California has long led the country in music festival trends. Its diverse topographical options and draught-enhanced "fair weather" have attracted thrill seekers, starlets and starfuckers, adventurers, bohemians, and opportunists for decades. The Golden State's two iconic events, Coachella and Burning Man* (*not technically in California anymore, but was created in the Bay Area), bookend the summer festival season and are lightning rods for the aforementioned sub phyla of festival devotees.
While it's become fashionable to complain about the over-commercialization, brandification or Costco-ification of the Burn and Coachella, it's become even more fashionable for California and Southwest desert upstarts to launch their own festivals to cover this need to go smaller, deeper, and more underground. Come summer, music websites are plastered with ads for the steady stream of boutique festivals hoping to capitalize on a more intimate alternative to large-scale music consumption.
Obviously, California's cottage industry of more grassroots, outdoor "music and art" festivals is not a new phenomenon. Europe's been doing it well for decades, and smaller festivals have existed in California and around the States in one form or another since at least the birth of rock and roll. But underground dance fests on the West Coast are growing like, well, wildfires.
Lightning in a Bottle (Photo by Zipporah Lomax)
One of the oldest and best-known festivals that hasn't mushroomed into a 20,000+ event is Lightning in a Bottle presented by The Do LaB, a crew that also presents their renegade stage at Coachella, one that sticks out in terms of both leftist programming and lavish production. Lightning began as a private birthday party and mutated into a public event in 2004, eventually leaving its Southern California roots in 2015 to settle in Bradley, a small town in central California. This past year's roster ranged from more underground-skewing DJs like Shaun Reeves, Lee Burridge, and Max Cooper to more broadly recognizable names like Flume, Panda Bear, and RL Grime.
Many of these California festivals have published their own self-serious mission statements (whether or not they achieve it is another thing), and Lightning's is an admirable one: not only to "leave no trace" but to go even further by establishing itself as one of America's greenest music festivals—promoting environmental sustainability as well as mental and physical wellness.
Festival co-founder Mikey Lion claims that Lightning was hugely influential on the inception of Desert Hearts, a festival which is in its third year. Lion explains, "We've slowly grown our festival over the last three years so it never seems like it's getting too crazy. We've definitely found the sweet spot that fits our One Stage, One Vibe ethos."
Desert Hearts offers very limited RV spots and price points of $100-$180 for the three day excursion, and they seem to have settled into their niche of simple but not simplistic summer camp #vibes. Lee Reynolds, fellow co-founder of Desert Hearts, admits that on a personal level, he's "all for glamorous camping!" However, Reynolds doesn't foresee Desert Hearts ever offering pre-paid luxury accommodation, or VIP passes—something they think cheapens the experience for everyone. "If you want to camp in you have to put in the initial leg work like the rest of us!"
Sunset Campout (Photo by Robin Russell)
Heading north up the 5, Sunset Campout has mapped similar success in keeping it small and intimate while still delivering top-notch production. The Campout got its start in 1998 and ran until 2004 before going on hiatus until 2009, after they got too big for their previous location. Today, its current home is in Belden, California, population 22 in the 2010 census. This idyllic former gold mining town is nestled in the Feather River Canyon and offers shade, tubing, and rustic Great Outdoors aesthetics.
Last year, however, the Campout's future was put in jeopardy. According to founder Galen Abbott, "an event came in there, and they were so disorganized that they blew it." Galen says the other crew's irresponsible approach to over-selling the event almost caused Plumas County to cancel all future festivals; it took lots of pleading that "we're not all the same and that everyone should be individually accountable" to finally get their permits.
What many of the West Coast's boutique festivals share is a love thyself, love the earth, keep it real ethos. But like an organic food tag, it's not clear who's actually sticking to the script and who's co-opting it to market an image of 'underground' as label to self-validate as authentic in some way.
Further Future is an invite-only festival that premiered in May 2015 in the desert outside Las Vegas. Organized by dance promoters Robot Heart (known for their tech-house Burning Man parties), the event offers its cheapest tickets at $275, not including parking or camping fees. But they also offered luxury suites north of $3,000, and even a members-only area with a spa, around-the-clock food and dedicated hospitality, according to Forbes. In addition to high-end fine dining, massages, and a program of music, you could also attend a panel of mini-TED talk lectures from SoundCloud tech bros or George Mueller, "serial entrepreneur." Sounds like a blast. Events like this are probably less for music fans and more for aspiring CEOs/budding libertarian types, a way to trump one's colleagues who only make it out to basic, 101: Intro to Desert Raves level events.
Habitas chief Eduardo Castillo exemplified a tech-CEO-like total level of cognitive dissonance when he told the LA Times that "we actually have a hashtag that says #notglamping. With all respect, we definitely don't want this to be seen as a hippie festival." But that sentiment seems to contradict what Castillo says in his email newsletter, in which he literally invokes modern-day hippiedom:
"I encourage everyone to become gypsies for the day, to live and love freely... Gypset explores the unconventional, wanderlust lives of these high-low cultural nomads and the bohemian enclaves they inhabit, as well as their counterculture forbears, such as the Victorian explorers, the Lost Generation, the Beatniks, and the modern day hippy."
Look, there's nothing inherently wrong with luxury accommodations, or festivals tailored to the wealthier ends of the fashion and tech industries. Who doesn't want a vegan foie gras wrap or an obscure, white label massage? But you can get that experience in Palm Springs, LA, San Francisco, Vegas—basically anywhere.
A tent at a recent Habitas Summer event (Photo by Bill Kennedy)
When it comes to this new crop of festivals catering to California's most fickle archetype—the faux-bohemian ("bo-faux")—there's a disconnect between what they claim to be doing (keeping it open, sustainable and progressive) and what they're actually doing (making it exclusive, elitist, and environmentally wasteful). Who knows what the bo-faux will be into this time next year, or even this time tomorrow? Plus, stratifying the crowd into price point tiers and making attendees fill out applications to prove their cultural worth deflates any notion of togetherness or keeping it underground or "real"—and it's this sentiment that undermines the idea that the boutique experience is inherently any different than their larger, more demonstrably commercialized bigger brothers. As a bo-faux might say over asparagus water and artisanal magic mushrooms, "it's all about marketing."
The American West is seemingly vast but the boutique festival space has become crowded. There are only so many feasible event sites, summer weekends, or festival goers to go around. Abbott explains, "Every year there are ten new festivals. People see that and think, 'I can do this. I can put on a festival.' There's gonna be a saturation point. People are going to start losing money." When it all pans out, the difference between California gold and fool's gold, its duplicitous cousin, will come out in the wash.