Arkansas’ Wakarusa Festival has a reputation for mixing up-and-coming artists with long-established bands. To get a better look at how organizers build the yearly lineups, Pollstar turned to Wakarusa’s top gun, Pipeline Productions co-owner Brett Mosiman.
This isn’t the first time Mosiman has talked to Pollstar. In 2011 the indie promoter gave us an overall look at the annual festival following Memorial Weekend that takes place on Mulberry Mountain near Ozark, Ark. A completely homegrown festival, there is rarely a moment when there isn’t something going on during Wakarusa’s three glorious days of music in the great outdoors.
“We work really hard to do the little things that make your weekend comfortable.” Mosiman told Pollstar in 2011. “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 … 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.”
A lot can happen in a year. Wakarusa has always been friendly to electronic artists and we wanted to get Mosiman’s take on the genre’s enormous growth in popularity along with how he looks for new talent in any genre to grace one of his six stages.
Wakarusa 2011, Mulberry Mountain, Ark.
June 1, 2011
What’s different about Wakarusa in 2012?
We have a few more amenities. Some water slides, zip lines and stuff. I would say we’re kind of in the fine-tuning and tinkering stage, so we’re settled into our new site. We love it and we’re just trying to make everything run better.
Are there more electronic music acts on this year’s lineup than past Wakarusas?
I don’t think so. Some cross over, maybe there’s a few more live electronic acts. I think more [that] that just gotten higher profiles, like Big Gigantic, Beats Antique and Girl Talk are big now. I think we had them in their infancy and now maybe they stick out more because they’re more of a household name and they’re drawing more crowds.
Big Gigantic played Wakarusa last year, but they’ve grown significantly since then.
Yeah. Pretty Lights the same thing. They played two years ago. Then I saw them at ACL [Austin City Limits Music Festival] last year in front of 40,000 or 50,000 people. A lot of the acts we’ve had over the past four years but the genre has just exploded. Pretty Lights, Skrillex, Bassnectar – all have played Wakarusa for five or six years, but this year they just got huger than huge.
Considering Wakarusa’s reputation for booking up-and-coming acts, do you think you had a hand in Big Gigantic’s rise to fame?
Absolutely. I think to a small degree we’ve helped all those careers. We booked all of them when they didn’t mean a lot and didn’t cost a lot. In the case of those four acts, they all had absolutely epic Wakarusa sets. Just frenetic sets that were kind of buzz worthy for the whole summer. People would catch me in August or September and say, “Oh, my God, that Skrillex set or Big Gigantic set or that Bassnectar set was off the hook.”
We specialize in younger, up-and-coming acts, and we certainly like to expose those bands.
Regarding those epic sets, as you put it, were you as surprised at the performances as your customers were?
I’d say by the time [of the festival]. There’s this six month lag time between when you book it and the festival, and we work at projecting these things and put them in slots we think are super high profile. But yeah, when we booked it, we didn’t expect it to explode to that degree. But by the time the weekend is there, you can kind of feel the energy of what people are really keying on. If you ask me Thursday night if Skrillex, Big Gigantic or Bassnectar is going to go off, and I’m going to say, “Yeah, you better get there early.”
Those are all electronic. On the rock side, we’ve had The Black Keys and Mumford & Sons the last two years which exploded too.
How do you find the up-and-coming bands?
I think being in the business a long time, having a good ear, you pay attention to other key festivals the year before where maybe baby acts will break out. Or go to SXSW every year and there are usually a handful of buzz-worthy acts coming out of there. It’s work but somebody’s got to do it. For a music head it’s the kind of work you like. Listening to new music and hearing the spiel from the agent and manager about what they have planned for the artist. And just having a gut [feeling] about the music itself, what you think will connect with the largely Midwestern fan.
Regarding the 2012 Wakarusa lineup: Who do you see as acts on the verge of exploding? Which acts do you think people will be talking about long after the festival?
I think Big Gigantic is still in a great ascent as we speak. There’s an electronic act from [the Netherlands] called Nobody Beats The Drum that’s going to hit a dozen major festivals this year. They’ve got a pretty good storyline that will catch some fans. We’re hoping that Edward Sharpe has a breakout sophomore year here.
I don’t know if there’s a Black Keys or a Skrillex. I think we have a lot of solid acts, like Girl Talk, Pretty Lights and Avett Brothers that are kind of at the small arena level. To go from a $40,000 band to a half-a-million dollar band in just a few months like Black Keys or Skrillex did, it just doesn’t happen every year.
What could be finer than music on the mountain?
June 2, 2011
When we spoke last year, you were really excited about My Morning Jacket playing Wakarusa. How did that work out for you?
They were great. They didn’t disappoint. I think My Morning Jacket and Bassnectar were probably the two big sets of the year last year. Of course, there was Skrillex and Mumford & Sons. It was a great, great year and kind of solidified ourselves in the mid-level festival world. We’ve always had a pretty strong identity as a festival that puts together a really great lineup top to bottom. I remember telling you that Wakarusa’s shtick, if you will, isn’t necessarily the headliners. The bands 15 through 75 are all super solid.
A lot of them, especially the mid-level festivals will toss eight bands out there, and that’s about it. With us, we feel like you get another 70 acts that are really strong nationally touring acts. In the 40s and 50s you’ll get people like Gary Clark Jr. and a lot of buzz bands that have been on your cover, say, the last three months. That’s what makes Wakarusa special. You can go home with six of your new favorite acts that you never heard of before you got there that weekend.
Are there any acts just beginning to surface that you see as possible future Wakarusa artists?
I’m really high on the new neo-folk, if you will. That’s a genre that’s absolutely blowing up. I’m an old fan of Uncle Tupelo and The Jayhawks, so that’s all good stuff for me. Things like The Head And The Heart, Of Monsters & Men, The Moondoggies, those are the kind of things that are going to follow up Mumford’s success, probably I’d be looking at to really make a splash. Along those lines, like the Americana and blues of Alabama Shakes, and stuff like that.
Do you ever see Wakarusa branching out and playing other areas, like Lollapalooza branching out internationally?
I think not. I don’t see us going international or anything. I don’t think we have that strong of a brand. [Lollapalooza promoter] C3 is a big huge marketing company, so it makes sense and was probably on their drawing board when they took over the brand.
I could see making a run at another region of the country with the Wakarusa brand, but there’s probably less than a 50-50 shot at that.
What would you like to tell Wakarusa fans about this year’s festival?
I think the thing that sets us apart now – most of the festivals have a lot of great bands, and certainly I think we have a great lineup – we are four days in this idyllic setting in the middle of nowhere – I think the site of Wakarusa, like at Telluride, sets us apart. We’re not at the county fairgrounds or a city park or a corn field. We’re on the top of a mountain surrounded by float rivers and waterfalls, unencumbered by civilization and technology. It really is an idyllic weekend of nature, music and friends in which should be experienced by everyone. It should be on everybody’s bucket lists.
Set for May 31-June 3, the Wakarusa’s 2012 lineup includes Primus, Umphrey’s McGee, Girl Talk, Pretty Lights, Big Gigantic, Railroad Earth, Keller Williams, Gary Clark Jr. and more. Current ticket prices range from $99 two-day passes to $164 full event passes. VIP, camping, RV and children’s passes are also available. But you better hustle because ticket prices go up April 7. For everything you need to know about this year’s three-day blowout on Mulberry Mountain, visit Wakarusa.com and click here to read Pollstar’s 2011 interview with Brett Mosiman.