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Less than two weeks remained until the Arise Music Festival was set to begin over Memorial Day weekend. The anticipation was huge and the headliners, including Alison Wonderland, Big Wild, and Beats Antique, had been booked. Festivarians from across the nation had purchased tickets, made travel plans, and began compiling inventory lists for their camps (don’t forget the yoga mat!). This year was to be Arise’s triumphant return after a pandemic hiatus, and it would take place not in Loveland as before but in a new location—a sprawling property in Boone, Colorado, that the event’s organizer had purchased. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, an announcement dropped on Facebook on May 13:
“With less than two weeks until we are to ARISE together, it is with a heavy heart that we announce the cancellation of Arise Music Festival…Ultimately, [the] Pueblo County Planning Department canceled our special event application because the Pueblo Sheriff and CDOT did not approve the festival for reasons that are not clear.”
Arise ticketholders received refunds. But the announcement—as well as a more detailed message from organizer Luke Comer, in which he accused the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office of “stonewalling” the festival—did little to stem the tide of angry, sad, and bewildered comments on social media. And some of the snidest remarks took aim not just at Arise, but Colorado’s music scene as a whole.
“Daaamn. For having such an incredible music scene, Colorado sure does kill music festivals like it is [its] business,” wrote Instagram user @wesselspecial.
“Another festy bites the dust,” added @Mjjackson9.
Arise is surely a victim of its own set of circumstances, but there is also something behind the idea that Colorado is a graveyard of music festivals. A survey of the tombstones reveals numerous efforts that met untimely ends: Grandoozy, Vertex, SnowBall, Velorama, and the Mile High Music Festival, to name a few.
Enough festivals have fallen that, within Colorado’s music scene, people sometimes (and only half-jokingly) ask does Colorado have a music festival curse?
It’s not the first time someone has asked Don Strasburg that question. Strasburg is arguably the most powerful concert promoter in Colorado, a live music impresario who estimates he’s been involved with 25,000 events over his career and currently works for AEG Presents, the media empire owned by Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz. Strasburg was a main force behind Grandoozy in 2018, so he’s spent a lot of time thinking about the challenges facing music festivals in Colorado. “This is a great topic,” he says, “But first, I think we need to define a ‘music festival.’”
Strasburg points out that there are plenty of what he calls “boutique” music festivals in Colorado. Think Global Dance Festival, Decadence, Sonic Bloom, and the legendary Telluride Bluegrass Festival—the last of which Strasburg nods to as “one of the most important music festivals in the world and a rite of passage for music lovers.”
But Strasburg agrees that the Centennial State lacks a “mega festival,” such as Bonnaroo, Coachella, Lollapalooza, or Electric Forest. “Colorado,” he says, “has not and will not succeed in establishing itself as a major festival location.” Why? Strasburg helps break it down.
The Red Rocks Effect
For music lovers around the country—and the world—experiencing a show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre is a bucket list item. The towering red sandstone, the sweeping views over the plains, and the moon and the stars overhead make for a majestic concert experience. So majestic, Strasburg says, that it’s not just audiences who seek out shows at Red Rocks.
“The bands want to play Red Rocks, too” he says. “Festivals are cool, but if you go to a band and say, ‘Would you like to play at 8 o’clock for an hour and fifteen minutes on a big [festival] stage, or would you rather go play the greatest venue in the world, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 98 percent of them are going to take Red Rocks Amphitheatre.”
Because so many marquee groups want to play at Red Rocks, the venue fills out its concert calendar with stellar talent year after year. “It’s been said that we already have the greatest music festival in the world,” Strasburg says. “It’s called the season of Red Rocks.”
Only once bands have ticked off that Red Rocks box, Strasburg says, are they more willing to consider going to a big festival instead.
While the Red Rocks Effect is a drum stick in any festival’s side, a concert promoter determined to throw a mile-high version of Coachella anyway has another, potentially bigger problem: the map. Colorado’s wide-open spaces might seem like an upside when trying to replicate the types of sprawling festival grounds that play host to world famous camping festivals.
Yet Strasburg points out that our state’s surplus of open land has a downside. Outside of the Denver metro area, there aren’t many big cities—i.e., markets full of potential festivalgoers— besides Boulder, Fort Collins, and Colorado Springs within a six-hour driving radius. That matters if you’re throwing a music festival where thousands of people are going to car camp.
“So, when you think about Electric Forest or Bonnaroo—all of these music festivals across the East Coast, Midwest, and in California—and then you draw concentric circles by hundreds of miles around those, you’ll start counting millions and millions [of people] in those communities, who can drive two to four hours to get to that event,” he says. “But our concentric circle outside of Denver, it’s like outside of Colorado—there’s nothing until Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, and Kansas City. Those are really far away.”
In short: Distance matters. A promoter can have a killer lineup and the festival can have a spectacular vibe, but people will still question whether a half-day car odyssey just to get there is worth it. “We just don’t have the population density here to truly support anything bigger than boutique events,” Strasburg says. He speculates this was one of the factors that killed Grandoozy after just one year. “I mean that lineup was incredible,” he says. “I booked it: Kendrick Lamar and Stevie Wonder, for God’s sake!”
It was challenging enough to try to sell out a big festival in Denver. Move an event into more rural areas, Strasburg says, and promoters face even more challenges.
Hostile Neighbors and Rural Governments
Denver may not be a cow town anymore, but venture into Colorado’s Eastern Plains or high country, and you’ll still encounter a spirit of rugged individualism. “A lot of people who move to these communities move there because they want peace and quiet,” Strasburg says. “Oftentimes, people there aren’t overjoyed to have their town inundated and run over by people who may not be there for the sake of their town. So, if you want to pursue going to a community like that, there’s an amount of due diligence you need to do before announcing and booking your festival.”
Not winning or maintaining support amongst the locals is what spelled doom for Vertex Festival in Buena Vista, as well as SnowBall in Avon. But the reality is that any festival organizer will have to earn approval from local residents and from local elected representatives. Every city and county can set its own rules around how its permitting process works, including which agencies—like health departments, law enforcement agencies, tourism boards, and others—need to sign off on a proposed event before it can go forward. That’s a lot of red tape, and a lot of different people to appease.
“People like me that produce camping festivals are scared to death of local governments,” Arise’s organizer, Luke Comer says. “In the state of Colorado, with counties like Larimer or Pueblo, it’s so easy for any sheriff or county commissioner or planning department to just shut you down, for little or no reason—or just because they don’t like you.”
Comer maintains that this is what happened with Arise. The Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office and the Colorado Department of Transportation never officially denied his event applications (which were necessary in order to secure an event permit from Pueblo County); the entities just didn’t respond, Comer says, even as he pleaded for any response in the months leading up to the permit deadline. The experience led Comer to believe that local governments and their various agencies have too much power, and he would instead like to see a uniform, statewide process to obtain special-use permits for events like Arise.
Even so, Comer says he hasn’t fully given up throwing a festival in Colorado. After taking what he described as a “seven figure” financial hit, he says he’s considering doing a future festival on another parcel of his property that’s not in Pueblo County. He’s hopeful that officials and residents in Crowley County will welcome what the festival brings: namely a thousand-plus jobs and services that can generate a million dollars for a local economy.
Strasburg isn’t willing to give up on the idea of a mega festival, either. When asked if AEG Presents might ever attempt something as ambitious as Grandoozy again, he laughs. “Well, if I’m a person of my word, I should listen to everything I just told you,” he says. “But saying ‘never’ is always dangerous. There are certainly major difficulties as to why we haven’t succeeded in doing this in the past. But does that mean we won’t try again? I don’t know. We’re always trying to push the needle. We’re always trying to be creative. So, I never say ‘never.’”