to be a watershed moment in connecting the audience, not unlike the rain that created the mud at Woodstock.
“When everything came back together, and the hail stopped, it was the very moment when I realized people had organically responded to Sasquatch!,” Zacks said. “It was then that I realized we had created not just a concert crowd, but a community.”
Community is something that Zacks is also involved in with his job with nonprofit STG. The Neptune, for example, will be used for STG’s classes and outreach events.
“This is not just about preserving public theaters,” he said as he walked through the construction zone inside the theater. “It is also about public education.”
Zacks had seen many movies at the Neptune and says the renovation will make the building work for film, comedy and music.
“It is heartbreaking to hear about great old theaters that were plowed down,” he said. “It’s a life goal for me to be involved in saving them and giving them new life.”
The Neptune will be used for SIFF this month, and the first concert is Mark Lanegan on June 17. At the moment, however, Zacks is rubbing eyes and tending to tiny details.
“There’s a spot up there on the ceiling that shows the outline of the original chandelier,” he said, pointing skyward. “Wouldn’t it be nice to track that down? That would be a great story — to buy it and put it back together again.”
Charles R. Cross is the author of seven books on music, including biographies of Kurt Cobain (“Heavier Than Heaven”) and Jimi Hendrix (“Room Full of Mirrors”). You can reach him at www.charlesrcross.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.