The silent takeover of a Las Vegas music and arts mega-festival
Three years ago, I went to my first Life is Beautiful festival in Las Vegas, Nevada. Each year, the music, art and foodie event is held just east of Old Vegas in an area one local bartender called the “E District” (known more specifically as "Fremont East" to others) — or what was back then an absolute shithole.
It’s where people went to spend the last of their days holed up in dilapidated rooms shoving needles into their arms and glass up their noses. If you wanted a low-end prostitute, east of Old Vegas is where you’d easily find them. If you’d lost everything, and had little will to see a tomorrow ever again, it was that area, too.
And in its first few years of being a festival, Life is Beautiful looked like it was simply polishing a turd. World-class murals were painted high on crumbling foundations to gloss up the city. And yet, even though it was one of the cleanest, most thoughtful festivals to be put together in recent memory, no one could really look past the area it was in. It had a long way to go to change the city like it so desperately wanted (and needed).
“When I took a step back towards the end of my job with the Cosmopolitan, I said, ‘You know what, every single event that we created had an underlying purpose of profit,’” founder Rehan Choudry told me in 2014. “I wanted to start my own path and create a brand that had a more valuable place in the world, especially socially. Life Is Beautiful is as much a mission and a statement as much as it is a brand and festival.”
Festivals are more than just a “mission” though, they also take money to operate, and lots of it. The reality of festivals too is that, on average, it takes at least 3 years to turn a profit, sometimes longer. That means funding is necessary to pull these things off multiple times before profiting is even an option. For something the scale of a Life is Beautiful-type festival — which hosts over 100,000 people each of the three-days — rich investors are a necessity. Choudry and his team had a lofty goal, but needed wealthy partners to get them there.
Tony Hseih, CEO of Zappos — an online clothing retailer — is still one of them. Investing in LIB years ago was all part of his $350 million plan to revitalize the neighborhood (one where his actual home is, a small trailer on a plot of land he bought and calls Airstream Park). He, along with the rest of the players in the brand, have spent millions building the event into one of the premiere destinations in the country — rivaling even that of regional competitors like Coachella and EDC.
In 2016, it was named “Festival of the Year” by Pollstar, the concert industry’s leading trade publication.
The 2014 event, my first, it was wildly apparent the team had something special on their hands. Focusing more on the ‘experience’ of the event rather than the online headlines it could pull, the team knew earlier than most that the progression of festivals is by way of visual entertainment, a comfortable location, and plenty of opportunities to snap photos of oneself to share on social media.
And because of that focus, the Fremont East is now one of the hottest places to move to off-season. High-rises are over-combing the once worthless intersections and hip eating joints, bars and clubs are packed whether or not a festival is running in the neighborhood or not. The experiment worked.
This past weekend, the top-billed artists for the festival included Lorde, Muse, Chance the Rapper, Pretty Lights, The xx and Gorillaz. It wasn’t a far cry from where the event has always situated itself musically, as a purveyor of what’s popular. After all, past headliners include Kanye West, Foo Fighters, Lionel Ritchie, J. Cole, Outkast and plenty more. Given that it’s outside of what may consider “festival season,” the Las Vegas location is primed for a more unique lineup than most homogenous ones found everywhere else throughout the summer.
But it doesn’t stop there, because people like Bill Nye the Science Guy, celebrity chef Giada de Laureniis, The Fat Jew, Shepphard Ferry, and many others outside of music have stopped in to do their thing, too.
In addition to dozens of lasting murals, the popular Meow Wolf art collective based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, completely transformed one of the aforementioned hotels into an interactive art exhibit. It did so in years past as well. Over twenty rooms were given new life as evening play-things for people on all kinds of substances. One room looked like a womb; on Saturday night, I overheard a woman no older than 19 sit there laughing hysterically at the thought of being “reborn in Las Vegas” — she had a great night.
This is where the festival gets it.
Because of the saturation in the music industry, fans all over the country have seen their favorite artists perform already — and probably do so more than once a year. Thirty years ago, one would have to wait far longer to catch a glimpse of Bon Jovi or Madonna — if at all. So it’s not like fans don’t care about their favorite artists anymore, they’re just looking for more with the experience. They're bored.
It's why no music festival is going to last if it relies solely on the lineup. And in fact, the business end already sees what a strain too many festivals has on the industry at large already. Massive events are closing, the monetary threshold to enter is absurd, and older fans rarely come back to the same event after they’re all grown up.
Five years ago, Life is Beautiful saw this and delivered. What came of its vision is a place at the top (it sold out faster than Coachella this year), with the packed streets of Old Vegas proving the forward model is a success.
Watching it grow, I of course hate to see more corporate sponsors jumping on the bandwagon, teenagers licking themselves clean on molly, glitter in beards as a fashion statement, the costumes, and of course being unable to move when Muse dropped a few licks from “Uprising” or Schoolboy Q belted, “Gang rap, X-mas / Smoke, shots out the liver / Faded, VEGAS!”
But that’s life, that’s the evolution of a music festival. So starts another chapter in entertainment.