When Music Festivals Began To Embrace the Outdoors, the Industry Seized the Moment

Every spring, summer, and fall, millions of music fans flock to festivals around the globe. The events help to introduce the next big musical act, usher in the latest fashion trends, and provide fodder for millions of social media posts. They also introduce festivalgoers to the joys of spending time outside.

In recent years, many of those festivals have begun to align themselves with the outdoors, whether literally or figuratively, attracting scores of Chaco-wearing, Camelbak-using, Klean Kanteen-swilling enthusiasts in the process. Tired of the staid music festival format, these outdoor aficionados seek events that speak to their interests and passions while delivering experiences that engage the senses; outdoor brands, in turn, see these festivals as prime opportunities to establish connections with young, captive audiences—specifically, millennials.

Here’s a look at how several music festivals have aligned themselves with the outdoors industry, and how popular outdoor brands are capitalizing on that partnership in new, inventive ways.

Marketing Triple Threat: Music, Millennials & the Outdoors

A post shared by Hangout Music Festival (@hangoutfest) on

Coachella and Lollapalooza might grab the most-streamed acts, but even small music festivals can mean big business. There are more than 800 music festivals throughout the United States, and those festivals draw 32 million music fans annually.

Any way you slice it, the fans Tweeting, Instagramming, and Snapchatting their way through those festivals fit the millennial demographic coveted by many outdoor advertisers and brands. One Nielsen report estimated that 46 percent of all attendees are 18-34.

According to a 2014 report by ticketing service Eventbrite, those tech-savvy millennials focus their social media musings more on the broader festival experience than the acts themselves. So while Beyoncé and Radiohead might claim the headlines and rack up YouTube views, fans are raving about yoga sessions at Wanderlust festivals and the colorful beaches abutting the Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores, Ala.

That attention to the wider experience bodes well for festival organizers. In recent years, festival managers and planners have developed new, curated experiences that differentiate their events in a crowded field.

Even in some high-profile instances, that means embracing the booming outdoor industry—which generates $887 billion in consumer spending every year.

For example, few music festivals seamlessly blend live music with the outdoors quite like Pickathon. Every August, the folk and indie rock festival takes over the Pendarvis Farm outside Portland, Oregon, for a full weekend of live music in an intimate forest setting.

Pickathon usually manages to book a crowd-pleasing mix of up-and-comers and established veterans, but the festival routinely earns plaudits for partnering with brands to encourage sustainability. The festival has teamed up with Klean Kanteen, for instance, to provide all attendees with steel pint cups; the move is part of a broader effort to eschew plastic in favor of recyclable and reusable materials.

Festival admission also includes tent campsites, but attendees can upgrade to specialty camping packages that include gear rentals from Northwest-based outdoor brands, including REI, Therm-a-Rest, and Poler. REI is also a regular presence on festival grounds; in recent years, the outdoor company has hosted a pop-up retail shop with camp essentials, invited attendees to build their own pair of sunglasses, and more.

Further east, Sugarlands MountainFest in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, hopes to redefine how festival attendees interact with the outdoors when it launches this fall. More than 30 bands will perform at the three-day festival, including Mandolin Orange, Elephant Revival, and Whiskey Shivers. The first iteration of MountainFest will also host a fly-fishing competition, as well as runs and bike rides in the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Sugarlands director of marketing and strategy, Brent Thompson, says the festival’s outdoor connection reflects a sense of place baked into its DNA.

"We wanted more people to see the Smoky Mountains how we see it: A Playground for mind, body, and soul."

Brent Thompson, Sugarlands Distillery

“This is an invitation to let go, retreat to the mountains, and feel alive with a bunch of other people there to do the same thing.”

Attendees will also have the chance to learn about local outreach efforts. MountainFest is partnering with Trek Bikes to showcase its DreamBikes program, which trains teens to repair and sell bikes that have been donated by community members.

Figuring Out Where Outdoor Brands Fit In

A post shared by Chaco (@chacofootwear) on

For many outdoor brands, it’s not enough to sponsor an event or set up a vendor booth at the edge of a sprawling field. Rather, brands see an opportunity to promote their wares, appeal to attendees’ environmentally aware sensibilities, and solicit feedback from fervent, if informal, focus groups.

Klean Kanteen, now famous for its line of reusable drink containers, first connected with thirsty customers at Northern California music festivals more than a decade ago. In those days, fans told Klean employees attending the festivals that they pined for an alternative to overpriced, one-time-use bottles of water; Klean saw the need for something durable, refillable, reusable, and portable, according to Klean field marketing manager Melissa McClary.

Eventually, Klean Kanteen introduced a stainless steel pint cup in 2011. The famously matte gray cups are now a mainstay at music festivals and have become the company’s signature product.

Today, Klean Kanteen provides reusable drink cups, water refill stations, and educational opportunities at about 25 music festivals each year. Those efforts saved roughly 900,000 plastic bottles and cups in 2016, according to McClary. "You would not pay 2,000 percent mark-up on anything else in your life, but we do it every day for these ‘convenient’ single-use items," McClary says. “It’s one way we can have less of an impact and provide a benefit.”

Another outdoor brand, Chaco, knows its sandals show up in mosh pits and drum circles at festivals throughout the United States. In turn, they’ve used music festivals to generate feedback and build brand loyalty — not necessarily to push product.

Thomas Turner, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina, interviewed Chaco marketing specialist Kelley Freridge for a 2016 dissertation. Freridge said Chaco sees an opportunity to engage with customers through new product demonstrations, sandal fittings, photo booths, and other "experiential marketing" opportunities. “Consumers expect a very personal and very heartfelt experience,” she said in her interview.

One-on-one interactions were key to those efforts. "Millennials and young consumers in general are looking for brands to engage them in a way that’s meaningful and resonates with their personal values," Freridge said. “Our consumers are passionate about what’s important to them. Consumers really tell me about their Chacos. They tell me about their products and what they loved. It was unprompted and it was great to hear their stories.”

A post shared by Kelty (@keltybuilt) on

Kelty is another outdoor brand whose identity dovetails with music festivals. The brand sponsors the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado, where they hold contests and sell gear to attendees staying in nearby campgrounds.

In fact, Kelty’s Built to Wander line was partially inspired by the Telluride experience. Today, Built to Wander tents, sleeping bags, totes, and more are designed as a casual, quick, and fun accessory to outdoor adventure—perfect for the weekend warrior camping out at their favorite music festival.

Other brands use music festivals to promote "nice to have" services. For instance, Osprey hosted clinics at the 2015 Bumbershoot festival; there, attendees enjoyed free food and gear while learning how to pack for the trail and repair their Osprey bags.

No matter how brands approach music festivals, a few common threads emerge: Companies are using the captive audiences at music festivals to listen, engage with customers, and solve problems.

As Klean Kanteen’s McClary points out, the next generation of attendees and outdoor enthusiasts won’t be swayed by the hard sell. "They’re probably the most marketed-to generation ever, so they’re pretty aware when they’re being sold something or when something is lip service," she says. “When we engage with folks, they recognize the authenticity of that.”

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