In a season saturated with multi-day music/camping festivals, what makes Wakarusa different?
I think every festival has a little bit of its own flavor. Wakarusa, where it started, its roots and everything, our tag line and flavor was where “music meets mother nature.” We started at a state park and now we’ve moved to this beautiful mountaintop. “Music and mother nature” is a great way to frame us.
That said, we treat the music a little different than a lot of festivals. We have six stages and around-the-clock music, near 200 sets of music. It takes on a very different feel. It’s kind of like Vegas. It’s really jumping at two in the morning and at six in the morning. You really have to plan your day because there’s going to be something great going on all the time. Sometimes there are choices.
We invite a lot of artists to do multiple sets. Maybe I have a huge conflict with Yonder Mountain String Band and String Cheese Incident both playing Friday. Maybe one or both of them play on a different day. My crew and staff may not think it’s a conflict but, for a lot of people, it’s two of their favorite bands.
From that standpoint, it takes on a little more of the feel of South By Southwest than your typical camping festival. We have dozens and dozens of sets a day.
So there’s never a moment when someone isn’t playing.
In most moments all six stages are going. I think we were one of the first festivals of what has become a huge genre now – electronic music. We were doing Bassnectar four or five years ago, before anyone had ever heard of him. Three years ago we started “Interstellar Meltdown,” which in our minds is a festival within a festival, featuring just electronic music. It’s been a big part of Wakarusa growth.
There haven’t been that many festivals that have crossed state lines.
It ended up a huge positive for us. There was certainly some trepidation. Not only moving across state lines but moving to a different region. We marketed to mostly a younger crowd and we had a lot of college campuses. We were in the Big 12 region. We hit Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma. That’s probably where most of our people came from, which identifies to the college conference to a degree. So we moved from the Midwest to the Southeast, a whole different set of schools.
The other thing we got closer to is Texas, which is bigger than all these Midwestern states combined. We actually moved closer to more people, we’re marketing to two full regions of the country very heavily and that’s helped us, too.
Do you see a lot of return business with people making Wakarusa part of their summer vacation plans?
We definitely have our core audience. There are a lot of people who have been to all of them. There are people who will come up to me 11 months later and still have their Wakarusa bracelets on.
With the Internet I think we do a good job getting the word out. The last five, six years in a row we’ve sold tickets in all 50 states. I think we’re a national festival. Our kind of buzz continues to grow. We have roots in Kansas and Arkansas. It’s not like AT&T is spending a million dollars promoting our festival. It’s been a very organic growth, more than a Lollapalooza or Coachella kind of explosion on the scene.
Is everything, including planning and logistics, home grown, or is there an alliance with a national promoter?
We’re all in-house. We’re a small Midwest promoter. We pretty much do everything from the talent buying to the producing of the festival. We’re very independent.
Do many bands offer to come back after playing their first Wakarusa?
If you go to our website, we have a button where you can look at past lineups. We spend a great deal of energy making sure a lineup is fairly fresh. I think this is the third year Bassnectar has played. Sound Tribe Sector 9 has played at least three or four years. Versus last year, it’s probably 75 to 80 percent different than last year. Year crossover? Probably well over half our bands have played the festival at one point.
When do you begin planning the next Wakarusa? Do you begin immediately after this year’s festival finishes or is there some overlap where you’re working on two different years at once?
I’d say we’re deep in planning by Thursday afternoon of the festival. We all have notes of what we want to fix and what we’re hearing, good and bad. One of the things about us, I don’t know how unique it is, but you’d like to think every body treats customer service like we do. From day one we open up the Internet – chat rooms and email lines – to tell us what you think. Tell us who your favorite bands are on Facebook or tell us what we did good or bad. Again, it’s a fans’ festival in our minds and we try to make it as good as it can be. We take a lot of input from our fans and there is a very strong allegiance to us because of that. We tend to sell a lot of merch and they wear their Wakarusa wear very proudly.
What are some of the lessons learned over the years?
What we’re always trying to improve is logistics. Some of the things we get feedback on are out of our control. Maybe Bassnectar and Skrillex are playing against each other and we might not have control over that because one of them couldn’t play the other night.
We work really hard to do the little things that make your weekend comfortable. Very few festivals have clean port-a-potties or short beer lines. We would kill ourselves if there were two-hour lines on the highway. Again, there are some serious challenges with the new site but, once you get everything settled, I think it’s possibly one of the finest festival sites in the country. It’s all but a national park out there with 60- to 80-foot waterfalls, hiking, biking, ponds and float rivers. It’s a really special site.
But there’s one road in and one road out. It’s not exactly like getting in and out of a sports stadium. It is what it is. We work with it. But we work year-round to make sure no one is stuck on that highway for eight hours on Wednesday night.
Do the acts and their buses also roll down that road?
There’s absolutely no back entrance. Nor is it a situation where we can create one. Every site, whether it’s Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza, has its limitations and positives. The nearest Home Depot is about a three-hour round trip. So we have to be on our game a lot more than [a festival in an urban setting].
What goes into the thought process when planning Wakarusa?
We lean more towards incredible live sets than going for that buzz factor on the poster. There’s always a marriage of the two. Maybe three or four years ago Scissor Sisters, The Fray or The Killers, maybe the last couple of years Arcade Fire was the hot band of the year. You pay them a zillion dollars and you’re a cool festival. We don’t have the pockets necessarily to chase those super-buzz bands.
But sometimes we get them. Last year we had The Black Keys and this year we have Mumford & Sons, so it’s not like we don’t want them. We have them when we can. More so, we’re looking for those bands that are just going to freakin’ rock your socks off. The Uber Dance Party, Trombone Shorty or Ozamotli, where people just give a great live show.
I was at South By Southwest two years ago and saw My Morning Jacket for the first time ever and was absolutely blown away. I don’t think there is a better live band in America. I don’t care what genre you like. So they were a target. They were a target before I saw them way more.
When you see our crowd interact with Railroad Earth, for instance, or My Morning Jacket or Yonder Mountain String Band, we bring back some of their favorites.
To me, the one thing about Wakarusa that’s special, because we have 150 artists and 185 sets or whatever, is like South By Southwest you’re going to come to Wakarusa and find half a dozen of your new favorite artists. It’s like, “Wow! These guys are amazing.”
The bottom line is it’s more substance over, maybe, potential fake. They’re the real deal. They’re really incredible artists. They’re not just flavor of the day somebody is pushing. We get these because we’re year-round promoters. We have them in the clubs or we’ve seen them supporting someone else. We spend a whole year booking it and we have people in the hopper for next year already. We’re looking for those gems all over the food chain that probably a lot of people in the Midwest haven’t seen before. And they come way saying, “Man! That Dirtfoot was amazing.”
With 150 artists, do you have many moments where there are impromptu jams or unscheduled performances?
Absolutely. Some of it is kind of pre-orchestrated and others are completely organic. A lot of times, more and more, artists will say, “we won’t tell anyone, but can you show us the schedule so we can see who else is playing on our day so we can have sit ins?” So someone like Les Claypool might play two or three sets in a day. Maybe Trombone Shorty jumps up with MoFro, or maybe MoFro plays with Galactic. I gotta be honest. I think we’ve seen a real renaissance of festivals during the last few years. I think there are a number of reasons, culturally, for that. But part of that started out with “that’s the only place I’ll see that set – where Bela Fleck plays with Yonder Mountain – some really special memorable moments because you have nearly 1,000 incredible world class artists.
And some magic does happen. Some of it happens when you don’t expect it. Other times it’s when you say, “You know, maybe you and so-and-so can get together, maybe do an encore together.”
Are the bands really receptive to those suggestions?
At our festival? Yes. You probably see it more at the camping festivals because everyone is there for the weekend and some people are doing multiple sets. Probably a little more than the big urban festivals. It think that’s part of the magic.
What can you tell us about the “Interstellar Sanctum” that runs all night long?
I think electronic music kind of had its home in Miami and the urban club scenes and we got this wild hair – how cool would it be to put it in a tent on the mountain and bring in the full-blown lighting and video? The Bassnectar show last year, 8,000 to 10,000people there and it felt as if they were all three feet off the ground. The energy was something I had never seen in my life. So it works. Although it was kind of a unique juxtaposition at first.
It’s kind of where popular music has gown. All music goes through phases. I think right now it’s a very popular genre and there’s some interesting technology. In essence, we’re giving the kids what they want, but I think we were kind of trailblazers in that genre.
You drew approximately 18,000 last year? Do you think attendance will continue to grow or are you predicting a leveling off period?
For us, we’re very near our leveling off period. We nearly doubled last year in size. We’re probably comfortable selling to 20,000 knowing there’s roughly three to five thousand needed to support the festival in terms of musicians, volunteers, staff, vendors and you name it. And we’re just not able to grow beyond that. At that point we’ve always said we don’t want to be the biggest as long as people think of it as the best.
How many people does it take to put on Wakarusa?
When we go to do our credentials, it’s somewhere in the four thousand range. Security, parkers, vendors and artists. We have about 1,000 volunteers.
How does Wakarusa impact the local economy?
It’s Christmas in June for them, for sure.
Is it Christmas in June for merchants and services providers in the area as well as vendors within the festival's grounds?
They gotta get a cheeseburger, gas and supplies. I think we’re one of the biggest accounts for the locksmiths, ambulance services, you name it. It impacts most businesses pretty positively.
What forms of advertising do you heavily invest in?
We do everything from billboards to radio to print, but I must say we tapped the power of the Internet from day one and continued the way with Facebook and such. It’s not like we’re taking out ads in Seattle and Miami.
Last chance. Is there something you’ve wanted to tell the world but no one ever asks you the right question?
I guess if I’m going to play philosopher and get on my soap box for one second, I’d say when we first did Wakarusa, there was a very abruptness about what was going on. When you watch the Woodstock movie, you wonder how did those kids do that? But they all think of it now, in their 60s or whatever, that it was the most magic time of my life.
And we’re all so bound by technology, stress and 25-hour days. If you can get away from it once a month or a few times a year, I think it’s critical to your well being. You watch these people that may come from Chicago, St. Louis or Kansas City where you’re getting honked at and flipped off at every intersection, they come to Wakarusa and they’re relaxed and happy. They’re not bound by consumerism. They’re content and friendly. They’re like, “You go first.” Sometimes I sit at four-way stops and say, “Somebody go first.” It’s just magic.
These guys may be dirt poor. They probably don’t have a flat screen or three-car garage. And it hit me like a ton of bricks. These people are happier than the people I see in towns. These people may have something on the rest of us, where you need to quit chasing the flat screen or the $800 phone or laptop. Maybe there could be a marriage to bring us all a little back to earth.
I watch my teenagers with their thumbs just smoking, and I’m like, “Have you hugged a girl, lately? Do you dance anymore? Can you talk to a person face-to-face?”
I really think getting back to nature, putting your feet in the mud and unplugging for four days, it’s way bigger than a great party. It’s recharging your battery and your life, to get to waterfalls and mountains and what I consider real stuff. Real people, real nature and real art.’
When I bring friends to the mountain, they’re like, “That was the coolest thing.” They may not be fans of STS9, Yonder Mountain String Band or String Cheese Incident, but they felt that liberation and freedom from being unplugged, being real and being connected to music, art and people.
It’s like you gotta get to the beach, you gotta get to the mountains, you gotta get away. And Wakarusa is a destination vacation. If you want to be dancing to Bassnectar at six in the morning, that’s great. If you want to wake up at six in the morning and take a river float and see acoustic music in the woods, you can. It can mold to whatever fits your vibe. But more than anything, it’s that plugging into bigger and better things, changing your pace, breathing fresh air and letting the thumbs have a rest.