Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival concluded its second year earlier in the month, which also happened to be its second sell-out year. This is an admirable achievement for a young festival, especially given the current competitive festival atmosphere, where many festivals are struggling to retain the attendance numbers they enjoyed just a few years ago. Okeechobee’s success should come as no surprise to anyone who has attended the event, but to get the details on the role that Okeechobee plays in being a leader of a movement that is changing the face of music festivals across the world, we spoke to Tyler Hanson, owner and founder of Kulturehaus.
In 2017, Kulturehaus was responsible for the curation of 40 acres of land, which included Chobeewobee Village and Aquachobee, with a total of eight stages that hosted workshops, yoga, music, and performances. Kulturehaus worked with multiple large-scale visual artists and their crews plus an eclectic assortment of performers, musicians, builders, volunteers, and production staff. The crew of about 500 worked to create a 24-hour experience spanning the start of the festival on Thursday, to its conclusion on Monday morning. Included in the 500 people are Kulturehaus’ staff of six, who spent six months onsite preparing for the festival. As Tyler explains, “Kulturehaus is a modern day guild for modern day artists.” He takes pride in the fact that they didn’t build a single normal stage: “we created environments for performers and people to come and participate in.” The success of the project is evident. Take GRiZ for example, who played six sets (is that the final tally?) at Okeechobee, including a sunset performance at the Be Stage, and a collaborative PoWoW! performance at the Here Stage (two of the main stages). But the performance that seemed to get everyone talking the most was his late-night back-to-back set with 12th Planet and SNAILS at the Incendia Stage, one of the hallmark creations of Kulturehaus at Okeechobee.
The reason for success is that Kulturehaus puts the artists first and the music second. Kulturehaus first employed the idea through the creation of Art Outside, a festival that Tyler founded in Texas in 2005, which served as a proof of concept. As Tyler notes, they “split the paradigm.” He asks: “What would that environment look like” when art is the main attraction and music is secondary? Tyler saw that a lot of festivals looked the same. The market has become so saturated that Bonnaroo’s sales are down 40% and Austin City Limits is hovering around non-growth. “We are at peak festival,” Tyler says. “What do you do when everyone else is doing the same thing?” For Tyler, the answer was clear. He notes that he was fortunate to have the producers of Okeechobee reach out to him and give him the funds to “create a festival inside of a festival.” This has been the product that he has been working towards for the last twenty years. “Okeechobee is very unique in that it sees the vision of the future of music festivals, which is not music, it is art and they are supporting that.” Tyler’s goal was to reinvent festivals, to “put art and music in front of people in a new way that is meaningful and registers and does something.”
He expands, noting that at the festivals of the future, DJs and bands will take a backseat, to make room for an immersive experience.
“They’re interactive, they’re fun, they’re participatory, they’re unique, they are something else. Being able to go to Okeechobee is a blessing because Soundslinger LLC, the producers of Okeechobee, are so supportive of creating an environment where they really let us run wild.” The point of which, is to get people excited and involved, to “wake people up” with immersive worlds that go beyond just a stacked lineup.
The larger goal of Kulturehaus is “creating equal basic rights for artists and supporting their business.” Of the fee that Kulturehaus collects for their part in Okeechobee, two-thirds went directly to artists, while the remainder went to materials and other costs. Kulturehaus aims to close the gap with headlining musicians, noting that a single headlining act that performs for 1.5 hours on the main stage will charge 3-4 times that amount. Compare that to Kulturehaus’ 500 artists and builders working 24 hours a day for 4 days straight (not including setup and tear-down). The mission is to get festivals to divert their attention from headlining acts towards “creative visual and interactive art that runs for the duration of the festival.” His vision is that five years from now, Kulturehaus is a “multi-million-dollar job, where we’re getting paid as much as a headliner is, to make things that are far more memorable and amazing.”
Tyler argues that artists are the next rockstars: “Headline acts of festivals get paid upwards of one million dollars to play a set. That’s not sustainable. That’s not art. That’s just a shit-ton of money going to a bunch of management and agencies.” That’s less of a criticism of the music and more a criticism of the business model. Tyler recognizes the importance of music: “you go to a music festival for music, but actually you’re there for the art. And music is art. The point is to make art democratically applicable. Democratize the art and give it equal value.” Democratizing the art will change the dynamics of festivals, so that the future of festivals is not about stacked lineups, pyrotechnics, lasers, and lights. All of those features will still play a role in music festivals, but they will take a backseat so that hundreds of artists can build interactive artistic musical playgrounds for adults to participate in.
If you are interested in being radical, creating or changing the culture of your festival so that you are not like all the rest: now you know Kulturehaus exists. Principals Kevin KoChen and Tyler Hanson have been at the forefront of the independent festival movement, being intimately involved in the West Coast scene by working on Symbiosis Gathering and Lightning in a Bottle from their inception. In addition, their exploits have led them to working with public and private entities from NASA to Google and all sorts of entities in between, looking to make a scene. But it is their massive artisanal network of doers, makers, dreamers, and imagineers that they have cultivated over the past 20 years that truly make Kulturehaus unique.