Deep in the vegetation of Golden Gate Park, among the tens of thousands of attendees at the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in 2012, beside the fairytale-like “houses” peddling chocolate – hot, cold, hardened and molten – and next to a carnival sideshow with clowns, jugglers and the like, out walked pasty-skinned Jack White, carrying a guitar and followed by his all-female band.
Those who were there will name it as the most-momentous, iconic moment in the festival’s first seven years. That statement doesn’t just hold true for common fans. Both Allen Scott, executive vice president at Another Planet, one of the festival’s promoters, and San Francisco Supervisor Eric Mar (Golden Gate Park falls in his Richmond District), are quick to identify that moment as their lasting impression.
After all, what other festival in the United States can claim a wooded forest performance stage?
As the annual Outside Lands weekend nears, running from August 7-9, and approaches its first decade, it has left a lasting legacy for live music in Golden Gate Park and the City of San Francisco. Festival-goers will flood the park excited to see Elton John, Mumford and Sons, Kendrick Lamar and dozens of other acts, restauranteurs, vendors and vintners. But the fest has also been responsible for hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars poured into the city, giving local artists a huge platform and Bay Area residents a landmark cultural event. It has also provided a huge boost to the city’s Rec and Park Department, which has provided new opportunities for the city’s youth and cleaned up all of the city’s parks because of the extra cash.
“Music in San Francisco is such a rich part of the history; it’s so important,” Scott said. “The Fillmore and Bill Graham – everything that he’s done. But it wasn’t just about the music; it was about the audience. The whole festival was really about the celebration of San Francisco.”
Scott points out that no stage at the festival is named after a corporate sponsor, and numerous locations throughout the sprawling grounds celebrate local landmarks and those who influenced music in the city.
“I hope what we do, in terms of our legacy, is to celebrate San Francisco and what makes San Francisco so great,” Scott said. “We hope this is going for 20, 30, 40-plus years to come. It already feels like it’s part of the fabric, year-round.”
When Another Planet first approached city leaders, prior to 2008, Mar had no idea what the festival would become. But the supervisor was on board from the very beginning. In college at UC Davis, Mar was a jazz trumpeter. He also worked as a DJ at community station KDVS. And after moving to the Bay Area, he worked as a DJ at Berkeley’s KPFA and San Francisco’s KPOO.
Each year, he has watched broadcasts of Coachella and Glastonbury.
“I’m a fan of large cultural gatherings,” he said. “I’ve…always felt that San Francisco needed its own ardent culture festival.”
From the very beginning, the stakeholders saw the possibility of continuing the tradition of live music in Golden Gate Park, and that is the first commonly cited legacy of Outside Lands.
“Dating back to ‘60s, with the Dead and Jefferson Airplane,” said Phil Ginsburg, head of the city’s Recreation and Parks Department. “Flash-forward to the tenure of the (Outside Lands) festival, and you get a Paul McCartney, a Pearl Jam, a Stevie Wonder. This year you have Elton John. It adds to the unbelievably rich texture of the park’s history.”
Even younger, upcoming artists have an appreciation for the park’s rich music history and the growing reputation of the festival.
“Performing at Outside Lands Festival is a significant step in my journey as a musician,” R&B guitarist-vocalist Leon Bridges said. “It’s an honor to be invited to perform at such a prestigious event.”
Still, before the City signed off on a new festival carrying hordes of music lovers into Golden Gate Park, the organizers had to guarantee financial benefits. A 2011 report showed that Outside Lands had pumped roughly $60 million into San Francisco’s economy. That took into account spending by attendees, the cash that flows into the Recreation and Parks Department, and the 600 to 700 jobs created to put the festival on each year. The majority of the infrastructural hires come from Mar’s Richmond District, as well as the Sunset.
“(But) that’s not just local infrastructure hires,” Ginsburg said. “They are very focused on hiring local musicians, local vintners and food purveyors. It has been hugely important and positively impactful.”
One of the local acts performing this year is orchestral pop group The Family Crest. Vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Laura Bergmann said her band has wanted to play at Outside Lands for many years, and find it an honor to finally be invited.
Bergmann’s two favorite memories from the festival are singing along with Stevie Wonder and tens of thousands of other fans – she has never felt more connected to so many other people at once – and watching Sigur Ros perform in the falling fog and rising wind amidst the nature of the park. To her, the biggest legacy of the festival is the strength of the festival’s lineup, which amazes her every year.
“We’re really excited and proud to be representing our city this year on the lineup,” she said.
Austin singer-songwriter Alejandro Rose-Garcia, better known as Shakey Graves, is also excited about the lineup, and he’s looking forward to being a fan, let-alone performing. He’s never seen music performed in Golden Gate Park, and doesn’t know much about the history of live music in the park, but he’d fit right in during the Summer of Love, which is so deeply connected to the roots of music there.
“The first time I went to San Francisco, (the park) was an immediate stop,” he said. “As a young traveling person, you just assume you should go to Golden Gate Park and loiter.”
The festival attracts thousands of loiterers. Another Planet and other organizers, such as Superfly and Starr Hill, spend months planning each year’s festival, and have been very respectful to Golden Gate Park and its ecosystem, Ginsburg said. He acknowledged that there is an impact to the neighborhood, which typically includes noise and nuisance complaints, but said organizers regularly monitor them and improve the situation for neighbors each year.
“Great cities host great events,” he said. “We are welcoming, over three days, 80,000 to 90,000 people-a-day, to a confined area in Golden Gate Park. It is an inconvenience…but it is the kind of thing that happens in cities from time to time.”
Ginsburg’s department gets about $2 million of the festival’s cash flow each year. Because Rec and Park doesn’t have a fund specifically for Golden Gate Park, the money is spread around among all of the city’s parks and the departments programs, such as cleaning and greening, swim lessons, a youth education program and a scholarship program.
To Mar, one of the lasting legacies of Outside Lands is its strong environmental impact, as well as its incorporation of historical San Francisco counterculture into its identity. While it may not be as off-the-grid as a Pickathon or a Burning Man, the organizers’ ability to keep the commercialism to a bare minimum has succeeded, he said.
“There’s a Burning Man principle called ‘leave no trace,’” he said. “When you go somewhere, like a beautiful park or a beach, you make it better than it was before. I think Another Planet and the organizers have lived up to that. It’s an extremely sustainable event with how they treat the park. I think it should be a model (for) other places.”
The one issue Mar wants organizers to look to fix in the future is that of affordability. With costs reaching into the hundreds of dollars, he’s worried that some are priced out of attending. His solution: Free or discounted tickets to Boys and Girls Clubs, and other low-income community groups.
Each year, the supervisor goes to the festival with his daughter, 15, and they talk about their tastes in music – this year she wants to see Kendrick Lamar and Cold War Kids, while he’s excited about Elton John, Wilco and Ben Harper.
“It’s a good way for me to share my interests with her,” he said. “It’s a good way for me to learn about the newer generation and all these great artists and musicians.”
He would like those with smaller incomes to have the same opportunity.
The current contract between organizers and the City runs through 2021, and each year, Scott said, Another Planet tries to improve the experience for attendees. This year music fans will see more bathrooms, new art installations, an expanded GastroMagic stage (where chefs mingle with musicians to create alternative forms of entertainment) and an expanded special footprint for the festival as a whole.
The festival will also have its most diverse cuisine, with local favorite restaurants like Delfina and La Urbana.
“When we started the festival in 2008, it was always our vision to do all local restaurants,” Scott said. “Prior to Outside Lands, no festivals were doing good food. These restaurants had never sold in this capacity. It’s very different than selling in a brick and mortar restaurant. That first year we went 50 percent local. Each year we’ve inched that up. Now we’re at 99 percent.”
Still, for Scott, who moved to San Francisco partly because of the city’s rich musical heritage, it’s the musical moments that are the most memorable. Besides White’s pop-up performance in McLaren Pass, he lists as the most magical Paul McCartney and his transcendent catalog, as well as Radiohead, because the band was the first ever to play Golden Gate Park at night.
Indeed, it’s after the sun sets at Outside Lands that the park is most dreamlike, with the massive up-lit cypress, pine and eucalyptus trees, the hazily glowing passage through Choco Lands, and the hints of music coming from around the corner, yet not overbearing you unless you’re in an open field.
“The festival underscores the beauty of the park itself,” said Ginsburg. “It’s about creating a sense of place. And place-making involves memories, and linking the past and the present to the future. The legacy of Outside Lands is place-making.”
Follow Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.