Why Are So Many Bands Starting Their Own Music Festivals?

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Acts from Wilco to Pearl Jam to Yonder Mountain String Band have been hosting name-branded, mini-Coachellas recently

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Yonder String Mountain Band at Harvest Music Festival

Two weeks ago, nearly 8,000 people gathered on a picturesque mountaintop in Arkansas's Ozark National Forest for the Yonder Mountain String Band Harvest Music Festival. The crowds came from nearby Fayetteville and not-so-nearby Norman, Oklahoma. They came from St. Louis, Tulsa and Kansas City; fresh-scrubbed Millennials in tie-dyes, and Baby Boomers still recovering from the '60s, sun-wizened with gray beards and thin ponytails. They came by hatchbacks, sedans and pickups, by rattletrap VW buses, borrowed minivans, and shining chrome-covered RV's, replete with kitchenettes and hot showers.

They came to hear live music. Lots and lots of it. They came for bands ranging from the Pixies-cover-prone Trampled by Turtles to songwriters like Jay Nash and Sara Watkins, the fine fiddler who made her name with Nickel Creek. They came to hear the masterful Peter Rowan, a Buddha-like Bluegrass player who has toured with Bill Monroe and recorded with Jerry Garcia.

Much of the crowd, especially those in their '20s, came to hear the festival's namesake, Yonder Mountain String Band. Often just "Yonder" for short, the hard-charging Neo-Bluegrass quartet from Colorado have won surprising fame for bringing speed-metal chops and an arena-rock mindset to the old school Appalachia line-up of banjo, mandolin, guitar, and standup bass.

Yonder, who also host the Northwest Strings Summit near Portland, Oregon, aren't the first band to stage their own festivals, of course. A diverse but small group of acts have been organizing their own annual celebrations of themselves since the 1990s, including Phish, Disco Biscuits, and a very ...interesting... gathering staged by Insane Clown Posse. The Roots were another early adopter, founding the Picnic five years ago. And Lollapalooza, after all, started as a Jane's Addiction farewell event.

In 2011, though, the vanity fest went viral. 311 staged their first multi-day event, the Pow Wow in Florida. Pearl Jam held their first festival near Chicago, to celebrate their 20th anniversary. In lieu of a tour this summer, Dave Matthews Band staged the DMB Caravan—basically four weekend-long festivals staged in four different states. Humble little Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, for goodness sake, had their own festival in Vermont. Even Nashville artists are getting in on the act. Last week the stadium-sized country crossover Zac Brown Band held the first annual Southern Ground Music & Food Festival in Charleston, South Carolina.

Bradley Rogers, an editor at concert-industry trade publication Pollstar, confirms that bands staging festivals of their own has suddenly become all the rage. "It's absolutely a trend," Rogers said. Money, obviously, is a motive. "With the advent of music-sharing," Rogers said, "most bands aren't making money off record sales like they used to."

By taking the financial risk of underwriting an event, bands also put themselves in position to reap greater rewards at the gate and merch tables. In a changing music industry, that's essential. "That's especially true for bands that play Americana, or are in an underground scene," Rogers said. "These are artists that don't normally get a lot of airplay. A festival is great way for them to reach out connect with fans. It helps artists build their fan base, build their community."

Ben Kaufmann, Yonder's savagely talented bassist, doesn't mind admitting that money matters. On a golf cart tour of the Harvest fest grounds, Kaufman first confessed his hope to be remembered as the John Bonham of stand-up bass. Then he described Yonder as essentially a live act.

"So much of pop music is really a producer's medium," Kaufmann said. "And you don't need to have an audience being in the studio. But for us—where we sell tickets, we don't sell records—if the people didn't show up, it would suck."

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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