After lineup experimentation the last few years triggered backlash among fans, the popular Northwest music festival looks to its past in hopes of preserving its future.
The snark reverberated across the internet.
“This is almost as bad as Trump being president.”
The haters weren’t shy about voicing their dissatisfaction with last year’s Sasquatch! Music Festival lineup, the tapping of poppy rap-rockers Twenty One Pilots as a headliner drawing much of the ire. The backlash certainly wasn’t lost on Adam Zacks, founder of the Memorial Day weekend megaconcert that’s become one of the Northwest’s premier music festivals since its 2002 inception.
“There were some misfires in the booking there and people could spot it or smell it a million miles away, us included,” Zacks readily admits.
Those errant shots that felt a little out of character for the big little indie fest were part of the Live Nation-backed event’s attempts to court a younger, broader fan base while navigating an increasingly cluttered festival landscape. Since the multiple-day bash held at the Gorge Amphitheatre issued its first wristbands, once-novel music festivals have proliferated. Roughly 32 million people attend at least one U.S. music fest each year, according to a 2014 Nielsen report, and competition for talent and ticket dollars has stiffened.
After some lineup experimentation the last few years that included more mainstream acts and EDM heavy hitters, Sasquatch! is getting back to its roots in an effort “to reclaim our strong identity and how we differentiate ourselves in the midst of so many festivals now,” Zacks says. Headliners include a few Sasquatch! vets like indie-rock darlings Bon Iver, the National and Modest Mouse, plus a cadre of buzzy younger artists like Julien Baker and Soccer Mommy. While hip-hop and electronic music are still represented — from Tyler, the Creator and Vince Staples to Snakehips — Zacks describes the overarching philosophy as “music with an independent spirit.”
For Zacks, who’s also the chief programming officer for STG Presents, the silver lining in last year’s uproar was an affirmation of Sasquatch!’s original vision.
“Not to disparage any particular band, it’s just we’ve developed this music snob audience, which is something to be proud of and protected,” he says, “not something to try and broaden out from.”
Portland’s Daniel Winiger has the made the pilgrimage to the Gorge almost every year since 2005. The 32-year-old says recent lineups have felt more “commercialized,” drawing a younger, “lesser-informed musical crowd” that he’d expect at other festivals. As proof, he points to 2016 when goth-rock greats the Cure played to an infamously small audience. After sitting out 2017, Winiger plans to return this year, lured by David Byrne, Slowdive and younger artists like Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers. “In my opinion, it’s the best music festival lineup in the nation, really,” he says.
Similarly, Sheila Wagner — a former Everett resident now living in Los Angeles — hopes to make it back for the first time since 2014 to see Bon Iver and Vince Staples. “Nothing really beats crying with thousands of people together in the dark to ‘Skinny Love,’” she says, referencing the Bon Iver tear-jerker. The 24-year-old and her friends used to get together the day of Sasquatch!’s lineup announcement, but quit amid ticket-price hikes and the lineup’s waning appeal to the indie-rock fans. It “felt weird” seeing electronic duo Disclosure as a headliner in 2016, she recalled.
With more festivals competing for the same acts, and fans decrying lineups looking increasingly similar, the box-office battle has gotten rockier.
Four years ago, Sasquatch! scuttled a planned second weekend in July after low ticket sales.
In 2016, citing the Grant County Sheriff’s Office, The Oregonian reported that attendance decreased by 50 percent — a number Zacks disputes. (Former Seattle Times music critic Paul de Barros pegged the drop at around 5,000 attendees.) Zacks declines to share specific numbers, but admits it was a down year for Sasquatch! and festivals across the country.
The same year, Bonnaroo, one of the biggest festivals in America, reportedly sold 28,000 fewer tickets than it did in 2015, before bouncing back in 2017. Concert trade publication Pollstar reported at least 23 festivals were outright canceled, including the hip-hop-oriented Fete Music Festival at White River Amphitheatre and Squamish Valley Music Festival in British Columbia. Further shake up came to the Northwest festival scene last year when Pemberton Music Festival was called off after drawing record crowds in 2016.
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Despite the turmoil, new festivals continue to sprout up, like Upstream and the inaugural Skookum Festival (Sept. 7-9) in Vancouver and Live Nation’s dubstep-leaning Bass Canyon (Aug. 24-26) at the Gorge.
According to self-reported numbers gathered by Pollstar, Sasquatch! grossed $3.4 million last year after returning to a three-day format, down from four days. That’s slightly higher than its 2006-2010 average, but significantly lower than 2013’s $9.1 million when Zacks says tickets sold out in an hour.
It remains to be seen if the lineup’s warm reception will translate to ticket sales this year. For Aaron Jasper, 31, returning artists like Bon Iver and Modest Mouse are nice “for old dudes like me,” but he still doesn’t plan to attend. The four-year Sasquatch! vet quit going after 2012 when he temporarily moved out of state and started a family.
Jasper says he and his festival friends, now in their early- and mid-30s, probably have one more fest left in them, though it’s gotten harder to plan with work and family obligations. Not to mention their sharp decrease in party stamina since their early 20s. But if Sasquatch! “starts trending up again,” Jasper hopes to rally his crew for one last hurrah.
“We’ll show those kids how to drink moderately and go to sleep at 11:30 (p.m.),” he jokes.
And that’s part of the problem Zacks and Live Nation face: how to stand out in a crowded field to win over fans in their prime festival-going years without alienating the Sasquatch! faithful.
“The concern is that if you don’t go younger or broader then you can’t live on for years and years and years,” Zacks says. “The thought is that all these people will hit their 40s and 50s and they’re not going to want to go to an outdoor music festival. Therein lies the need to adapt somehow. That’s a reality.”
Sasquatch! Music Festival. May 25-27, the Gorge Amphitheatre, 754 Silica Rd. N.W., Quincy, Grant County; $129-$899, sasquatchfestival.com
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