How to make a music-festival lineup, according to Sasquatch’s founder
In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
Summer-festival-lineup announcement season is heating up, meaning the music-loving public is also experiencing an intense period of roster-based whining. Within moments of Coachella or Pitchfork Music Festival announcing its headliners, the public starts passing judgment on Twitter about whether Phoenix or R. Kelly is an appropriate headliner, or whether Dinosaur Jr.’s low billing on a poster means it doesn’t deserve as much respect as, let’s say, Macklemore. All that complaining is just human nature, but it ignores the fact that the organizers of these festivals do have a method to their madness. Putting together a large-scale summer rock show isn’t just throwing a bunch of money at The Smiths and then hoping people show up. A lot more goes into making a festival, from contract negotiations to hospitality riders to, yes, poster font choices. For the first installment of Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talked to Adam Zacks, producer and founder of the Sasquatch Festival in the Pacific Northwest, about how he picks headliners, sells tickets, and navigates Washington’s new weed laws.
The A.V. Club: The Sasquatch lineup just came out this week. As a booker, when you’re putting together a lineup, what’s the ultimate goal, besides just breaking even?
Adam Zacks: One goal is to be distinctive, since there are so many good festivals now. Another is to foster a culture of music discovery and be champions of newer, younger bands.
AVC: Sasquatch is in May. How far in advance do you start booking?
AZ: In early fall, like September.
AVC: Do you pick headliners first and then work down or vice versa?
AZ: I’ve approached it different ways, but I kind of come at it all at once now. I track lots and lots of different bands throughout the year and keep a master list going. And those include everything from bands that haven’t put out a record yet to bands that have been on our target hitlist as headliners for years.
AVC: What makes a band stand out to you?
AZ: It’s super-subjective. Since it’s in my hands, the way I’ve always done it, it’s been kind of intuitive. In some ways it’s not that different from putting together a mixtape or something like that. I don’t want to make too much of the curation of a lineup, but there is some sort of story you want to tell when you put all these bands together. A lot of it is intuitive and is based on the experience of doing this year after year. What looks good on paper doesn’t always, necessarily, play off as well in person. It’s a bit of a balancing act for it to be impressive and enticing and exciting. Also, it helps to know what we know after doing this—this will be the 12th year—like how it’ll look and feel when you’re actually there at the festival.
AVC: It has to also be a balancing act between picking cool, new bands and actually selling tickets, right?
AZ: There’s a practical concern and we have to be diligent about not doing what you were just describing. It has to be balanced, for sure.
AVC: Do you allot your budget in a certain way, like 30 percent goes to headliners, 70 percent to undercard, or is it looser than that?
AZ: I most definitely have a budget. Without getting into specifics, I can say that I want to pay people fairly and try to maintain fair ticket prices as well. That’s a bit of the overall balancing act: You could book a dream festival if you had unlimited funds and you could jack the ticket prices up crazy high; maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn’t.
AVC: But then would fans come next year or two years from now?
AZ: Yeah, there are a lot of issues with doing that. There are ethical issues, artistic issues, and programming issues. Maybe you do score some massive band and pay them a lot of money and it ends up being worth it. But then you’ve raised the expectations so high that you have to do that year after year. And luckily, our festival is a little bit smaller than the gigantic ones. So we’re never really in a position where we have to have those considerations.
AVC: You’re not paying The Smiths to get back together.
AZ: No, I would love to see that happen, but exactly. We’re not the ones writing those kinds of checks and, therefore, we don’t really have to make those kinds of decisions at the U2 or Rolling Stones level. And I’m really grateful for that. It allows a different kind of creativity in a lineup that I like, that is really well-suited for this kind of festival.
AVC: What’s Sasquatch’s capacity?
AZ: 27,500 per day.
AVC: When you’re putting together a lineup, how conscious are you about trying to please certain groups of people? If you book an act like Mumford And Sons, do you make sure to try and get a rapper and an EDM act to balance everything out?
AZ: I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s definitely giving the people what they want to a degree while maintaining some credibility with the festival and introducing things that people don’t know that they want yet. And also not going so lowbrow with it. EDM could completely go and take things in the wrong direction if we programmed too much of it or the wrong kind of it. A little of that flavor is appropriate and works well. Too much of it would dilute what the festival’s about.
AVC: How much of your lineup comes from you seeking out certain bands and how much comes from a band’s booking agent convincing you to go with an act?
AZ: It’s a combination of me chasing down bands that I’ve found in whatever fashion and then agents and managers contacting me as well.
AVC: How long is that process?
AZ: Sometimes it’s very quick, and sometimes it can be even a couple of years if you’re chasing something bigger.
AVC: How do you know what’s going to be popular since you’re booking so far in advance? For instance, Phoenix put out a big record a few years ago, but they haven’t done much since. Still, they’re headlining Coachella on the premise that they do have a new record coming and that, ideally, people are going to really like it.
AZ: It is subjective, but it’s also a little bit of gambling. You track all these bands and you’re measuring airplay and record sales and keeping your ear to the ground. Not that keeping those metrics can design a great festival, but they’re just markers that you can track. It’s informed intuition.
AVC: It’s also about balance. You wouldn’t want to have three electronic headliners, or two big rock acts playing against each other on the same night. In that vein, how do you decide who plays on what stage at what time? How do you choose who headlines a small stage vs. playing at 3 p.m. on a big stage? And who plays opposite whom?
AZ: That’s a little tricky, but you just keep a grid of who would be playing against who else on other stages. And you do your best not to fumble the ball and put something really similar on top of something else really similar. It doesn’t always work out that way because of travel issues and things like that, but we try our best and we do okay at it.
In terms of who plays after who, on one level it’s easy because you have touring history with most of these bands and album sales, so it’s generally pretty clear that one band is much bigger than another band and here’s why. But a phenomenon that’s happened, especially in the last three or four years, is that bands are getting bigger much quicker and out of nowhere. So at the time of booking and setting the schedule, things could be one way, and by the time the festival plays, things are radically different. Every year the last few years, there’s been an extreme example of that. Last year, Fun was the biggest example. They were sort of a middle-of-the-day slot on our second-biggest stage, and by the time the festival played off, they were in the middle of having the biggest song in the country and had just been on Saturday Night Live. It was sort of ridiculous because they were playing before the Cave Singers and not on the main stage. We actually gave them the option to switch and shuffle things around, and they made the cool decision to stay where they were and there was just a mob scene at the smaller stage.
AVC: I was at Sasquatch several years ago right when Mumford And Sons were about to break, and the same thing happened. They were playing some tiny stage in the middle of the afternoon, and it was madness. It seemed like almost every person there was watching them play.
AZ: And the year after that, Foster The People was on the really small stage and it was early in the day, and it was the most people we’d ever seen there. It was the same thing: Their big song timed right out with the festival.
AVC: Do any bands demand certain slots?
AZ: It comes up, but only with the bands with that kind of leverage. Toward the top of the bill, those kinds of conversations start to happen. And all you can do is try to treat people fairly and be respectful. But every now and then, someone gets out of line and tries to get something more for their band than what they deserve or underestimate what one of the bands underneath them is really about.
AZ: I would love to talk about that more because I have an have an issue with what I think is typographical in nature. Different festivals choose to present their lineups in different fashions. Some split it up by days, some do all the same type size and all the days combined, so there’s different ways to approach it. I think it’s a serious graphic-design challenge. I don’t think we’ve done it all that great and I don’t think many other festivals have either. I think there’s a better solution out there for treating all the bands—even the very first one on the very small stage—respectfully and providing the obvious headliner information in a fashion that makes sense. There needs to be more attention to that. I think it’ll suit the festivals really well if we can figure that shit out, because a lot of the great stuff that’s being booked in these festivals is getting lost.
AVC: A fan could look at a lineup and just see the headliners and think, “Well, I don’t want to see these three bands, so I’m not going.”
AZ: You get the snapshot view and so much gets missed, especially so much of the really good stuff. All these festival programmers do this great work sifting through a massive amount of bands. I would hope a lot of people care about more than just the headliners, and I think we can foster that if we do a better job in presenting the lineup as such.
AVC: How did you present this year’s lineup to help conquer that perception?
AZ: Our poster is just all the band names stacked to form a Sasquatch image. Each band name is its own separate custom bumper sticker. Not everything is in the same type, but things are different sizes and even the smallest band is totally legible. We’re just taking a different approach as a step toward giving every band its own little bit of the spotlight.
AVC: Do you read public feedback about your lineup? Do you go on message boards or Twitter or field emails from people who wish you’d booked Foster The People again? Does that consciously influence what you might do for the next year’s fest?
AZ: A little bit. I don’t go on the message boards anymore because it’s a lot to wade through and I don’t want it to influence—for better or worse—the booking, at least before I do it. But once I book the fest, it’s nice to get some sort of feedback about the response to the lineup. You have to have thick skin and take all of it with a grain of salt and be confident in the decisions you’ve made, and I don’t have any problem with that.
We look at Facebook a lot for feedback, less about the lineup and more around festival processes. Like, “Hey, you guys have fucked up and not put this information on the website,” or any number of bits of minutiae that will help make the festival better. We’ve taken some tips straight from Facebook comments and made some changes from last year to this year that I think will make everyone’s experience better.
AVC: Anything in specific?
AZ: It’s all kind of boring, but it makes a difference when you’re there.
Last year was the first year we did RFID wristbands. What those allowed us to do was give in-and-out privileges between the venue and the campground that had not been allowed before. It was a huge change in the festival for the positive. But also, the system was a little janky, and we handed out wristbands when people arrived and not in advance. It wasn’t a great system, and there was so much feedback from people who said, “Just send them to us in advance and if we lose them, it’s on us.” So that’s happening this year.
People are asking a lot about the pot laws, because it’s legal in Washington state now, but there are a lot of questions around it and a lot of uncertainty. You’re certainly not allowed to smoke in public or even show it in public, but then you have to think about the nature of an outdoor event, because it’s not like it won’t be there. That’s triggered discussions of how we communicate a policy, providing information for festival-goers in as clear a way as possible. Those are the kind of things I pay a lot of attention to.
AVC: Earlier, you said you keep track of a band’s metrics. Do you have a target you look for, as in, does a band have to sell a certain number of records to headline a festival?
AZ: It’s more about backing up my instincts. If I just hear a band and like them, that probably isn’t enough. There needs to be something bubbling and happening beyond my own personal taste. That can be any number of things, like airplay on a radio station. That would back up my choice.
AVC: Speaking of that, how important is regional radio? Let’s say a band is kind of middling elsewhere but getting a lot of play on KEXP in Seattle, does that make a difference?
AZ: Yeah, a lot of it is that. We consciously book Canadian acts because a pretty huge percentage of our attendance comes from Canada. There are more attendants from Canada as a whole, if you combine all the provinces, than from Oregon, for instance. I don’t think people would assume that. So it’s not just looking at KEXP’s playlist, but that’s definitely a piece of the puzzle.
AVC: Beyond doing 12 successful festivals, why do you think you’re the man for this job? Is there one thing you can point to and say, “This is why I’m good at what I do”?
AZ: When I have any resistance to doing interviews about festivals, the resistance is based around that. Who the fuck cares what I think? I don’t claim to be an expert. I just do this and thank God I’ve been really successful at it and maybe that’s what gives me credibility. The festival succeeds and that’s all the more reason to think I know what I’m doing. But that’s what makes anybody good at anything.