ABOVE: Unknown Mortal Orchestra performs on the Bigfoot Stage in 2016.
Story and photos by Josh Hughes // AS Review
Two weeks ago, beloved PNW music festival Sasquatch! announced its 16th year lineup to oddly lukewarm reception. Held at The Gorge in eastern Washington each Memorial Day Weekend, Sasquatch! Festival originally generated acclaim for its diverse roster. But recently, attendance numbers have dropped and lineups have gotten smaller with each passing year. For what used to predominantly be a “guitar” festival, this year’s headliners, Twenty One Pilots, Frank Ocean and Chance The Rapper, seemed like peculiar picks. For a music event in the Northwest, it still has wider recognition and bigger budgets than most others, but what has happened in the last half decade that has brought Sasquatch to where it is today?
To answer that question, we first have to go back to how the festival started in 2002. Founder Adam Zacks created Sasquatch! at a time when the biggest festivals in the country were struggling to progress with the state of live music. Festivals across the country that have maintained a name for themselves over the years, such as Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, were either just getting their feet off the ground or nearly going under. Then Zacks stepped up to the industry to try and start a festival that occurred annually, in the same location, and with a regionally-focused lineup.
BELOW: The main stage at Sasquatch! 2016.
“Sasquatch was an idea born on a hunch that there was untapped demand for a certain kind of festival that catered to the eclectic tastes of music enthusiasts,” Zacks said. “It started in 2002, which was shortly after a number of the touring festivals had petered out and the beginning of the wave of regional festivals that started with Coachella and now is a dominant force on the music landscape.”
The 2002 Sasquatch! started as a single day event, and by its second year the festival had booked Coldplay, Death Cab For Cutie and Modest Mouse all in the same day. As other festivals started adopting the stationary model that Coachella and Sasquatch! had fairly successfully accomplished, the music festival industry in the states started booming, and promotion companies started taking notice.
Where independent festivals once needed to front excessive amounts of cash to their artists, companies like Live Nation stepped up, offering much broader means of promotion and an exponentially bigger well of money to pull from. This meant that these ticketing companies could wait for a festival to make it big independently in order to establish a following, and then swoop in to make the event a bigger moneymaking scheme. Wonder why LCD Soundsystem headlined so many festivals last year? FYF, Coachella and Panorama, all festivals that the band performed at, are owned (either directly or through other corporations) by AEG, the other big promotion competitor.
This essentially means that festivals can safely book more sought-after names once they’ve been purchased by one of these corporations. The most notable upside of this is that AEG and LiveNation mitigate the risk of festivals failing by fronting payments to the festivals, which are in return expected to make bigger and bigger profits with each year. Think of it as the “selling out” of music festivals if you will, but as a practice, it helps smaller, regional festivals compete with the likes of Coachella and Lollapalooza.
ABOVE: Vince Staples throws it down at Sasquatch! 2016.
This is where Sasquatch! starts to come in. Since the Gorge Amphitheater is a performance space that hosts concerts throughout the whole year, Sasquatch! itself does not own the amphitheater, but Live Nation does. This means instead of the company needing to buy out Sasquatch!, they already have control over where the festival takes place, which in turn means control over funding for the festival.
Until recently this has been a fairly quiet relationship, where Zacks has still maintained a heavy presence in making the lineup and concert experience each year. Live Nation has retained their influence throughout the years since Sasquatch!’s inception, but since the festival (again, until recently) has gotten bigger each year, their influence on the lineup itself has been minimal. Instead, they’ve made their presence known with $15 Budweisers and retweets of important Sasquatch! information.
The issue that eventually starts to arise with the partnership between Live Nation and Sasquatch! is not necessarily a fault of either company, but more of a miscommunication between the two. After a wildly successful 2014 that hosted Modest Mouse, Kendrick Lamar, Sleater-Kinney and Robert Plant, the festival tried extending its grasp by putting on a second weekend in July, but it got cancelled from poor ticket sales. Then came the 2015 lineup, which, while impressive, didn’t play off entirely as well. Headliners Florence & The Machine, The Cure, Major Lazer and Disclosure signified a shift in the festival’s overall sound and market audience, but it still resonated with longtime attendees for it’s diversity and exciting undercard. Yet, underwhelming ticket sales gave Live Nation a reason to panic, and so they took action.
The first cause for concern in 2017 was Zacks’ strange absence on social media. Where he once maintained hype for Sasquatch! throughout the year, his silence felt like a shift in politics from the originally independent festival. Once the lineup came out, people scratched their heads at both the stark transition of genre and the significantly smaller list. In an attempt to buffer the consequent losses that Sasquatch! could suffer after 2016, the festival had been cut down from four days to three, and Live Nation quickly tried to shift the target audience in hopes of reviving the festival.
The miscalculation that comes out of Live Nation’s power over the festival only makes sense, since it’s already happened with numerous other, big business-owned music festivals over the years. As the touring industry continued to boom as record sales dropped, artists began costing more to book than ever, and if the festival had already proven successful, AEG and Live Nation could front these costs with safe expected return. Just look to Coachella for the perfect, gargantuan festival platform; even with the owner’s controversial views coming to light, it’s a festival too big to fail. Sasquatch! sadly falls on the other side of the spectrum, where a mainstream attitude towards booking artists leaves longtime supporters confused in the face of Live Nation and AEG’s dual monopoly.
ABOVE: Sufjan Stevens wows the audience on the MainStage at Sasquatch! last summer.
What ultimately comes out of this relationship is a concern that festivals will starts to look eerily similar across the country; look again to some of last year’s biggest names such as Radiohead, LCD Soundsystem, and Florence + The Machine and the correlation of festivals that they appeared at. With the capitalization of the music festival industry, individuality is slowly being lost, and by extension, the appeal of one festival over another. Why go to Sasquatch! if you could go to Pemberton, up in B.C., for roughly the same price? Why stay loyal to one festival when another could quickly surpass it in terms of lineup quality? These are the sorts of questions that festival-goers have to ask themselves as the industry only continues to grow.
Beyond the politics of Sasquatch!, the lineup this year includes Twentyonepilots, Frank Ocean, Chance The Rapper, The Shins, MGMT, Car Seat Headrest, Kaytranada, Bonobo, Phantogram and many more, all of which can be found on their website at http://www.sasquatchfestival.com. The festival takes place at the Gorge Amphitheater this Memorial Day Weekend, from May 26 through 28, and ticket prices start at $295.