Texas's Niche Festivals Innovate as the Bigger Ones Grow Stale

A scene from Float Fest 2015 in San Marcos
A scene from Float Fest 2015 in San Marcos
Photo by Julian Bajsel

Last week arrived with the announcement of this year’s lineup for Float Fest, an July festival in San Marcos that has really stepped its game up. Between Future Islands, Rick Ross and Bone Thugs N Harmony, the festival’s lineup is a great showcase of modern rock and rap alongside some key legacy artists. It pairs nicely with FPSF, a festival on a larger scale that provides that same bit of variety, designed to appeal to a wide audience. In the fall, we’ll get the third installment of Houston Whatever Fest and Untapped Festival, which aim to achieve similar aspirations albeit in varying degrees of size. The only problem with having so many festivals is that after a while, they all seem to look the same.

It’s no secret that Houston, and Texas as a whole, is entering a period of oversaturation when it comes to music festivals. It may have been a one-off event, but the addition of this month’s March Madness Music Festival was another example of this formulaic lineup showing up again (albeit with a more pop radio-friendly twist thanks to sponsors Coca-Cola and the NCAA.) For those who aren’t averse to making road trips throughout Texas, you could hit up a festival nearly every weekend between now and June with Levitation, Untapped and JMBLYA in Austin, Untapped in Fort Worth, Neon Desert in El Paso and FPSF here.

While many of those fests attract similar audiences and are put on by or in assistance with related entities, the fact remains that patrons are only willing to go to so many festivals. With all this competition, the question becomes what makes one festival stand out from another. Location and timing play a factor, of course, but the big differentiating factor comes down to the lineup, and as so many of the lineups are giving a sense of déjà vu, a strong case can be made that specialization and focus are the key elements that can help festivals to stand out from the pack.

Common Ignorance at Bad Ass Weekend 2016
Common Ignorance at Bad Ass Weekend 2016
Photo by Francisco Montes

With the plethora of festivals that seem to be popping up on a daily basis, having a niche is an important aspect that can help a fest rise above the others. There are many different approaches to this, such as focusing solely on one genre or presenting a theme that a fest adheres to. This can be a hyper-focus on a small scale, as we’ve seen in Houston with smaller hardcore fests like Fallcore or the slightly larger but now-defunct Bad Ass Weekend, though one of the founders explained in a Facebook post that he’s working on a different idea for the city in fall of 2017.

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Festivals like these don’t have a widespread appeal, but that’s not their point. What they lack in a larger draw they make up for by offering a fine-tuned lineup that brings in acts from other countries that rarely come to Texas or showcasing reunions. These may not be festivals that bring in casual fans, but by offering lineups that differ from the norm, it creates a destination that may bring in more diehard patrons willing to make a trip to see bands they can’t find in other places.

Fests don’t have to be that small or centralized to have a clear identity. Just look at the upcoming Levitation festival in Austin at the end of the month or our own Day For Night in December. Both fests have a wider range of what fits in their lineup, encompassing a larger style rather than a specific genre. For Levitation, that’s “psych,” but that can mean fuzzed-out garage rock, spacious electronics, or slow doom metal. It’s a collection of disparate genres, but the underlying connective tissue is strong enough that they seem to fit in a clear design rather than appearing to be haphazard. The same can be said for Day For Night, as classical composers like Philip Glass, experimental cult favorites like Psychic TV, and superstars like Kendrick Lamar can all exist within the same umbrella.

Kendrick Lamar, who would be back in Houston at the NCAA's March Madness Music Festival not even four months later, at Day For Night 2015 last December.
Kendrick Lamar, who would be back in Houston at the NCAA's March Madness Music Festival not even four months later, at Day For Night 2015 last December.
Photo by Marco Torres

With a focus on electronic, rap, and jazz, it was able to contain the pop of Shamir with the furtive noise-electronics of Health in a way that never felt arbitrary but highly curated. These two festivals both show an example of how you can built a larger festival with big name acts that appeal to many while also developing a strong personality. There’s nothing wrong with acts like Modest Mouse or Lil Wayne, but those artists frequent the region regularly, making it to where it’s not necessarily a special occasion to catch them. Conversely, when a fest books a big name like Brian Wilson celebrating the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds or New Order’s first Houston date in more than 30 years, it helps to make the weekend truly feel like a special occasion.

Not every niche festival has to stand out by bringing in obscure international artists or cult favorites, too. EDM festivals like Euphoria or Something Wicked may not have a lot of crossover appeal, but at least they know their audience and cater to them. Then there are smaller ones like JMBYLA (which hits Dallas and Austin but, maddeningly, not Houston) that focus on building a strong rap-centric bill focusing on newer Southern artists like Future, Rae Sremmurd, and Kevin Gates.

There are plenty of ways to build focused lineups that fill a niche without alienating audiences. Additionally, most festivalgoers would agree that fests are a more fun experience for everyone when the attendees are mostly dedicated fans committed to make the trek out specifically to see certain bands rather than others simply browsing. There’s also nothing wrong with festivals like FPSF or Houston Whatever Fest, which serve a purpose, bring some great bands to the city and serve as great musical touch-points for the city.

From a business standpoint, maybe the more broad festivals do better; this is an industry, after all. It’s just that as more festivals pop up, they may want to keep in mind what makes them different from the rest, and finding a niche and developing a strong identity is one way to do that.

Note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly listed the month of Float Fest as August, not July. Sorry about that.


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