It's officially festival season. It's the time of year when lineups are announced and analyzed, tickets sell out in mere moments, and certain parts of the country prepare to be overwhelmed by music fans and industry folk looking to see the next big thing or, as has become the norm, the current big thing. There's no shortage of options for those looking to get in on the action: There's SXSW, Coachella, Governors Ball, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Firefly, Fuck Yeah Fest, Ultra Music Festival, Beale Street, Hangout Fest, and what seems to be an endless list of others.
Looking to stake a claim in the crowded marketplace are four guys—Phil Hoelting, Luis Betances, Marco Vicini, and Morgan Lebus—with an admirable mission: to bridge the gap between U.S. indie music and the Caribbean. They plan to do this with the Isle of Light Festival, a one day event that takes place at the beautiful Sans Souci's Lighthouse in the Dominican Republic and this year featured acts like Run the Jewels, Chromeo and smaller bands like Whomadewho and Walking Shapes.
Only in its second official year, the Isle of Light festival has grown into a marquee attraction for those in and around Santo Domingo. If the founders have their way, people will come from all over to experience not only the music, but the culture of the Caribbean. In addition to the live performances, there's food supplied by local vendors, local merchants selling t-shirts and art, and a zip line. Not bad for something that started off as a private invite-only house party. But with so many festivals, how will it work to stand apart? To find out, we spoke with Phil Hoelting to get some background and info about the festivals future.
Complex: You told me this started as a house party. Tell me how it all came together.
Phil Hoelting: I met these guys, Marco and Luis, about two years ago after they had just threw a party at Marco’s house for a couple thousand people. They had taken out a part of the wall and built an entrance and had an art installation tunnel that you walked through that went deep into his backyard. The party was advertised to be at a secret location. I think they were even advertising it on the radio. I couldn't believe they were advertising a secret location party on the radio, I thought it was crazy [Laughs]. You had to know somebody to get in and each person could invite two people. I was like, OK, that sounds cool. It sounds like it worked out and everyone had fun.
I went down there randomly for a film festival and got connected with them when I got off the plane. I was someone who knew about music festivals, so we started talking and I just said, hey, why don’t we make this a real thing down here. So we found a location, the Sans Souci'sLight House, and we threw the event. But when we went to announce it they told me that it would be the same invite-only system that they used for the first party. I said, whoa, this is on a much larger scale, I don’t think we can do that. They began to realize that some people were getting upset that they couldn’t get a ticket so we changed the system. The intention was to keep that mysterious element to the event but we eventually moved away from that and made it easy for people to get tickets.
Is there a reason you guys decided to do it in March?
We're still trying to tweak the dates and try to find the best routing for the future so acts would be able to stop off at the festival on their way to SXSW. Or for them to stop there just before they go to South America for all the events down there. It wasn’t really in the right position this year, but almost. If we can expand it into a mini tour, that will fill some of the gaps and just make it so artists come down, perform, and then they have a few days for vacation and see the country. Then ideally they would pop over to Jamaica or some other stop for a few days. Then by that time it’s [time for] SXSW.
You’re trying to make an easily accessible stop for artists during festival season?
Yeah. I’ve done the drive through the United States to get to SXSW so many times and I’m just trying to find a new way for artists to get to there. They can’t keep doing those same stops: El Paso, Tucson… Yeah, those places need shows, but they get so slammed around that time. Everyone’s touring and trying to get shows around those spots, so it’s hard to get offers and dates that work for everybody. It’d be nice if I could find a way to offer a Caribbean tour on the way.
You were telling me that at the launch party about trying to set up a Caribbean tour. Can you talk more about how you envision that?
I just only loosely put out the word of what we're doing with the team in the Dominican Republic and I’ve gotten a lot of responses from promoters from different countries—not only music promoters, just other influential people that live in those places, like a business person or a tourism board. In some places it’s like a gallery owner who is in the art world who acknowledges that in a place like Guatemala there’s not much of a music scene but there are lots of visual artists who could help me make an event happen to line up with this tour.
It’s like the Laneway model in Australia: you take 20 bands, all the new up-and-coming like minded indie bands that you read about online. Make it so they all have an opportunity to meet each other and then they travel together, experience the new cities they’ve never been to before together and let them form really cool bonds. Take that and plop it into the Caribbean and change the way people see the Caribbean. Right now it’s cruise ships. If you take a cruise ship to one of these countries, you don’t even get to spend the night there. You just walk around for the day then get back on the boat. The plan is to get a group of two or three acts and start them off in the Dominican Republic, with a good start at Isle of Light and then give them a little vacation time before the next stop.
When I think of big music festivals in the Caribbean, I think of Reggae Sumfest in Jamaica. It has homegrown local talent and big American names.
That’s the model, but I don’t think we’re going to go for acts that big because I think those acts already have the ability to do that. They’re already known in the country. I want to bring acts that are not as well known. It’s not necessarily the best business model [Laughs], but I want to be able to say, “Look, here’s a band that you will probably like. The radio’s playing 30 international acts over and over, these are like those acts but on a smaller scale, check it out.” Let’s find a way to bring these artists who won't otherwise get real festival offers down there. If people start coming to the festival because Isle of Light is cool, Isle of Light is fun, and just want to be there, and want to learn something, that’s when it will be a success for me. I want the event to bring everyone there on it's own, and then for everyone to learn about what they’re seeing there and have a good time. I don’t think anyone really knew who Run the Jewels were, and I saw a lot of people having a lot of fun during their set.
One of the coolest parts was the tent where local merchants were able to sell goods. Did you find those merchants yourself?
That was coordinated by our local team. They’re local artists who we wanted to showcase. Same with the food vendors, I can’t remember the hamburger place right now, but, did you have one?
Yes, they were great.
Yeah. It was just like, wow, things are happening here and no one really knows about it.