Can a music festival save a city?

The Life is Beautiful music festival is changing the way we think about Las Vegas.

September 28, 2017

No one said the festival business was easy. Here in Canada, we’ve seen big names disappear from the summer calendar with a distressing consistency — from the recent announcement of Wayhome’s “pause”  to the bankruptcy of Pemberton  only one month after the reveal of their 2017 lineup. It can take years for a festival to find its identity and its audience, which is part of what made this, the fifth year of based Life is Beautiful, such a remarkable achievement.

With only a partial lineup announced, the festival’s first-ever sellout happened in thirty minutes. On the heels of being named 2016 Festival of the Year by industry standard-bearer Pollstar, the enthusiasm demonstrated by real people’s real money was another sign that this festival might be one of the lucky ones. By the time gates opened and fans poured in for the first notes of a wheelchair-bound 2 Chainz, there was no doubting the viability of this utterly unique festival in a crowded part of the country boasting no shortage of entertainment options.

Downtown Las Vegas is ultimately what sets Life is Beautiful apart from other cities, parks, and campsites clamouring for your festival dollar. Although far from the only urban offering on the summer calendar, it’s probably the only time you can watch Chance the Rapper in a parking lot behind a Pump N Snack while standing next to a converted art motel in the shadow of Vegas’ oldest standing casino. With an 18-block footprint within a lived-and-worked-in section of downtown Las Vegas, Life is Beautiful doesn’t unfold in a park close to downtown. It happens between bars and bookstores, in alleys and in parking lots that capture all of the inspiration and hope of a recovering American city.

It’s a special setting that rivals northern Quebec’s incredible FME for its “only here” charms. But while FME deliberately targets a more narrow niche of music fans to keep its footprint small, Life is Beautiful is programmed for maximum impact across the broadest possible swath, bouncing from Blink-182’s pop-punk nostalgia trip to Lorde’s theatre kid anthems to Gorillaz’s stadium-size genre mash-ups.

All of which would be a nice foundation for a boring weekend if the rest of the lineup didn’t deliver. But in addition to many of the big-tickets acts that have been active on the summer festival circuit around North America — Chance the Rapper! The xx! Kaskade! — Life is Beautiful 2017 bulked out its offering with exciting, emerging down-ticket offerings like Mondo Cozmo, Sigrid, and Ella Vos.

The Big Rig Jig art installation by Mike Ross / Sam Sutherland

The surreal setting adds another layer of ~vibes~ to the high-aesthetic performances of acts like Vince Staples and second night headliners Muse. Like some post-apocalyptic video game with way more art, Life is Beautiful drops you right into a not-entirely-not-derelict stretch of Fremont East, beyond the tourist-friendly confines of the established casinos up the street. Functioning motels mingle with their long-shuttered brethren as an increasing number are taken over by towering murals from some of the biggest names in street art; there are two Shepard Fairey pieces visible from the festival grounds and multiple large-scale D*Face works, while newcomers such as Isreali crew Broken Fingaz bring a new approach to some old (old) buildings.

The result is a powerful and immediate visual experience, as restored neon signs mingle with fresh street art and the Vegas skyline hums in the background. The explosion of creativity paid for and programmed around one weekend leaves a permanent mark on the neighbourhood — this year added 19 new murals to four years of existing pieces from artists both local and internationally renowned. As part of a long-term project to revitalize a neglected section of downtown, the art has become a year-round tourist attraction in and of itself once the festival stages have been packed away. And the stretch of Fremont East that functions as one of the festival’s points of entry is now packed with upstart cocktail bars and holdover, thriving dives, giving you an opportunity to duck out between TOKiMONSTA and Pusha T for a quick visit to Corduroy or Commonwealth.

It’s a part of the city that more visitors are being drawn to every year, whether MGMT is playing that night or not. With year-round investment in the area — including bars like the excellent Park on Fremont and the small businesses that populate the Container Park — it’s clear that the organizers are utilizing Life is Beautiful as a monumental flare. In year five, with record audiences and an expected local economic impact of $125 million, there is little doubt that it’s working.

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