Charting the course of the Outside Lands bears a reflection of what has transpired in the San Francisco Bay Area over the past decade. While the tech boom was already well underway by the time the festival debuted in 2008, there was no modern music festival in the area, leading many to head south for Coachella or simply remain content with the surplus of touring bands that visited the area.
Co-produced by local promoter Another Planet Entertainment (APE) and Bonnaroo founders Superfly, Outside Lands was always intended to be more than just a festival that happened to be set in San Francisco. As APE’s Vice President Allen Scott explains, incorporating the city into the festival was of paramount importance.
“Out of the gate, what we wanted this festival to be, to differentiate it from the other festivals that are out there — number one: we had Golden Gate Park, which I think is the country’s greatest urban park. It’s fantastic. You start with that, and that’s a really nice foundation. Then we wanted to really make the festival a celebration of San Francisco and the Bay Area.”
Photography by David Brendan Hall at Outside Lands 2016
In that vein, Outside Lands and its various stages were named not for sponsors, but for areas around the city: Land’s End, Sutro, Twin Peaks, Panhandle, and Presidio. The festival even took its name from the 19th century nickname for the Richmond and Sunset districts of the city (where Golden Gate Park is located). In addition, local artists were charged with designing the stage scrims, and perhaps most notably, local food vendors were asked to provide the festival’s culinary fare.
As the years went on, Wine Lands, Beer Lands, and Choco Lands joined the proceedings. Nowadays, seeing which local restaurants, wineries, breweries, and confectioners will be on-site serves as another part of the lineup reveal. In many ways, Outside Lands has transcended the music aspect of its offerings to become something larger: a weekend in the forest to eat, drink, and be merry.
In honor of Outside Lands’ 10th anniversary, we spoke with co-founders Scott and Superfly’s Rick Farman to trace the festival’s triumphs and growing pains throughout its first decade.
Part One: Check Your Headliner (2006 – 2009)
According to Scott, the goal for Outside Lands was clear from day one. “Our goal was simple when we started: It was to put on a world-class, multi-day, multi-stage musical festival in Golden Gate Park.”
Before Outside Lands debuted in 2008, no artist had ever performed in the park after dark, something Scott and Superfly co-founder Rick Farman were eager to change. The two began discussing the idea of bringing a music festival to San Francisco back in 2006. While Farman had plenty of first-hand festival experience as a founder of Bonnaroo, he says there was another event that actually served in some ways as a blueprint for what would become Outside Lands.
“We were located in New Orleans, and we were really inspired by — and had a bunch of different ties to — the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, so we knew how powerful a city festival could be for a community and, in a rich community like that, what all the opportunities were for creating a really incredible, deep event.”
The original plan was for Outside Lands to begin as a two-day festival and then expand into a three-day festival in its third or fourth year. Then Scott got the kind of call you simply can’t refuse.
“We went to [San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Commission] that first year and got Saturday and Sunday approved to go into nighttime. Shortly after that happened, Radiohead approached us about doing Friday night, and there was no way we were going to say no to Radiohead, so we went back and got it extended to a third day. Really, Radiohead was the lynch pin in the success of the first year.”
Scott calls watching Thom Yorke and company be the first to play past Golden Gate Park’s 7 p.m. curfew a “seminal moment” for the festival.
“For me, it was an extremely satisfying moment when Radiohead took the stage that first year. Being the first artist to play in the dark, and they’d just released In Rainbows, and to me, it was an impeccable setlist that they played. There was a lot of satisfaction and many years to get to that moment, so for me, that was one of the greatest highlights of the festival.”
“It was certainly a transformative moment for all of us that were a part of birthing that thing,” Farman agrees, “and I think we all felt like we had accomplished a lot of what we had set out to do. At the same time, these things are sort of like humans in the sense that when they’re born, they’re usually not fully developed and don’t fully have a sense of their identity. There’s a ton of potential, but not all of the tool sets to really become great.”
In Scott’s words, the success of 2008 was “a double-edged sword.” Outside Lands actually turned a profit that first year – something almost unheard of for a new festival – but then faced the realities of a recession hitting the US as they geared up for their sophomore installment in 2009. Three weeks before the festival was to take place, Scott got a very different kind of phone call.
“We were already struggling on ticket sales in year two when, about three weeks out, I get a call from the agent for the Beastie Boys at about 7:30 in the morning. When you get a call from an agent at 7:30 in the morning, it is usually not a good call. He told me about MCA’s diagnosis and that the Beastie Boys would have to pull out. Right away my thoughts went to MCA, his family, and the Beastie Boys, and if he was going to be all right. We didn’t know at the time that this was terminal. We just knew that he had gotten cancer. Then my second thought was, ‘Fuck. What are we going to do now?’”
The answer arrived in the form Jack Black and Kyle Gass (aka Tenacious D). Scott fondly recalls a shirt made available for sale by the band during their headlining set. “I think they came up with one of the best merch items I’ve ever seen. It was a t-shirt that had the Check Your Head album cover on it with Tenacious D sitting on the curb, and it said ‘Check Your Headliner.’ I thought that was a really good merch item that I still own today.”
However, the late loss of the Beastie Boys as a headliner, coupled with sluggish ticket sales in a hurting economy, would force Scott and Farman to make a drastic change for the third year of Outside Lands.
Part Two: It Felt Like We Had Arrived (2010 – 2013)
Fans were likely quite shocked when Outside Lands announced that its 2010 installment would consist of two days rather than three.
“We thought that was the best way to recalibrate from 2009,” Scott explains. “That, coupled with a very difficult year to find headliners, prompted us to go to two days.”
“There was a lot going on in terms of the economy during that time,” says Farman. “Those were difficult years in general. In 2008, we launched right before the stock market crash, and 2009 and 2010 saw the country at large still dealing with some of that in a very acute way. We probably still are, but at least at that time, it was really affecting the decisions of customers, but just as much the decisions of performers. We made that decision because that was sort of the hand that was being dealt to us in a way.”
Despite having to cut a day from the weekend, many of the unique aspects of Outside Lands beyond its music offerings truly began to take shape. While initially Outside Lands had contracted 50% local food vendors and 50% festival veterans – Scott says this was in part because many of the local restaurants had never sold at a festival before and wanted to ensure there was enough food for all — that number quickly shifted to 99% local (it’s now 100%).
Coupled with WineLands, featuring a bounty of Northern California vintages to choose from, the 2010 festival was, in many ways, the moment where Outside Lands first resembled the atmosphere it is now known for today.
“My recollection of the event itself was that it was the year that what Outside Lands feels like today started to actually happen,” recalls Farman. “In other words, [there was] this aspect of going to the park, drinking good wine or craft beer, watching a band play in this idyllic atmosphere, and just kind of having like a full weekend experience — not that it wasn’t there the first two years, but I just felt the depth of it in that third year, when it was a shorter experience. I remember walking away that year feeling like, even though we had contracted a little bit there, the future was really bright because everybody walked away having had this fantastic time.”
In 2011, the festival returned to a three-day format. Headlined by Muse, Phish, and Arcade Fire, the fourth year of Outside Lands marked its first full sellout. Scott says he celebrated the victory by taking in Girl Talk’s set at the Twin Peaks stage.
“I remember being on stage with Girl Talk, and that was just a personal highlight. He threw one of the best parties we’ve had at Twin Peaks in Hellman Hollow ever, and to me that was a very satisfying moment. Just a lot of fun to say hey, this is our first sold-out year, and it felt like we had arrived as a festival.”
If 2011 marked the arrival of Outside Lands, then 2012 was its warning shot to the rest of the field. Boasting what is still considered to be one of the most staggering arrays of talent to top any music festival lineup in recent years, 2012 featured Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Metallica, Jack White, Foo Fighters, Beck, and Skrillex.
“We were really fortunate that year that the stars aligned,” says Scott, “but we also wanted to swing really hard and really establish the festival on the national landscape. Foo Fighters came in late and asked to play the festival, because they wanted to go on before Neil Young. We had Beck previously scheduled to go on before Neil Young, but Foo Fighters came in late and said, ‘Hey, we really want this slot.’ They have the same management as Beck, so we worked it out internally, and Beck was third to close on the mainstage.”
“It was one of those situations where there was a glut, in a good way, of people who really wanted to play the event and be a part of it,” adds Farman. “We realized we had an opportunity to do something special, and went for it.”
Scott also recalls that 2012 produced another one of his favorite moments in the festival’s history thus far.
“One of the great moments of the festival was when Jack White and his female band did a pop-up in McLaren Pass.”
Playing unplugged in a forest, surrounded by fans unable to believe their luck at seeing The White Stripes frontman mere feet away, instrument in hand, is certainly the kind of mythos lasting festivals are built on. Of course, all good myths are in need of legends, and in 2013, Outside Lands found theirs in the form of headliner Paul McCartney.
“I think the McCartney thing can’t go unnoticed,” says Farman. “I mean, he’s just one of those performers who really transcends every demographic. One of the things that I thought was really cool is that he typically does an almost full run-through of his set for soundcheck. It’s not like ok, go up and check the mics and walk away — they run through it for a couple of hours. He did that on the Thursday before, and then there were all sorts of people who could hear it from the edges of the site, inside the park, and it was like nothing I’ve ever seen for an artist, in the sense that people were really trying to get every glimpse they could, hear every note they could of what he was doing. For everything that San Francisco is to the national and international music scene, to have Paul be a part of that, at our event, was pretty amazing.”
Part Three: A Place Where Families Can Go (2014 – 2017)
In recent years, the story of Outside Lands is one of expansion. On the music front, that means incorporating a broader array of artists and genres. 2014 saw the first hip-hop headliner in Kanye West, followed in 2015 with Kendrick Lamar’s memorable Twin Peaks closing set that served in many ways as a headlining performance as well.
“At this point, we really had the creative license to really get even more broad than we were at the beginning,” says Farman. “What ended up really being special about this time and how it exists today is that Outside Lands had become a place where families can go together. You had people in their 40s or 50s who had teenagers, and they could go see Tom Petty while the kids could be seeing Macklemore or Tiesto. I think we still have that element in a very strong way right now. It’s different than a lot of the other national festivals, where one age bracket is like 95% of the event. That’s not what exists at Outside Lands. Part of that is because San Francisco has such a great history and community of people from all ages that go out and see music. I think we were able to capture that element of the community in those years.”
2014 also saw the festival’s first repeat headliner in Tom Petty. As Scott explains, the festival has always been “precious” about repeat bookings, but in Petty they found their perfect act to return to the top of the bill.
“I think in the 10 years we’ve done the festival, we’ve had around 40 acts that have repeated the festival. We’re very precious on repeats, and the soonest we like to invite an artist back is three years and usually not before four. We like to keep it fresh and mix it up as much as we can. As far as Tom Petty being the first repeat headliner, Tom Petty is an artist that we, as Another Planet, have worked closely with over the years. We’ve done a lot of different shows with him throughout Northern California, and he’s a favorite of ours and really an American icon. So when he came to us and said he wanted to play, we and Superfly jumped at the opportunity to make him the first repeat headliner.”
To date, the only other repeat headliners are Radiohead (in 2016) and this year, Metallica. Just as Scott fondly recalls the feeling of seeing Radiohead play that first year, Farman says bringing the band back for 2016’s Outside Lands was also a formative moment.
“I mean, I’m a Radiohead sucker, so that was incredible. Any time Radiohead plays anywhere, it’s pretty much going to be all I need, but the fact that they had played the first year and then came back and embraced it again the way they did? I would say that was pretty damn meaningful for us.”
Interestingly, according to Scott, the artist that has likely played the festival more times than anyone else is bounce music progenitor Big Freedia. Each year she returns to the festival for “Bounce & Beignets”, in which the crowd at the Gastro Magic stage can shake their booties in exchange for brunch.
One thing that doesn’t worry the festival organizers is trying to book a lineup late in the festival season. Farman says nabbing the newly reunited LCD Soundsystem in 2016 did not come with worries about whether attendees would find a way to see the band before they hit Golden Gate Park in August.
“People are coming not based on any one band,” he explains. “Yes, they’re coming based on the lineup, but it’s about if they like the lineup overall. I think there’s probably a little bit more made of that issue than is probably reality in terms of how festivalgoers make their decisions. I’m not saying it’s zero, but I don’t think bands playing a circuit of festivals is a substantive issue.”
As Outside Lands now prepares for its 10th year with a lineup featuring acts like Gorillaz, Metallica, The Who, Lorde, and A Tribe Called Quest, Scott points back to the festival’s setting and what holding the event has allowed them to do for the park that serves as its home.
“After this year, we will have given San Francisco Recreation & Parks over $20 million in the first 10 years of the festival. It goes into their general fund and is an integral part of their budget. We’re really proud of that.”
Of course, there are always more goals on the horizon, chief among them the booking of the festival’s first female headliner.
“We would love a female headliner,” says Scott, “or multiple female headliners for that matter. It’s something that we’ve actually pursued in the last several years. We’ve had offers out to different artists, but the stars just haven’t aligned yet. We are diligently looking for a female headliner. That’s something that’s very important to us. Our audience is 60% female. They would love to see a female headliner, as would I. That is something that we are actively pursuing.”
As Outside Lands continues to strive for bigger and better things, it’s important to remember that many festivals never even reach the 10-year threshold. Scott notes that of the class of festivals that debuted in 2008, Outside Lands is the only one left. While events like Pemberton, All Points West, and Mile High have all come to an end, Outside Lands keeps going. Scott credits the city that hosts them for their continued success.
“San Francisco is a really proud town, proud of what it’s created. It’s really proud of its localness, and that’s what we aim to celebrate.”
The 2017 Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival takes place at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, CA, from August 11 – 13.