Why Micro-Festivals Are Perfect for Music-Loving, Globe-Trotting Souls
The major festivals may get all the hype and headlines when it comes to summer music, but intimate, curated, and oh-so-local events offer travelers a chance to experience more of what they crave.
Months ago, music lovers around the world started setting calendar reminders for the on-sale dates for tickets to Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, Outside Lands, and this year’s main event, the 50th anniversary of Woodstock (hopefully). But with admission fees alone running upwards of $500 for a four-day festival (which, with travel, often stretches to a week for out-of-towners), the big-name events are a huge commitment, both in terms of time and money. When there’s only so much summer and so many places to travel to, what’s a jet-setting music lover to do?
Small is the new big
“Go small.” That’s the message trumpted by micro-festivals around the world. The definition of micro-festival varies—especially when it comes to size—the term generally refers to small, curated events focus on a specific type of music. Usually these are gatherings of fewer than 3,000 (some definitions put that cap at 20,000, still a far-cry from the hundreds of thousands at other festivals), and they often take place over two or three days. Micro-festivals aren’t packing their lineups with celebrity musicians, but the laid-back, intimate affairs foster a real sense of community. It’s not uncommon to rub elbows with off-the-clock headlining artists in the crowds, and you can expect to see lots of locals turning up for the afternoon; it really feels more like a very large wedding or family reunion than a typical music festival.
The concept of a micro-festival isn’t new: People have been holding small “gatherings” in deserts for decades. But as the famous festivals have gotten bigger and bigger, these boutique events have become more and more popular.
Eventbrite, an event management and ticketing company that worked with 3.9 million events in 170 countries in 2018, has seen that in the numbers. “In a digital world where people are craving human connection more than ever, festivals have become a way for people to fulfill that need,” says Biasha Mitchell, the platform’s head of festival strategy. “We’ve seen people leaning towards smaller, more intimate, and experience- and artist-led festivals. With a 48 percent growth in micro-festivals on our platform in 2018 compared to the year before, we expect this trend that provides the opportunity for emerging artists and local vendors to engage with the local community, to continue to rise.”
According to a 2015 article in SPIN, many micro-festivals aren’t interested in being the antithesis to the behemoths; rather, they’re focused on catering to their core constituency, maintaining a strong sense of place, and bringing together like-minded people—and artists.
At Huichica Sonoma in Sonoma, California, that means fans of surf, indie, and folk rock, plus winetasting. Heading into its 10th year, the festival takes place at Gundlach Bundschu Winery on June 7 and 8. All three stages—which include an amphitheater and a barn—are steps from the vineyards, and you can expect a smattering of local art and jewelry vendors, a fleet of food trucks, and flowing rosé. (All guests, of which there are fewer than 1,000, receive a wine tumbler on entry—what else would you expect from a music festival in wine country?)
If Huichica Sonoma is the wine lovers’ micro-music festival, then its sister, Huichica Hudson, is tailor-made for those who travel for food. The all-ages festival takes place August 9 and 10 and is set on Chaseholm Farm in New York’s Hudson Valley. It celebrates up-and-coming culinary talent as well as musical talent, with food for purchase from local chefs and purveyors including, yes, Chaseholm Farm. Unlike the Sonoma version, Huichica Hudson has 100 campsites and 20 glamping tents available, though you could opt for the two-hour train ride from New York City if you’d rather not pack a tent. (The duo of events will become a trio this year with the launch of Huichica Walla Walla in Washington this September.)
Two of the longest running micro festivals in the country—Desert Stars in Joshua Tree, California, and Marfa Myths in Marfa, Texas—require more effort than a two-hour drive, but if you manage to snag a ticket and make it to these art-loving desert destinations, you’ll find an unparalleled connection with the places. Desert Stars, which started in 2006 at the legendary Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Place barbecue restaurant, moved to a slightly larger venue in 2017 but still limits attendance to 400. Music starts in the afternoon, giving you the morning to visit the national park and its eponymous trees or stroll the dusty streets of the western town. And with such a small crowd, every spot at the shows feels front-row under the crisp starry skies.
At Marfa Myths, a music and art festival in the quirky far west Texas town, it’s not so much about snagging one of a limited number of tickets as it is about making sure you have a place to stay. Quoted in an Austin Chronicle article from earlier this year, Sarah Melendez, programs director of the nonprofit Ballroom Marfa, which helps puts on the event, noted that since Marfa is home to only 2,000 people, the festival has a natural cap. “We definitely max out our resources in town,” says Melendez. “We haven’t set a capacity, but it does that naturally on its own.” Those who do manage to get a campsite or a spot in an Airstream or yurt at the bohemian El Cosmico hotel can expect to mingle with the denizens of the funky place at art exhibitions by local and visiting artists, in yoga classes, and, of course, at shows. (Both these desert festivals take place in the spring, when the weather is more tolerable, so look for 2020 dates later this year.)
This isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon; in fact, Europe mastered the micro-festival long before the United States started using the phrase. The Haldern Pop Festival in Germany has been running since 1984 and still caps attendance at 5,000. While that’s slightly larger than what many consider to be a good-sized micro-festival, Haldern manages to keep an intimate atmosphere (August 8–10). Au Bord de L’Eau in Sierre, Switzerland, has been running since 2006, sees around 3,000 guests, and aims to be a laid-back weekend on Geronde Lake—complete with hiking opportunities—set to live music (June 28–30).
And this list barely scratches the surface. Wherever you’re headed this year, it’s worth finding a smaller music festival in the vicinity and joining the local community for a few days.