Shaun White’s Air + Style Raises The Bar For Music Festivals By Tying Competing Cultures Together

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Shaun White is very excited to show me his phone.

More specifically, he’s excited to show me a photo on his phone. It’s a selfie shot of a particularly grisly injury he sustained a few weeks while practicing for the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics, which he just qualified for. After a gnarly fall, he received a largish gash through his lip, running up his face along his nose. There’s almost no trace of a scar, but his face is split into a wide grin as he discusses the bloody wound, probably in response to my own reaction to the gory sight.

We’re in a tiny office at Big Bear Lodge to talk about the upcoming Air + Style Festival White has been organizing, but his energy, mischievous and infectious, leads the conversation all over the place, from music to snowboarding, to pop culture as a whole. He’s visibly excited as we bounce from subject to subject and he explains how he, an extreme sports athlete, came to be so heavily invested in a music festival.

That excitement translates to his execution so far; Air + Style has consistently been one of the west coast’s most successful festivals each season. With its peanut-butter-and-jelly combination of wildly varying musical acts and exhibition snowboarding — the festival brings snow machines to Exposition Park in Los Angeles, allowing for a mountain feel even in the lower altitudes favored by the majority of Angelinos — it truly has something for everyone.

This year’s lineup includes performances by electronic wizards Zedd, Griz, and Phantogram and indie-pop favorite Phoenix alongside Southern rap legend Gucci Mane and eclectic trap-soul crooner DRAM. Prior festivals have included names like Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples, Chromeo, Flume, YG, and Major Lazer, underlining the diversity of not just the festival’s “everybody in the pool” ethos, but Shaun White’s personal taste. He says he’s highly involved in the lineup selection process, and his exuberance when he receives confirmation that Gucci Mane will be available for the headline performance is palpable. He doesn’t just live this, he loves it, every minute of it, and that’s why he made the shift from simply being the talent to the organizer.

He describes this as his new calling because “it’s hard to win and then win,” because “I won a bunch of stuff. I got my goal and I’m not motivated to do it again.” The grueling schedule of events and practice for the Olympics had become too much, and even as we chat, he’s preparing to fly back to Colorado for the third qualifier for the Olympics, despite being a shoo-in for the 2018 competition.

“The competition for the Olympics is awesome, but this is my real passion,” he explains. “After the last Olympics, when I didn’t win, I was just sitting there like, ‘What do I want to do with my life and my time and my money and my effort?’ And I was like, ‘I love music, I love snowboarding, I love going to festivals… I got an idea, let’s do it!’ I just jumped, and everybody else followed.”

He says he was first introduced to the festival during his early days of professional snowboarding, back before he was a household name in action sports and before Air + Style seemed like a feasible moneymaker for the California climate. The event originated in 1994 in Innsbruck, Austria as a simple snowboarding contest, but before long it had evolved into what White calls “basically a big party.”

As it grew and attracted more of the best riders, the party atmosphere became as much of a draw as the competition itself, which was a large part of the appeal for the young athlete, whose age usually barred him from participating in event afterparties. “It was awesome,” he gushes, “Because the drinking age is different. It was the first place I could go out and be let in to get the award at the award ceremony if it was in a bar.”

When the Olympics took on halfpipe snowboarding in 1998, White stepped away from competing at the Air + Style contest in order to chase the gold. However, the contest stayed near and dear to his heart, and he returned after he won the Olympic gold in 2006. By then, Air + Style had expanded even further, moving to a new location in Munich, Germany. At this point, White had grown in global popularity as well, and the event’s coordinators were searching for a recognizable face to represent it as they expanded operations into China. He made perfect sense.

“I went over as the host of the event,” he explained. “And I show up and my name’s just on this giant stadium — at the Bird’s Nest, where they held the [2008] Olympics — and I’m like, ‘This is insane!’” From that moment, he says, he was sold, and knew that he had to be involved. “I started talking to the owner, who I knew from being a little kid, and when we signed the papers, he said, ‘I knew that I’d be selling this thing someday, but it’s amazing that you’re sitting across the table from me.’”

Of course, as they say in snowboarding circles, either go big or go home, and as a multiple time champion in a number of events, White knew exactly what he had to do to make the event successful in its new market. “My idea was to take it to the next level when coming to the United States because LA is a difficult market,” he said. “You need to make a big splash; we needed to do it right.” That’s why, at the first event at Exposition Park in Los Angeles, White’s team swung for the fences, booking huge names like Kendrick Lamar, Steve Aoki, The Flaming Lips, and Diplo. “My idea was to really blow it out,” he reminisces, “I wanted to make it a true festival, like Coachella meets X Games.”

He says it was his prior festival experience that made him want to set Air + Style apart from the competition and make it more than just a snowboard contest. “I was like, ‘What’s different about them?’ This one’s at the beach, this one’s at the desertWhat’s unique about that? I thought the musicians might want to come see this and be excited about it, and as a competitive snowboarder I’m thinking if I can show up to the competition and go see Kendrick Lamar play after, I’m there!”

He says that you couldn’t pay him to just watch a snowboard contest, but the plethora of options at Air + Style is what makes it so appealing to different groups, from music fans to the riders who come to compete. “That was the idea. It wasn’t just getting snowboarding or getting music. It was getting the lifestyle of the sport.”

The lifestyle of the sport he talks about is the defiance of expectations. While old skate and snowboarding videos were primarily soundtracked by relatively nondescript thrash metal, the crossover between musical culture and action sports contains more overlap than people might think. For instance, White tells me he’s always surprised to talk to performers and find out that they’re already connected with the athletes they’ll be rubbing elbows with at Air + Style and vice versa.

He has a truly astonishing collection of stories himself; we practically collapse into hysterics as he recounts the time he taught Del The Funky Homosapien (of Gorillaz, Hieroglyphics, and Souls Of Mischief fame) how to do an Ollie on a skateboard and how he introduced Compton rapper and secret skateboard enthusiast YG to the joys of snowboarding. It’s easy to forget that athletes and entertainers are people with multifaceted interests sometimes, and the primary mission of Air + Style is to remind fans of that while catering to both sides. White and his crew pull it off admirably, year after year.

He cackles a bit as he reflects on his proud moments as “event dad”: The time Action Bronson broke away from the stage mid-set to get a taco, the vibrant energy of ASAP Ferg’s set in 2016, and the moments of genuine enjoyment after all the work to get the show underway. The best reflection of how genuinely exhilarated he is to be curating the discovery of music the event promotes is that he’s practically bouncing as he searches for the Gucci Mane confirmation, and near bursting as he receives it. “There’s so much preparation that goes into it and for those two days, and for those two days, to have it all boil down and have people having a good time is the best feeling ever.”

The Air + Style festival takes place at Los Angeles Exposition Park March 3-4, 2018. Tickets can be purchased here.