The music festival scene seems more crowded than ever, with both power players and more niche options available in most cities. As such, this might seem like the wrong time to jump into the fray, but ambitious first year fests from three of the hottest brands in music are making plays to turn their massive online followings into unique festival experiences.
Lyrical Lemonade (The Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash on 8/19), 88rising (Head in the Clouds Music & Arts Festival on 9/22), and Adult Swim (Adult Swim Festival on 10/6 and 10/7) will all be launching their first festivals in the next few months.
All three brands have experience putting together successful concerts and events. 88rising’s Double Happiness tour boasted several sold-out shows, while Lyrical Lemonade regularly stages rap shows in Chicago and has put on a smaller scale festival event called the Summer Bash in years prior. They’re partnered with SPKRBX Presents, which has previously helped bring artists like Travis Scott, Lil Yachty, and Playboi Carti to the city.
Berto Solorio, founder of SPKRBX, has been working with Lyrical Lemonade for years and says that they are building on momentum that already exists. “The thing about this festival specifically is that Lyrical as a brand exists alone without the festival,” Solorio says. “It has a great merch business, it has the media business, the videos and everything. It’s not just sprouting a festival from a seed, it’s more that we’re expanding off of something that’s already flourishing.”
Adult Swim has done plenty of live activations, from the Adult Swim Drive-In to the Adult Swim State Park at San Diego Comic-Con, and also sponsored several concert tours related to their programming. Their music initiative, Adult Swim Singles, has launched free tracks from artists like Run the Jewels, IDK, Zola Jesus, and many more.
As Pitchfork noted last year, it's difficult to track the homogeneity of festival lineups, but the hip-hop and R&B lanes can often feel particularly saturated—festivals tend to vie for the same crop of rising artists and established veterans. These three festivals are trying to break that cycle, using their relationships with artists to offer unique slates and special themed sets. At Adult Swim Festival, T-Pain will be performing music from Freaknik, the musical special he premiered on the channel in March 2010. Jason DeMarco, Adult Swim’s Senior Vice President and Creative Director of On-Air, said that idea actually came from network head Mike Lazzo.
“We thought that was a great idea and to our surprise and delight, [T-Pain] agreed to do it,” he says. “That’s going to be something special, because he’s dying to do those songs live, and he hasn’t really had an opportunity and hasn’t been able to put on a good show around Freaknik before.”
Lyrical Lemonade founder Cole Bennett has been a bridge builder between Chicago and rap’s biggest rising stars for years. He booked Lil Uzi Vert’s first show in the city, as well as shows for Ski Mask the Slump God and Lil Skies, the latter of whom Bennett says considers Chicago “his second home.” Both Ski Mask and Skies are on the Summer Smash bill, but there are also plenty of local acts including Vic Mensa, Queen Key, Lucki, and Mick Jenkins.
"I think that this is a great opportunity for a Ski Mask the Slump God fan to end up being a huge fan of Mick Jenkins, and for a Joey Badass fan to have a great amount of respect for Trippie Redd after this show." - cole bennett
“Artists like Vic Mensa and Mick Jenkins were people that from the get-go I was like, ‘We need to have these people on there because I think they mean so much to the city,’” says Bennett.
The blending of different types of hip-hop reflects the growth of Lyrical Lemonade, from primarily working with artists from the SoundCloud scene to collaborating with artists like Valee, Carnage, and Kevin Gates.
“If you feel like you’re in touch with your following and you have the same taste, it’s about thinking about what you would like first. What’s the dream festival? What would I like watching? I know a lot of people who listen to Trippie Redd aren’t necessarily listening to Joey Badass, but there is an intersect there, and I think they both have great stage presence and energy,” Bennett explains. “I think that this is a great opportunity for a Ski Mask the Slump God fan to end up being a huge fan of Mick Jenkins, and for a Joey Badass fan to have a great amount of respect for Trippie Redd after this show.”
Head in the Clouds will feature the debut U.S. performance of Japanese artist KOHH, as well as a special performance of the group’s Head in the Clouds album. Lyrical Lemonade’s lineup includes appearances from acts like Ski Mask the Slump God and DJ Paul who aren’t mainstays of this summer’s festival rotation.
“I would never want [Rich] Brian to play the same set he did at Bonnaroo,” says Sean Miyashiro, founder of 88rising. “Because this is our thing, so we’re going to try to pull out the stops.”
Artist-curated festivals are not new concepts, as bands like The National and The Roots have been putting together their own showcases for years now, while individuals like Chance the Rapper and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon have created a space specifically for their listeners with Eaux Claires and Magnificent Coloring Day.
Those festivals are focused on the experience as much as the music, and the programming and on-site activations being planned by Adult Swim, Lyrical Lemonade, and 88rising look to take the concept even further. In the case of Adult Swim, DeMarco says their close relationship with Tyler, the Creator made the Camp Flog Gnaw festival an inspiration, though he stresses that there are some significant differences. Lesley Olenik, who helped launch Flog Gnaw, is working with 88rising on Head in the Clouds.
“I do think no one is doing anything exactly like what we’re doing, but I would say the closest one and the guys that I think do it really well are Camp Flog Gnaw,” says DeMarco. “I think they put on a really good festival that’s small, feels very much about their fans in a way that’s exciting and not too insular, and they also have live activations.”
For Head in the Clouds, Miyashiro, who has a background as an event and festival promoter, is drawing inspiration from festivals like Lightning in a Bottle and Burning Man. “Where when you’re there, you’re fully in it,” he says. He notes that there hasn’t been “an Asian-led, predominantly Asian-inspired festival” in the States yet, and says that will be part of not only the musical experience, but also the food, visual art pieces, and on-site installations.
In the case of Lyrical Lemonade, Bennett plans to stay true to his hometown roots and bring in Chicago food institutions like Nini’s Deli and Big & Little’s, as well as clothing shops like Boneyard and Rad Vintage, with the latter being part of a “garage sale” idea that they are still developing.
All three of these brands have built strong social media presences that they intend to leverage for more than just posting live streams and boilerplate artist announcements. Adult Swim has used characters from its show Dream Corp, LLC to announce much of its lineup last month, and they are hoping to have several of their live streaming online shows airing from the festival grounds.
“What we’re trying to do is punch through the noise and create little bits of interesting creative that aren’t just the normal Coachella poster of names, which is what everybody does, and it has been a challenge to break through that noise and I think it will continue to be,” DeMarco says. “But that’s something we do anyways in talking about TV shows, so I do feel like we have a good grip on how to get people’s attention.”
Miyashiro sounds particularly ambitious, and says that 88rising is in discussions with major platforms in China about creating exclusive Head in the Clouds content.
“We’re going to make movies at this festival, we have so much content that we’re planning because there’s a billion people who can’t experience this with us, so we’re going to make sure to create content that’s not just, ‘Hey, here’s a performance,’” he says. “We’re going to try to really create some provocative stuff in the festival.”
Miyashiro says that while 88rising wanted to “plant a flag” in L.A., they do still have a major goal of doing a Head in the Clouds festival in Asia. They had offers to either partner with pre-existing festivals or build out a festival around their roster, but he says that the importance of creative control made staging their own festival in Los Angeles the best option. Their other goal is even more ambitious: to make 88rising synonymous with the summer.
“We’re definitely going to do another Head in the Clouds next year, and probably do another Head in the Clouds record, just to be honest. We’re trying to own the summer and the feeling of summer,” he says. “I fucking love the summer, everybody loves it. If we can provide the world with an amazing soundtrack to the best time of year every single year, we’re going to do that.”
All three organizations noted a few things that they plan to tweak going forward, including operating with longer lead time the way most other festivals do to make booking and logistics easier, but they were encouraged by the trajectory of the events. Bennett is optimistic about Summer Smash selling out, but also says this represents a major moment for the Lyrical Lemonade community at large, which he has seen mature and develop over the years.
“For the fans in particular, I like to think that we all kind of grow together in a way. I know that sounds corny, but really though,” he says. "We get to experience everything together, the power of the internet does that for you, where you get to keep in tune and if you really lock in with something you can pretty much follow it all along the way.”
If things go their way, you’ll be able to follow Lyrical Lemonade, 88rising, and Adult Swim all the way to the front row of their festivals for years to come.