In a music festival climate cluttered with options, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the American market. In this great festival boom, every type of event imaginable has popped up, from the gargantuan Bonnaroo’s of the world, to the scattered stages of free city fests. Amid all the noise, though, one festival is doing its own thing—Texas’ UTOPiA Fest.
UTOPiA Festival 2014
We sat down with Aaron Brown, the festival director of UTOPiA, to hear the story behind the event. Join us, as we discuss the ethereal “magic” that drove him towards this clearing in the mountains of remote Texas.
“For thousands of years, people have been gathering and celebrating here. There’s arrowheads out there, there’s an essence there. You can feel it. The artists pick up on it.”
The festival takes place on September 12-14. You can grab tickets here. Check out what makes this festival a bit different from the rest, and enter to win 2 weekend passes below!
Rukkus: What inspired you to get involved with UTOPiAfest?
Aaron Brown: When I first drove onto the ranch, my jaw dropped. The festival grounds in Utopia, TX is one of those venues you only get to experience a few times in your life. I came in with no expectations and it instantly it just felt right. Just pure magic.
I first came as a videographer to film the fest; my brother and I made the trip together. After we attended the festival, we had a long ride back to Austin and talked about what an amazing place it was, and what a cool weekend we had, and how we would want to go back there.
I have my own production company—though we hand’t done festival production yet—and I approached Travis [the festival founder] and asked simply “would you like this thing to mature?” The rest was history.
With the increasingly crowded festival scene, is it difficult to make sure your festival stands out amid the countless other options?
That’s a challenge for us. It’s interesting because the word-of-mouth is so pervasive among those who come. Our return rate is in the 90% range. The festival goers return with their friends and family, but it’s like they don’t want to let the secret get out.
When it comes to putting on a festival, you just have to focus on the concert and do it as well as you can. Make it intimate and high-quality and define it. That’s why we cap our audience, make it B.Y.O.B, have two stages with no overlapping sets, provide free parking and camping… we really just asked ourselves: “What does the perfect look like to us?”
A lot of the classic “Woodstock” values are embraced with UTOPiA. In what ways do you think festivals have deviated from the values of that time, and how does UTOPiA avoid the pitfalls of corporatization?
It’s funny, we gain a lot of comparisons to Woodstock. It has a lot of the attributes, certainly—cell phones don’t work out there. For one weekend of the year, I get to put it away. I’ve always liked that.
When comes to balancing that with modern festivals, I think there’s a sweet spot. The mega-festivals, they have a goal of selling as many tickets as they can possibly sell of people that can fit in that venue. That equals more money, more sponsors, more alcohol. It becomes impossible to ignore the money. It’s hard to avoid.
In terms of avoiding that, UTOPiA must stay true to ‘high-quality and intimate at the same time.’ We cap the fest to ensure this unique ‘experience.’
Can you describe the process of choosing which acts to book? Is it bands that you love or ones that fit the festival’s vibe?
We start with a big list of bands we love. We organize it based on availability and price, routing… so many factors. It’s not just ‘if you want a band, book them.’ It doesn’t work like that. We have to ask ‘Is the band touring? Do they have an album?’
We’re a live music festival, so Facebook, top charts… all that doesn’t matter. All that matters is if they blow you away live, and you leave saying ‘what the fuck just happened?’ So it’s more based on which bands are notorious, and which have a special live show. Of course, half are Austin bands.We like to support the local scene.
UTOPiA has a pretty unique setting (out in the middle of nowhere in Texas). How does this affect the atmosphere, and how do you get people to make the journey there?
The location is so important for everything; it sets the vibe and tone for the attendance, the audience, the crew setting up the lights and sound, and most importantly, the artist.
Most bands are touring all over the world, they probably expect desert and tumble-weeds before they come here, but there’s all these lush green mountains and clear rivers, and then you wind your way into this valley, and you’re nestled in this perfect, natural amphitheater
For thousands of years, people have been gathering and celebrating here. There’s arrowheads out there, there’s an essence there. You can feel it. The artists pick up on it.
Charles Bradley can’t stop talking about his experience at UTOPIA. DR. Dog talk about it. You know? They play all these shows and this one always sticks out. It’s like you’re on a weird island for a weekend. There’s nothing like it.
What’s the most difficult part about running a festival?
Food is always a big challenge. It’s like building a city in the middle of nowhere. I wouldn’t recommend anyone start a festival because they see a poster and think ‘i could pick 20 bands to play.’ Once you dig in, the minutia is the biggest challenge. Every detail: porta-potties, security, lights, bands. But after all that, once it starts and everything falls together, you realize that it’s all ‘worth it.’
Since you’ve been involved with UTOPiA, what are some of your favorite moments that you’ve experienced at the fest?
Let’s see… I’d say definitely Charles Bradley in 2012. We had unbelievable rain—like 7 inches—and it really pushed the crew to the limit. Thankfully, the audience stuck it out. He came on and his whole set was magic. The power went out half-way through, and everyone assumed it was over, then it came back, and he played for another 45 minutes. He was in tears by the end. Eventually he was like ‘I’m coming out there with you’ and jumps into the mud with the crowd. He was in red shoes and a sequined outfit. It was incredible. He even posted the story on his Facebook bio.
As for this year, I’m looking forward to Benji Hughes— he’s poised to be a dark-horse breakout. Kishi Bashi is another one; That’s why I do this. To go and support acts like that. Then of course, there’s Warpaint, Dan Deacon, Cold War Kids. It’s going to be a lot of fun. I can’t wait.
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Article by Nicolas White