How San Francisco’s Outside Lands Shaped Music Festival Culture Over The Last Ten Years

With every passing month, it becomes more clear that we’re living in “peak festival” culture. In the midst of such rapid growth, there are bound to high points and low points in the festival landscape, outliers that bookend the spectrum of events that are cropping up every year. As far as I can tell, when it comes to the west coast, San Francisco’s Outside Lands has become that high point, and it may even be the country-wide pinnacle. I guess I’ll have to determine that for myself once and for all in a couple weekends, when I finally get to attend the event for the first time.

Until the fall of last year, I was living on the east coast in New York City, which means my access to festivals three time zones away was generally limited by budget, time constrains, and the hassle of traveling. Even so, my peers who did have the resources continually told me that Outside Lands was one of the festivals they most looked forward to attending. This pricked up my ears, because that’s definitely an outlier in the music journalism world — in fact, plenty of other festival names come muttered under the breath, like dirty words.

So what makes this San Francisco-based event such an outlier? After all, it’s not like it’s an easy feat to throw an event that brings thousands and thousands of people into a park in the heart of one of the country’s most densely-packed metropolises. Over the last ten years, however, Outside Lands has built a festival that celebrates the city it’s located in, relying on the community itself instead of attempting to overshadow or ignore it.

“Our defining ethos is to take care of the audience and the artist,” said Allen Scott, of Another Planet, the Northern Californian production company that puts on the event every year in conjunction with Bonnaroo founders, Superfly Productions. “It’s an attention to detail that we and our partners have on these festivals, and with Outside Lands specifically, it’s always always been about a celebration of San Francisco and the Bay Area. In every single detail, that’s what we want to do.”

Before the inception of Outside Lands, Superfly co-founder Rick Farman remembers wondering why a city like San Francisco — which is the third largest music markets in the country — had gone so long without a city festival.

“It was one of those things where you almost thought there had to be a reason,” Farman recalls. “And as we started to dig in with Another Planet and peel back the layers of it, we realized that there were some barriers in place, but between our knowledge of the festival marketplace, and what Another Planet had with all of their relationships in the city and their knowledge of the market, we realized the combination of us would be a really fantastic partnership. Eventually, we all started to become friends, and realized that this idea was something really worth putting a lot of effort into. So, it took us many years — it was about three years from the time we really started to plot it until the time it launched. But we’re so glad we put that effort in, because now we have an amazing event and amazing partnership.”

In 2008, when Outside Lands kicked off, they were one of the only festivals in the country to feature local and high-end restaurants with food onsite. In 2017, it’s hard to imagine a festival without a variety of trendy food vendors rolled out right alongside the performers, but ten years ago, Outside Lands was one of the very first modern music festivals to incorporate that element. Currently, one hundred percent of the food offerings at the fest are from local San Francisco spots, and the same goes for the extensive beer and wine vendors, who occupy their own mini kingdoms onsite, Wine Lands and Beer Lands respectively.

“We definitely were on the leading edge of modern festival incorporation of local food,” Farman said. “But, I think what we have that’s really the most unique of any festival scene in that regard, is that it’s not only food, but it’s also beverages. We serve 150 different types of wine at our festival. We have sixty different types of beer. We have this area, Cocktail Magic, where we have some of the best cocktail makers in the world making really interesting, specialty drinks. I don’t think there’s anywhere out there that comes close to the diversity and breadth of that offering.”