The Redwood Stage at last year's First City Festival. (Photo by Misha Vladimirskiy)
Forget about second-year jitters. First City Festival in Monterey, Calif., has a plenty robust lineup going into its sophomore edition, thanks to headliners Beck and The National.
What’s more ominous is setting up on the site of the legendary 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, which has secured a spot in the history books for presenting the first major American appearances by both The Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Who. Not to mention helping to kickoff the whole festival movement in the U.S. and the “Summer of Love.”
Booked by Coachella’s Goldenvoice Presents, the Aug. 23 and 24 fest is coming off a sell-out debut, which featured sets from Beach House, Capital Cities, The Hold Steady, Modest Mouse and MGMT, drawing more than 10,000 attendees per day. First City Fest takes place at the Monterey Fair and Event Center and Goldenvoice Vice President David Lefkowitz said he couldn’t think of a better site.
“The idea [for First City] started back in 2012 when we worked with Mumford & Sons on their small-town takeover tour, Gentlemen of the Road,” said Lefkowitz. The original idea for the only Western U.S. date on the Mumford tour was to do a show in Salinas, Calif., because of the band’s love of author John Steinbeck. Realizing that a show in that small city was not feasible, Lefkowitz suggested the Monterey County Fairgrounds, since the cities are close together and Steinbeck also has a history with Monterey.
“I knew all about Monterey and I’d been to the Jazz Festival, and combined with the history of music at the fairground, I convinced them to shift their site,” he said. The 2012 event – which took place one week before the annual county fair – went off so well that Lefkowitz thought he could do something larger there. “The site proved to be so enjoyable, with a very calm atmosphere and the combination of the natural setting, lots of grass and infrastructure in place” it gave him an idea, he said.
He was able to get hold of the Labor Day weekend in 2012, coordinating it with the carnival by Helm & Sons Amusements and adding two additional stages to the existing two on site. The festival has a hard capacity of 11,000, which is the maximum amount of people who can fit into the ministadium on site, which Lefkowitz said gives the event an intimate feel. In addition there is a small band-shell style stage in front of a wide lawn and a second stage that the production builds in the middle of a large field, as well as a small riser stage that hosts vaudeville-style performers.
Among the other acts on the roster of this year's lineup: Phantogram, Best Coast, Dawes, Future Islands, and The Naked and Famous. The picturesque city is home to the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium, Cannery Row and the annual Monterey Jazz Festival.
Tickets are $79.75 for one day and $159.50 for two, with no additional fees. VIP passes are $289.50, and include a VIP entrance, access to special viewing areas, a VIP lounge and patio bar, unlimited carnival rides and skip-the-line privileges, a commemorative T-shirt and VIP restrooms.
In addition to the intimate, beautiful setting, festival tickets include free access to the fairground rides, a vinyl swap meet and marketplace with couture clothing made in the U.S. and craft beer and wine from California vendors.
Festival producer Paul Billings said the lineup and setting are purposely meant to give a boutique-like, California feel, including the names of the main stages: Redwood and Cypress.
“At First City you’re never far from the bands [unlike] Stagecoach or Coachella,” he said of Goldenvoice’s bigger gatherings. “Because of the smaller capacity, you’re looking to get a few nice-sized headliners and then curate the rest.” The theme, if there is one, is indie rock, which also differentiates it from Coachella, which mixes in EDM and different kinds of rock music.
In addition to playing up the site’s historical significance, Billings said marketing efforts are firmly focused on luring the state’s residents, rather than reaching outside California. “Half [the attendees] are from Monterey County and surrounding cities, with 85 percent from Northern California and 15-20 percent from Los Angeles and other parts of the country,” he said.
Billings said Goldenvoice views First City as a regional festival rather than one trying to pull in fans from out of state. “A lot of the feedback we got was that it wasn’t this intense thing, like when you go large scale and you get [to the festival] and it feels crazy. When you get here it’s more laid back,” he said.
Though nearly a dozen other big festivals take place during the spring and summer months in California, Lefkowitz said he’s not concerned about oversaturating the market with another one. “I wouldn’t say there’s plenty of room, but people will always appreciate something new and different,” he said. With a core demo in the 22-35 age range, both men said the first event drew a wide range of attendees, from teenagers and families with young children to people in their 40s and beyond.
Positioning First City as a destination festival that holds the allure of great things to see in the Monterey/Big Sur area, Billings said there are plenty of ways the show can distinguish itself from competing fests. In addition to the fairground attractions, he said the curated vendor marketplace was a huge hit in year one, with all the vendors eager to return for this year’s event. “They did so well in sales that one vendor who sold furniture said he did $10,000 in sales within a week after the festival, which is amazing,” he said.
After being warned off from heavily marketing First City on the back of the famed Monterey Pop event during their first year for fear of scaring some in the local community who are still scarred by the aftermath of that legendary event, Lefkowitz and Billings said Goldenvoice is amping up the connection this year.
“We had a very successful [first] year in all ways, including interaction with the local community, so we’ve let go of that concern,” Lefkowitz said, pointing to a recent Facebook post that reused a classic shot of Monterey Pop as a lure.
The marketing push for First City is heavily focused on online and Internet advertising, especially Facebook, which allows Goldenvoice to target certain geographic areas in a radius around the city you want to hit, as well as specific demos.
Interviewed for this article: David Lefkowitz and Paul Billings, (415) 777-1715