Each March for the last eight years, Treefort Music Fest has taken over downtown Boise. The five-day festival starts Wednesday, and will feature headliners Vince Staples, Liz Phair and Toro y Moi alongside hundreds of other musical acts.
If you've lived in Boise during those last eight years, you've probably heard about the festival's humble beginnings. But how is the festival doing as a business, and what have the founders learned since 2012?
“Treefort was born out of a lot of [the] right people in the right place at the right time that came together in a certain way,” says founder Lori Shandro Outen.
At first, she didn’t think of the festival as a business investment. Shandro Outen just had a love for music and for Boise, at a time when the city was getting noticed by the music industry outside of Idaho.
Treefort festival director Eric Gilbert says that, in the beginning, they just focused on building the culture of the event.
“Initially there wasn’t a lot of conversation about how to make the business work, other than trying to connect some dots," Gilbert says. "But it was more about: how to make sure the artists have the ultimate experience when they come to Boise.”
Treefort puts an emphasis on musical discovery, so you’re never going to see Beyonce headline the event. That’s both an aesthetic choice and a strategic one: by hosting local and regional bands alongside emerging ones from around the country, they’re able to save money on booking fees while still giving music fans more than 400 bands to watch live.
But still, it’s been a challenge to cover their bills. 2015 was a turning point; it was the first year they were in the black, and it was the first year Shandro Outen didn't have to cover the difference.
“After that break-even year," says Treefort co-founder Drew Lorona, "the festival transitioned from being fueled by investment to being a self-sustaining machine.”
Lorona handles sponsorships for the festival. At festivals like Coachella and South by Southwest in Austin, giant corporate sponsors like Capital One and Amazon advertise heavily. But Treefort is very careful about their sponsor partners. For the most part, the Boise event is sponsored by local small businesses that donate food to the artist lounge and offer rooms in their hotels for bands. The state of Idaho’s tourism agency is one of the biggest sponsors, giving $25,000 to Treefort this year and last year. Boise State University is also a lead sponsor.
According to Washington Post pop music critic Chris Richards, that sponsorship strategy goes against the grain in the industry.
“There is a very noticeable corporate footprint at a lot of American music festivals,” he says.
Richards has seen some music events come-and-go when they follow what he calls the ‘Coachella blueprint’: dozens of festivals booking the same expensive top-tier artists in the same year.
“But if you find a way to showcase artists from that city or that region, and weave that into the national acts that you’ve also booked, it can create this sense of locality but also nationality," says Richards. "I think that’s a really potent way to go about it.”
At the Funky Taco in downtown Boise, Justin Archambo is preparing for crowds of people to pour into his restaurant.
“Everyone makes money," says the taco shop owner. "You have to be not a very good business person not to make money at this festival.”
He opened his shop last year during Treefort, and this year they’re an official music venue. According to the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau, the festival’s economic impact in 2018 was almost $11 million. This takes into account lodging, food and beverage sales around town. By comparison, the Gene Harris Jazz Festival represented about $5 million last year and the Boise Albertsons Open golf tournament brought in almost $40 milllion.
But for Archambo, the event is more about community than it is about making money.
“And everyone gets to come in and see what Boise is all about which I think is really cool.”
Last year, 24,000 people attended the festival – more than 7,000 of them from out-of-state. According to festival producer Lori Shandro Outen, community buy-in has been what’s made Treefort get this far.
“I think in the beginning not thinking of it as a business ultimately created a long-lasting culture that we wanted to maintain and a vision that we didn't know we had," she says. "Then of course, we had to think of it as a business - to maintain it and to keep it alive.”
And that’s their challenge now: be a good community partner, keep focused on musical discovery and stay in business while staying affordable. Ticket sales make up the largest part of their income. They did raise ticket prices this year, but they’re still one-third the price of tickets at Coachella.
Find reporter Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill
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