The Sasquatch! Music Festival has come a long way from its initial 2002 single-day, seven-act lineup that included Ben Harper, Jack Johnson and the String Cheese Incident.
That first year sold out in advance, and the next year, founder Adam Zacks and crew booked 24 bands, among them Coldplay, Death Cab for Cutie and Modest Mouse. In 2006, the festival went from one day of music to three, with names on the order of Beck and Nine Inch Nails.
"Sasquatch! started with the name and an instinct that there was an appetite for a destination style event like this in the Pacific Northwest," Zacks says in an email. "There were bookings along the way that made me feel like we were hitting our stride: Coldplay in '03, Kanye West [in '05], Beastie Boys in '07."
Since then, the festival has fluctuated between three and four days, and has expanded its style, bringing in more electronic music, rap and R&B artists, and mainstream headliners alongside plenty of indie rockers. This year's headliners include LCD Soundsystem (after Frank Ocean canceled), Twenty One Pilots and Chance the Rapper.
At its peak in 2013, the festival sold out in about an hour, a major accomplishment, as the Gorge's main amphitheater can hold about 25,000 people a day.
The next year, after multiple sellouts likely had festival planners feeling ambitious, organizers announced that 2014 would get not one, but two weekends jam-packed with unique lineups. But the second weekend, set to take place over July 4th, was canceled more than a month before Memorial Day rolled around, after ticket sales for July's dates proved to be lackluster.
"We've developed a loyal group of discerning music enthusiasts for whom this festival means something substantial in their lives," Zacks writes. "Where I think we've stumbled and learned some lessons is in how to simultaneously grow the tent and invite more people in and stay true to the loyal base that got us to where we are. It's a tricky dynamic."
Promoters wouldn't share recent attendance numbers, but they're way down, according to numbers provided by the Grant County Sheriff's Office, which contracts with Live Nation to provide assistance during events at the Gorge.
This year, about 14,000 people are expected to be there for each day of the festival, says Grant County Sheriff Tom Jones. Last year, the office told the Oregonian that only 11,000 ticket holders showed.
That's down significantly from years where it has sold out, Jones says.
For what it's worth, the country music festival Watershed, which takes over the Gorge in July, tried to expand to two weekends last year, but it's back down to a single three-day festival again this year.
Other festivals have also been hit with dwindling attendance and more competition as other festivals keep popping up. Some couldn't take the heat. Pemberton Music Festival in British Columbia filed for bankruptcy on May 18, less than a month after announcing its July lineup for this year, apparently screwing fans out of their ticket costs in addition to canceling the festival. With Pemberton out of the equation, Sasquatch! could again become the primary destination for music fans looking to camp and jam out in the Pacific Northwest.
With all that in mind, what does the future of Sasquatch! look like?
Zacks declined to comment on that subject; public relations representatives for the festival say they "don't discuss trade practices."
Even though attendance is down, there are still plenty of fans with a special place in their hearts for the funky (in style and smell), flowers-in-their-hair, bro-flag-flying, costume-wearing mishmash of people who gather at the Gorge to brave sunburns and rainstorms every Memorial Day weekend.
Even the sheriff digs the relatively mellow vibe of the Sasquatch! attendees.
"This crowd, I actually enjoy this crowd myself. It's a very low-key crowd," Jones says. "They come out there to do exactly what they're there for: listen to music. They're very respectful, and friendly."
Jones' main words of advice for Sasquatch! goers: stay hydrated. This year's weather is forecast to be hotter than normal, and when people start consuming alcohol and forget to drink enough water, that causes most of the medical issues they see, he says. ♦
Sasquatch! Music Festival • Fri-Sun, May 26-28 • $99.50 for single day tickets; $295 for weekend passes • Gorge Amphitheatre • 754 Silica Rd. NW, George • sasquatchfestival.com
A SASQUATCH! TIMELINE
2002: Sasquatch! Music Festival is born
2003: Coldplay is on the second year's much-expanded lineup
2006: The festival expands to three days
2007: Comedians first play a major role in the festival, with a stand-up tent featuring Sarah Silverman, Aziz Ansari and Michael Showalter
2009: Some frisky fans have sex butt-naked on the hillside, just outside the fence, in plain view of the mainstage crowd while the Decemberists play
2009: In an especially memorable year for random fame, the "dancing guy" shows the world (as documented in a video that now has more than 14 million YouTube views) that it only takes one person to start an epic dance party on the hill. Or, as later cited in a TED Talk, maybe it actually takes two — someone has to be the first follower
2011: The festival adds a fourth day
2014: Organizers announce that Sasquatch! will have a second weekend with its own unique lineup, only to later cancel the expansion due to a lack of second-weekend ticket sales
2016: High winds cancel some sets on Sunday, and a fast-moving brush fire near the venue almost sparks an evacuation, but the show goes on