When Small Is Mighty: The Rise of the Micro Music Festival
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because smaller means seeing a concert in a lava tunnel or carved-out glacier.
As a DJ spins records next to a natural hot spring, people dance and splash in the water, sipping cocktails and blowing bubbles into the air. Vibrant green grass surrounds them and snow-capped mountains can be seen in the distance. The sun peeks out from behind a few white clouds. It looks like a magical way to spend an afternoon — although this party could very well be happening at 2 am. This is the Secret Solstice festival in Reykjavik, Iceland, which takes place annually when the country experiences 24-hour daylight.
As if the idyllic scene and all-night sun parties weren’t enough, Secret Solstice has another big draw: The festival only admits about 9,000 attendees each year. If you’ve ever been to a big music festival, Secret Solstice will be a welcome break from the throngs of people crowding you all weekend long. For comparison, Coachella in Indio, California, and Lollapalooza in Chicago draw approximately 100,000 people per day.
As streaming has lessened revenue from music purchases, artists have begun performing and touring more frequently to earn money from ticket sales. And people are happy to attend. In 2018, 52 percent of Americans went to at least one live music event, according to Nielsen. But as the bigger festivals look to increase their attendance records each year, some music fans are seeking an alternative. Secret Solstice is just one of dozens of micro music festivals that have cropped up recently, offering a more intimate experience for fans and a chance to see artists that wouldn’t typically be part of a major festival lineup.
Riverfest Elora, held at Bissell Park in Ontario, Canada, on the third weekend in August each year averages about 5,000 attendees. The festival was started in 2009 by local Elora visual artist Marilyn Koop as a way to create a local green space and cozy atmosphere right in the middle of downtown. “The actual village of Elora is as much a part of the event as the festival grounds,” says Spencer Shewen, artistic director and festival manager for Riverfest Elora. “We encourage our attendees to come and go, explore the shops, restaurants and the natural landscape.”
The festival draws medium-to-big headliners like The Flaming Lips last year and City and Colour and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones this year, but includes tons of local artists as well. At $129 for a three-day pass, it’s cheaper than most big festivals, plus, all children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult.
An even smaller festival called Secret Island (unaffiliated with Secret Solstice) sells just 1,000 tickets each year. The location is kept secret until you arrive at the event but always takes place on the white sand beaches and crystal blue waters off the coast of Šibenik, Croatia, and is only accessible by boat. The electronic music festival’s inaugural event last year was on Obonjan Island, but unlike another island-hosted “luxury music festival” (never forget the great Fyre Festival disaster of 2017) Secret Island attendees seemed quite pleased with the experience. This year’s headliners included EDM artists Neelix, Felix Kröcher and Groove Coverage.
Nick Farkas, co-founder of the Osheaga Festival in Montreal, Quebec, says it’s no surprise that smaller festivals are becoming more popular. At micro festivals, “there’s a smaller, more intimate community so the experience is more unique,” Farkas says, pointing to artist-curated festivals like Homecoming in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the entire lineup was selected by the band The National. Farkas is confident the micro festival trend is here to stay. Fifteen years ago, most festivals toured around the country, he says. Now, big festivals like Coachella and Lolla stay in one spot and patrons go to them because “different markets wanted to create unique festivals for their audience,” Farkas says. He sees the same thing happening with micro festivals today. “Everything is cyclical and more people are creating unique experiences for fans.”
How much more unique can you get than seeing a show inside an ancient chunk of ice? At Secret Solstice there’s an event called “Into the Glacier” — a private concert inside an actual glacier. Even the seats and a DJ booth are carved out of ice. There are also intimate performances inside a 5,000-year-old lava tunnel. This year’s lineup (June 21-23; $161 for a weekend pass) will include headline performances from The Black Eyed Peas, Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters and Rita Ora, among the more than 50 smaller artists primarily from Iceland and Germany. “A well-rounded mix of established national and international artists, and a stage for new emerging talent, [gives] Secret Solstice a family feel with the feeling of adventure,” says Kelechi Amadi, who does marketing for Secret Solstice.
As live performances become an increasingly important revenue stream for artists, festival promoters, music producers and artists themselves are rethinking what a music festival means for fans. These micro festivals offer a unique and intimate experience you’ll be hard-pressed to find at the Coachellas and Lollas of the world.
Other Micro Festivals to Check Out This Year
The Træna Festival in Norway
- Location: The islands of Husøya and Sanna in the Arctic Circle
- Number of people: 2,800
- Dates: July 11-14, 2019
- Cost: 1300.00 NOK (about $149)
Lost Paradise Festival in Australia
- Location: Glenworth Valley, New South Wales
- Number of people: 6,000 – 10,000
- Dates: December 28, 2019 – January 1, 2020
- Cost: Roughly $400 for the weekend
Green Man Festival in the U.K.
- Location: Brecon Beacons mountains in Crickhowell, Wales
- Number of people: About 6,000
- Dates: August 15 – 18, 2019
- Cost: £246.75 (about $312)