Large crowds are expected to turn out for the three-day festival, which begins Thursday. But as excitement builds for the event, now in its sixth year, questions linger about whether the festival will continue to grow.
After showing steady growth for its first four years, last year’s festival saw attendance figures fall. Officials cite record-breaking heat as the culprit and hope that lower attendance was just a fluke.
“In a short amount of time, it’s become one of the most famous and successful festivals in the country. We’re very pleased with what they have accomplished in just a few years,” said Maribel Louie, the city’s acting economic development manager. “It’s about creating a really fantastic music experience. Now we will be looking to determine whether this can become an institution in the city … we will be examining the numbers closely.”
Linkin Park, a youth-appealing band that still fills stadiums, is set to headline the eight-hour street festival held on Saturday, the final day of the event. While Linkin Park is the biggest act to play the festival, exactly how many people will pay $79 for general admission or $145 for VIP admission to the Saturday festival (or $250 for VIP admission to all events during the full three days) remains to be seen.
There’s no doubt that festival goers spend a lot of money at the city’s bars, restaurants, shops and parking garages, but exactly how much money isn’t known. An economic impact study examining all the special events put on in the city, including the SSMF, is due next year.
Todd Steadman, executive director of the Sunset Strip Business Association, which puts on the festival, notes that past ticket sales indicate that 20 to 25 percent of attendees come from more than 50 miles away, some from the East Coast and even Europe.
“Those people have to sleep somewhere,” said Steadman. “Heads in beds are important to those of us in the city. It’s not only revenue for the hotels, but TOT (Transient Occupancy Tax, the hotel tax) for the city.”
Of the 2,040 hotel rooms in the city, 1,256 are on the Sunset Strip, including the Sunset Marquis hotel, which is a mere half block off the Strip according to figures from Visit West Hollywood, the city’s recently renamed marketing and visitors’ bureau. However, a quick check online of hotels in the city shows more than half still have rooms available on Aug. 2-3.
Two weeks ago, the festival’s finances came into question when Steadman appeared before the City Council asking for $100,000 to help with set-up and production costs. That was in addition to the $95,000 the city had already committed for this year’s festival.
“The city has been a partner with us since day one. We were asking them to grow with us and support the festival,” said Steadman.
The City Council unanimously approved the request with little discussion, although it’s the first time the city has ever ponied up money to cover the set-up costs. In years past, the city has covered the costs for road closure and sheriff/fire personnel, which totaled $95,000 in 2012 and $75,000 in 2009-2011.
About half of the festival’s operating budget comes from corporate sponsors, including Jack Daniels, Bud Light, Monster Energy drink, Gibson Guitars and the Guitar Center. The city is hoping the festival can sign up even more sponsors in the future.
“With the successful music festivals, their success is based upon sponsorship and the VIP experience they can create,” City Manager Paul Arevalo said at the July 15 City Council meeting. “We are not at that level yet.”
The festival started in 2008 after branding studies showed that a music festival recognizing the Strip’s long association with the nation’s rock ‘n’ roll scene was the best thing the city could do to market itself.
“We’re very lucky that the Sunset Strip is a location that’s recognized worldwide,” said Steadman. “Events and festivals are key to not only building a community, but drawing visitors.”
That first year, the festival was limited to the Strip’s most famous music venues: the Whisky a Go Go, The Roxy, the Viper Room and the now-defunct Key club.
In 2009, Sunset Boulevard was closed off between Doheny Drive and San Vicente Boulevard for the street festival on its final day.
With Ozzy Osbourne as the headliner, 9,000 people turned out in 2009. Then, in 2010, when Smashing Pumpkins and Slash (accompanied by Fergie) were the headliners, attendance jumped to 12,500. In 2011, when Motley Crue and Public Enemy were the big acts, 15,000 people showed up.
But 2012 saw attendance drop to 13,500, despite Marilyn Manson, Steve Aoki and the Offspring headlining.
“It was the hottest weekend of the year,” said Steadman. “The heat was just radiating off the concrete and there’s not a lot of shade.”
This year, to combat the heat problem, officials made changes. They moved the festival up by two weeks from the third weekend in August to the first weekend, a time when, they hope, it’s less likely to be as hot. That gamble looks like it will pay off as the weekend weather forecast predicts pleasant temperatures in the high 70s.
They also pushed back the start time for the Saturday street festival from 1 p.m. to 3p.m., so it won’t be starting during the hottest period of the day.
“We examined the assessment about last year’s numbers. They came to us with a list of challenges like the weather, which can’t be changed, and things that they could change,” said Louie. “We’re cautiously optimistic that [the changes they’ve made] will make a difference.”
In the days following the festival, the city will be analyzing the numbers closely, seeing what else needs to be done to take it to the next level. Arevalo believes they have to weigh getting nationally known name acts, which can expensive and harder to book, against smaller, independent acts, which are easier to book and significantly cheaper.
Getting a promoter is also an option, although Steadman feels one reason residents have been so supportive of the festival is that it’s done locally.
“We’re truly a grass roots effort,” said Steadman. “We’re not a Live Nation, we’re not an AEG. This comes from the businesses. We’re here 365 days of the year. It’s important that we have an event that’s supported by the business and the residents in the city. We’re not just a one-off.”
Overall, residents are enthusiastic about the festival, according to Elyse Eisenberg, head of the West Hollywood Heights Neighborhood Association, which is made up of the streets immediately north of Sunset Boulevard. Any problems residents may have had in the initial years have been dealt with because Steadman and officials have actively been working to address their concerns, Eisenberg said.
“Each year, I see more people from the neighborhood there walking the streets and enjoying themselves,” said Eisenberg. “As far as I know, the neighborhood has had no serious concerns about the event and looks at it as the sort of thing that many of us originally moved to the neighborhood to experience. A lot of the residents are former (and still current) club goers.”
The festival received a nice plug last year when “Rolling Stone” magazine named it one of the best summer music festivals in the nation. But just how big can the festival grow?
“We believe the city can continue to leverage the unique location and musical heritage of the Strip to grow SSMF into one of the top festivals in the country,” said Brad Burlingame, President and CEO of Visit West Hollywood, which supports the festival both financially and through its marketing efforts.
Steadman hopes someday to expand the one-day street festival into a two-day event. He also would love to add a film festival aspect somewhere down the line.
Louie said the city would like to see the boundaries of the street closure expand in future years, perhaps west of Doheny.
Steadman also talks of the Sunset Strip Music Festival becoming another South by Southwest, the nine-day music festival that takes over Austin, Texas each March. He isn’t sure SSMF can ever get SXSW big, but he isn’t ruling it out entirely.
“Each year, we expand the festival, but we try to expand it at a manageable rate too,” said Steadman. “Last thing we want to do is grow a festival where it becomes too large and it implodes.”