In August 2008, the first Outside Lands music festival set up, plugged in, opened its gates. It was an experiment in sweet-talking the city government, cobbling together a big-name lineup, and wrangling tens of thousands of people into one fog-drenched corner of San Francisco. And Radiohead's headlining set — the first rock performance to happen in Golden Gate Park after 7 p.m. — would be the initial test.
Half the festival-goers were stuck in line waiting to get their tickets. Once in, it was a rush — people were tearing down fences to get to the stage as others clustered on the hills around the festival. As Radiohead went on, the Lands End stage was swarmed.
The sun went down over Golden Gate Park, the wind picked up, and the fog rolled in. And Radiohead put on a bombastic performance. The crowd of 60,000 was all in it together, a mass of people wrapped in mist, inhaling the heady scents of eucalyptus and pot. They were in one of the most beautiful places in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and they were watching history happen.
And then the sound went out. Twice.
The lights stayed on. The band played on. But the generators had overloaded and shut down.
After a few minutes off, the generators revived and Radiohead completed its 22-song set that, despite sound problems, was hailed as a triumph.
So goes the story of Outside Lands: major triumphs punctuated with the kinds of challenges that would discourage most and spell failure for many. But six years in, Outside Lands has become an undeniable success. It's outlasted its contemporaries — similar festivals that sprang up in 2007 or 2008 but ultimately failed. It is a destination, a festival that half its attendees travel to. And, arguably, it's gotten better every year.
Going into its sixth year, Outside Lands has sold out four times; this year in just 24 hours. The first five years have drawn 845,000 people to Golden Gate Park. It's successful in the strength and consistent diversity of its musical lineup. But music festivals are rarely the best place to see and hear music — the crowds are too big, the sound too diffused, and the focus too scattered.
So Outside Lands has grown to be about more than music. There's an emphasis on food, wine, and beer, celebrations of local art, and vocal environmental initiatives. The festival works because it showcases and mirrors San Francisco itself, a conscious decision made by its organizers that set Outside Lands apart from its competitors and ultimately fueled its success.
The San Francisco strategy has proven to be a win, but Outside Lands' triumph was far from guaranteed. Sound outages and crowd control were just the beginning. This is a festival that has had to contend with lineup shakeups, a collapsing economy, and, perhaps most intimidatingly, the fickle tastes and frighteningly high standards of San Franciscans, whether they attended the festival or not.
To understand how Outside Lands works, you have to look at the people putting it on. The festival is a team effort between Another Planet Entertainment, a Bay Area-based music promotion and booking company that sprang from the legacy of Bill Graham (festival founder Gregg Perloff was the president and CEO of Bill Graham Presents) in 2003, and Superfly Presents, mavens of large-scale music events and the creators of the Bonnaroo music festival. When they met in 2004, the idea of working on an event together quickly came up.
The setting of their first hang was inspirational, and prescient, in itself — Another Planet was putting on a free Dave Matthews Band show in Golden Gate Park in the summer of 2004, and got to talking about putting on a proper big festival in the location. Rick Farman, co-founder of Superfly, says that this team-up just made sense. Another Planet understood the Bay Area scene, while Superfly had found success in producing a large-scale music event in Bonnaroo.
They agreed that it was time for a festival like this to happen in San Francisco.
Bonnaroo's success was just one piece in the changing music industry of the early- to mid-2000s. In addition to the sprawling Tennessee spectacular, Coachella was starting to hit its stride, and Lollapalooza had made a comeback in '03 after a six-year hiatus.
"The shift from these amphitheater-centric events to large-scale, outdoor festivals really only started happening about 15 years ago, and caught steam in the last 10," Farman says. This is due in large part to the iPod-ification of the music world: Suddenly, people have access to enormous amounts of music that they could buy in one-off forms. "You're not listening to one type of artist anymore; you're listening to 50. That translates to the value proposition of a festival; you can see 50 bands at once, and get tastes of them all."
This format had seen longtime success in Europe, with historic fests like Glastonbury and Werchter. But the apparent success of U.S. festivals was inspiring promoters to try their hand at festival-creation nationwide. When Outside Lands debuted in 2008, four other festivals were kicking off, too: All Points West in New Jersey, Mile High Festival in Colorado, Pemberton Festival in British Columbia, and Rothbury Festival in Michigan.
Outside Lands was different from the beginning — it was held in a city rather than in a field or lot away from an urban environment. And the festival was about the city, rather than just in it — it would take cues from the environment of the park, and the tastes of the local population.
But this also meant that Another Planet was navigating a festival-planning landscape that included the Recreation and Park Department, the SFMTA, and various neighborhood associations. Considering San Francisco's notoriously difficult and bureaucratic city government, and an irritable population with a tendency to stage protests, this would not be an easy, or straightforward, course.
Following the 2008 festival, the city's Recreation and Park Commission put out the word to any and all interested promoters to submit their qualifications to hold a "Golden Gate Park Benefit Concert" in the summer of 2009. Another Planet, then, would have to apply to hold its own festival, despite raising $800,000 for the city in the festival's first year.