At the end of April, Pharrell Williams knocked it out of the park with his inaugural music festival, Something In the Water (SITW). Despite getting rained out on Day 1, the concert bounced back on Days 2 and 3. The event got a lot of praise from attendees, the community, and Virginia Beach city officials.
I’ve covered music festivals several times in Trapital, most notably in Why Rappers Started Running Their Own Music Festivals. I focused on how artists can still create profitable music festivals in today’s saturated market. Here are a few quotes from that August 2018 article:
Travis Scott, J. Cole and other first-time festival organizers can avoid struggles with an intentional plan. Festivals need to offer a unique experience that is true to the artists running them. Both fans and sponsors reward authenticity.
Each year, a bunch of thinkpieces are written about how there are too many music festivals. Most of these critiques stem from a lack of differentiation. Back in the 90s and 2000s, most popular festivals had a unique identity: Coachella was for hipsters, and Bonnaroo was jam bands and folk rock music. A festival’s identity used to set the tone for the lineup. But today’s popular festivals conform to landing the biggest artists possible to sell tickets. Since more artists are doing “festival runs” each year, these events quickly became a commodity.
Travis Scott has yet to announce the Astroworld Festival lineup, but he can separate from the pack by tapping into Houston’s deep rap scene. Throughout his top-selling album Astroworld, Young La Flame paid homage to Swishahouse rappers Slim Thug, Mike Jones, and Paul Wall. Travis should get these local legends to join him on stage.
The Neptunes producer tapped into his roots and got local talent from yesterday and today. Virginia natives Clipse, Timbaland, Missy Elliott, Chris Brown, SZA, and DRAM all came through. He even crossed genres and had Dave Matthews Band in the lineup (who didn’t perform due to the Day 1 cancellation). SITW also got local sponsors, like Virginia Natural Gas and the City of Virginia Beach itself.
The festival was authentic for Pharrell’s eclectic brand. He wanted SITW to span beyond music. There was a pop-up church service, startup pitch competition, panels, and free events and attractions for the community. These concepts aren’t new in festival culture (Kanye West had Sunday Service at Coachella a few weeks earlier), but it was unique to Virginia Beach. The beachfront hadn’t hosted an event that attracted masses of black folks since the race riots at the 1989 GreekFest. SITW is cultural significant given the region’s history with racial politics.
Like most inaugural festivals, SITW definitely took a financial hit. There are no exact figures, but here are some stats and estimations:
- City officials reported that SITW got at least $15 million in private investment to cover expenses.
- There were 35,000 3-day tickets sold at roughly $175 each. That’s over $6 million in ticket sales revenue. But if we subtract the partial refunds from the Day 1 cancellation, then ticket sales revenue is closer to $4 million.
- Even if concession sales and sponsorship totaled $2 million, total revenue was still well short of the $15 million investment.
There’s a lot of ground to reach to cover expenses, but it’s year one. Given the positive momentum, ticket prices and sponsorship dollars will rise. Some hotel prices for the same weekend next year are already over $700! It’s a ridiculous number, but it’s a strong sign.
Those stats will boost Pharrell’s declaration that Virginia Beach is “open for business.” He sees his hometown as an overlooked talent pool and opportunity.
In a recent CBS interview with Gayle King, Pharrell said he wants Virginia to host the NCAA Men’s Final Four—highlighting UVA’s 2019 championship as further validation for the pitch. I love the ambition, but the “Happy” singer shouldn’t get his hopes up. First, the Final Four host cities are set until 2026! That may not matter to Pharrell– who doesn’t age and will probably look the same in 2026 –but it might matter for the rest of us. Second, Final Four host cities have been restricted to sites with 50,000+ capacity dome stadiums (or stadiums with retractable roofs). Virginia has neither, and won’t get one unless an NFL team comes through, which is doubtful.
Final Four or not, Pharrell’s in a great spot. I’ll follow next year to see what else he has in store. And hopefully, he gets better weather next time.