Eaux Claires 2018, Artist-Led Festivals, and the No-Lineup Lineup

Eric Christenson, photos by Lee Butterworth

Eaux Claires 2017
Eaux Claires 2017

At this point, it’s been well established that the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival is doing stuff differently for its fourth annual installment on July 6 and 7. Most significantly, curators Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner are intentionally not releasing a lineup of music acts. At least not in the traditional sense.

If you’ve listened to the slew of audio clips the festival released over the winter with your Shazam app open or followed Vernon’s subtle-not-so-subtle nods on Twitter, you can probably piece the slate together for the most part. Those bread crumbs lead to names like Noname, Phoebe Bridgers, serpentwithfeet, Julien Baker, Moses Sumney, Hiss Golden Messenger (plus, it wouldn’t be Eaux Claires without the likes of Francis and the Lights and Phil Cook).

But that’s really not the point.

The idea is to subvert the norm of bloated music festivals that have heavily proliferated the country as they become trendier and trendier. The Coachellas and Lollapaloozas of the world are doing their thing and raking in cash, but Vernon and Dessner feel like they have an opportunity with Eaux Claires to create a weekend haven that’s less about a bottom line and more about a collective experience.

Attendees willing to fork over their trust are going in blind, which will be an artistic boon, but how it shakes out financially is anyone’s guess. Either way, changing the conversation and the money-heavy mindset of major music festivals is worth the risk for Eaux Claires, Vernon says – the festival is prominently featured in a Pitchfork story today that discusses how artist-led music festivals like Eaux Claires are changing the game around the country for the better, but it’s not easy.

Here’s a few salient quotes from the piece:

That longevity is the crux. In the first year of Eaux Claires, when Bon Iver returned to the stage after a three-year hiatus, the festival was instantly profitable. Then Eaux Claires lost money for the next two years, Vernon admits, requiring organizers to make some changes. But the bottom line is not the primary focus.

“You can’t just sign up for profit every time,” says Vernon. “But we’re not blindly throwing money down the toilet—we’re adjusting to a more sustainable model.” He compares the festival’s balance sheets to the decades he spent toiling in groups that never made much money, long before he found fame with Bon Iver. “You have to be committed,” he adds. “This is a 20-year thing.”

“There is something artist-driven happening with festivals, even if I don’t think it’s clear where we’re going with it yet,” says Adam Voith, a longtime booking agent for the likes of Bon Iver and Vampire Weekend. “Artists are much more excited about these events than standard festivals now, because there’s a recognition that it’s music-forward and collaborative from the jump.” Voith pauses, then sighs. “But it’s going to take a lot of smart people to figure out how to make these viable long-term.”

With Eaux Claires keeping this year’s lineup a secret until the festival begins, they’re betting they don’t even need a traditional promotional poster at all. For Vernon, his team, and, it seems, most every artist risking their own time and money to build such an idealistic event, the risk seems to be a test worth taking. The broad goal is to push back against entrenched festival rules and change the tone of a conversation in which, sooner or later, they all participate. These bands still play major festivals with corporate boosters, after all, because those outsized paydays help fund everything else they do. But that doesn’t have to be the only option.

“Why does it have to be about maximizing profits every time there’s a question about everything? That bugs me,” says Vernon. “We’re not trying to be the biggest festival in the world. We’re just trying to be the best we can be.”

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