Given that Los Angeles residents like, rightly or wrongly, to think of the city as the music capital of the world, there’s one thing L.A. County is strangely short on: in-town music festivals. Downtown’s FYF Fest died an untimely death last year, and Goldenvoice’s Arroyo Seco Weekend has gone MIA this year after two seemingly successful runs in Pasadena. Stepping into that void this weekend is a new festival that intends to establish a beachhead — literally — in the wide-open L.A. market.
The BeachLife Festival doesn’t intend to compete against the mega-fests of the world, though. With a lineup that has Willie Nelson, the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir as the three nightly headliners May 3-5, BeachLife is aimed at drawing about 10,000 fans to an adult-oriented gathering on a modest eight-acre site in Redondo Beach. The oceanside location marks at least of a much of a contrast to Coachella as anything about the lineup or demographic: There will be zero market for any of the face masks worn by workers and some fans out in Indio to keep out the desert dust.
“It’s funny,” says founder Allen Sanford. “For the last eight months we’ve been calling it the BeachLife Festival, but it doesn’t feel like a festival to me at all in the sense of these massive productions with 50,000 or more people. It’s not a massive open field. Right now I’m on the site, looking at our super-quaint, little thut/hatch kind of a setting, and literally looking at Catalina Island and the rocks on the jetty. This is throwing a huge beach party, with less than 12,000 people, and it’s highly curated. I guess I’d call it a boutique festival. It’s akin to watching your buddy play an acoustic guitar on the rocks when you’re surfing, but on a grand scale.”
Other acts on the lineup provide guidance on the generally non-aggro, good-time vibe BeachLife is going for, with acts that land somewhere between jam bands, nostalgic new wave and the friendlier side of contemporary alt-rock, including Ziggy Marley, Dawes, Jason Mraz, Best Coast, Grace Potter, Blues Traveler, Big Head Todd and Everclear. Violent Femmes is about as close as the festival comes to the punk scene the South Bay area has sometimes been synonymous with. So maybe it’s surprising to learn that a key figure in L.A. punk, Pennywise singer Jim Lindberg, is the creative director of the festival.
“When everybody heard that Jim was the creative director,” says Sanford, “the first thing they thought was, ‘Well, the beach culture is all about punk’ — especially in Hermosa Beach, it’s Black Flag and Pennywise and all that other stuff, right? And that definitely is surf culture, and when I go surfing, I turn on Pennywise five out of 10 times. But when I’m hanging out at the beach with my buddies or my wife and kids and we’re just listening to some tunes, that’s not punk-rock. So the prerequisite for our booking team was you had to be able to close your eyes and imagine being on the beach with your friends and listening to that music in order for them to make the lineup. And that covers every band on there in some way or another, from Berlin — and remembering ‘Top Gun’ when he’s riding his motorcycle on the beach after they play volleyball — all the way to the Beach Boys being the most iconic surf culture band. Every single band has passed that litmus test. Even Willie Nelson —some people say, ‘That’s not beach life,’ but the country lifestyle is a lot like the beach lifestyle: a laid-back, nostalgic feeling.”
X did play a private party for the festival Thursday night. “That happens to be Jim Lindberg’s favorite band of all time, so it was the tip of the cap for us to say, ‘You know, we’re not doing Bad Religion and Pennywise, but God damn it, we respect and we love it, and who better than X to play the launch party?’ Punk is part of our DNA and culture, but we didn’t really want to, especially in the first year, have mosh pits, because they’re two very different audiences — and I’m respectful of them both, but we chose to go with a more family-friendly lineup.”
When it comes to comparable festivals, not that many come to mind, at least in California — but there are a couple. “BottleRock’s too big, but I love how BottleRock started,” Sanford says. “It started around a very particular culture of wine lovers in Napa. They owned that culture, they embraced that culture, and then it grew. A lot of festivals I see just book random bands and then think up a four-letter word and just call it a festival, and it doesn’t have a perspective or a heart to it. I would say Ohana has done a great job, too, although the Orange County beach life person is a very different person than the L.A. beach person. But Ohana and BottleRock are the ones that come to mind as being highly curated toward audiences that we’re going after.”
Another prerequisite for all the acts they booked, besides passing the closed-eyes test, is that they had to be agreeable to a live-stream. That’s something Sanford has a lot of experience with, since besides owning the Hermosa music club Saint Rocke and several other restaurants in the area, his other job is overseeing LiveList, which he calls the TV Guide of concert streams.
The live stream “is just a fantastic way to be inclusive of all the people that can’t be there,” he says, “and then from a marketing perspective for the city and the festival, it gives people a chance from across the country to really enjoy what we’re doing and hopefully come next year.” Not that he wants tensof thousands more arriving in 2020. “We’ve definitely got room for growth, but it will never be 20,000 people. Once you get past a certain number — I think the magic number is somewhere like 13 or 14,000 — you lose your ability to hyper-curate to an audience, and you start mixing audiences. And after that, you’re just like everybody else.”
Sanford, who spent nearly a decade producing Hermosa Beach’s summer concerts, has a long-term lease with Redondo Beach to use the seaside lagoon site. “We actually have a 10-year lease to do two per year, and I’m not pulling the trigger on the second one until I get the community feedback on the first.” Although 95 percent of the marketing budget was spent targeting the local area, he says advance sales include attendees from 38 states and 19 countries, “which tells me that there’s a global culture to this whole thing. Once I got the permit and was wondering what to call it, my wife said, ‘Look, I grew up in Germany watching subtitled ‘Baywatch.’ You guys don’t even realize that people throughout the world are dreaming of coming to live in the Southern California beach life culture.’ And that was kind of the aha moment of, ‘Oh shit, let’s just call it BeachLife.’”
Single-day tickets and premium three-day passes are still available, although three-day GA passes are sold out. Ticketing and scheduling information as well as the live stream can be found at beachlifefestival.com.