With every passing month, it becomes more clear that we’re living in “peak festival” culture. In the midst of such rapid growth, there are bound to high points and low points in the festival landscape, outliers that bookend the spectrum of events that are cropping up every year. As far as I can tell, when it comes to the west coast, San Francisco’s Outside Lands has become that high point, and it may even be the country-wide pinnacle. I guess I’ll have to determine that for myself once and for all in a couple weekends, when I finally get to attend the event for the first time.
Until the fall of last year, I was living on the east coast in New York City, which means my access to festivals three time zones away was generally limited by budget, time constrains, and the hassle of traveling. Even so, my peers who did have the resources continually told me that Outside Lands was one of the festivals they most looked forward to attending. This pricked up my ears, because that’s definitely an outlier in the music journalism world — in fact, plenty of other festival names come muttered under the breath, like dirty words.
So what makes this San Francisco-based event such an outlier? After all, it’s not like it’s an easy feat to throw an event that brings thousands and thousands of people into a park in the heart of one of the country’s most densely-packed metropolises. Over the last ten years, however, Outside Lands has built a festival that celebrates the city it’s located in, relying on the community itself instead of attempting to overshadow or ignore it.
“Our defining ethos is to take care of the audience and the artist,” said Allen Scott, of Another Planet, the Northern Californian production company that puts on the event every year in conjunction with Bonnaroo founders, Superfly Productions. “It’s an attention to detail that we and our partners have on these festivals, and with Outside Lands specifically, it’s always always been about a celebration of San Francisco and the Bay Area. In every single detail, that’s what we want to do.”
Before the inception of Outside Lands, Superfly co-founder Rick Farman remembers wondering why a city like San Francisco — which is the third largest music markets in the country — had gone so long without a city festival.
“It was one of those things where you almost thought there had to be a reason,” Farman recalls. “And as we started to dig in with Another Planet and peel back the layers of it, we realized that there were some barriers in place, but between our knowledge of the festival marketplace, and what Another Planet had with all of their relationships in the city and their knowledge of the market, we realized the combination of us would be a really fantastic partnership. Eventually, we all started to become friends, and realized that this idea was something really worth putting a lot of effort into. So, it took us many years — it was about three years from the time we really started to plot it until the time it launched. But we’re so glad we put that effort in, because now we have an amazing event and amazing partnership.”
In 2008, when Outside Lands kicked off, they were one of the only festivals in the country to feature local and high-end restaurants with food onsite. In 2017, it’s hard to imagine a festival without a variety of trendy food vendors rolled out right alongside the performers, but ten years ago, Outside Lands was one of the very first modern music festivals to incorporate that element. Currently, one hundred percent of the food offerings at the fest are from local San Francisco spots, and the same goes for the extensive beer and wine vendors, who occupy their own mini kingdoms onsite, Wine Lands and Beer Lands respectively.
“We definitely were on the leading edge of modern festival incorporation of local food,” Farman said. “But, I think what we have that’s really the most unique of any festival scene in that regard, is that it’s not only food, but it’s also beverages. We serve 150 different types of wine at our festival. We have sixty different types of beer. We have this area, Cocktail Magic, where we have some of the best cocktail makers in the world making really interesting, specialty drinks. I don’t think there’s anywhere out there that comes close to the diversity and breadth of that offering.”
Scott calls Outside Lands “the Godfather of today’s festival cuisine,” and he’s absolutely right; for what it’s worth, the fest also features Cheese Lands, Choco Lands, Outside Clams, the aforementioned Cocktail Magic, and Gastromagic, a sort of food variety show that combines cooking, comedy and music. And aside from touring musicians who may be involved with Gastromagic, one hundred percent of those vendors come from the Bay Area itself
“It’s a really, really local San Francisco/Bay Area festival, even though half the audience comes from outside the Bay,” Scott explained. “All of the stages are named after San Francisco landmarks. Fifteen percent of the artists are local musicians that are playing the festival. In a lot of ways the festival is very ethnocentric.”
Aside from the extensive cuisine, and an emphasis on celebration of the local, Outside Lands has also developed a reputation for booking artists who tend to have long career arcs, not flash-in-the-pan trends. In their first year, the fest had Radiohead as the inaugural headliner playing a set after dark in Golden Gate Park. One year, Paul McCartney played, and did a two hour long soundcheck the day before that gave nearby residents the equivalent of a free — if sightless — show. This year, iconic rockers like Metallic and The Who will play right alongside one of the world’s foremost emerging pop stars, Lorde, and hip-hop legends A Tribe Called Quest.
“Since the popularity of hip-hop, and EDM and other styles of music has come into vogue, the festival has evolved with that,” Scott notes. “But running through from year one, everyone we’ve tried to book are career-type artists. They’re either have had a long career or they’re at the beginning of what is going to be a long career, and they’re all great live performers. We’re not trying to cash in on the trendiest act that’s out there, we’re a little bit more looking for career artists.”
Over the course of ten years, the two companies have been able to work together with the community to really fine tune the festival, and hone the programming and organization until it is truly an event that reflects San Francisco itself.
“Planning an event like this, the intention is to become part of the community and become representative of it,” Farman said. “It takes a long time to marinate that, and I think the thing that probably is the most different from the beginning till now, is in the beginning we were kind of trying to figure out exactly how to do that, what our identity was, how we were going to manifest that basic concept, and, ten years in now, it’s seasoned in that regard. There’s so many different people who participate in it, the creation of the actual presentation of it, the economics of it, the creativity of it, it’s really substantive in that regard.”
Allowing room for this type of marination also plays into the advice Scott would give to first-timers at Outside Lands, or festival-goers in general: Pace yourself. Aside from his suggestion to check out the smaller stages, all the many food and beverage offerings, and other entertainment forms, like the comedy tent The Barbary, which recently doubled in size, his main advice centers around freedom and flexibility
“You’re out there for three days, and there’s a lot to see,” he said. “Don’t feel like you need to see every note of every act. Plan your day out, but don’t plan it so tightly that you can’t take fun diversions There’s just so many great musical moments, but there’s also so many more social moments throughout the weekend that you and your friends can have. So, take it in and try to experience everything you can at the festival, but at a reasonable pace.”
Speaking of pace, in just two short weeks, Uproxx Music social producer Frankie Greek and I will be heading up to Outside Lands ourselves, roadtripping from LA to the Bay in a brand new 2018 Chevy Equinox we’ve been entrusted with for the drive. One of the reasons this car is so great? It miraculously, comes equipped with wi-fi so we can continue blogging and creating content on the drive up — and we’ll be Instagramming, Snapchatting and Tweeting not only the roadtrip, but the festival itself. Hell, if the mood strikes us, we might even pull off a Facebook Live in the car.
Make sure to follow along on the Uproxx Music Instagram and Twitteraccounts. At the end of the trip, we’ll be offering plenty of our own conclusions on whether or not Outside Lands lives up to its stellar reputation. But as Farman notes, the real victory for an event like this, is the partnerships and relationships it has forged over the last decade.
“We’re always honored to be throwing an event in Golden Gate Park,” he said. “We pinch ourselves every time we get out there and get to put this big party on, but we’re really grateful for our partnership with Another Planet. Working with guys like Allen, that’s one of the reasons that Outside Lands is so special — because the the partnership between Superfly and Another Planet is so special, and I think it really shows through in kind of the way we produce the event and what that result is.”