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October 30, 2014

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What will success look like for Life is Beautiful?

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Bill Hughes

Interesni Kazki works on a Life Is Beautiful mural on the Emergency Arts building. The murals will remain even after the festival ends.

It’s a crisp August afternoon at Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and Rehan Choudhry is having his first real drink in months.

Back in the spring, the former entertainment director of Cosmopolitan and current CEO of Vegas-based Aurelian Marketing Group traded in the partying and late-night social scene of working in the entertainment industry for a far more ascetic lifestyle. Since announcing the inaugural Life Is Beautiful Festival, a celebration of music, food and art running Downtown October 26 and 27, Choudhry and his team have ensconced themselves in a cramped office in Downtown’s Emergency Arts, living off Red Bull and coffee as they navigate the pitfalls and challenges of launching a major national festival for the first time.

“I needed to find four more hours a day to work,” Choudhry explains, awaiting a pour of syrah at the Outside Lands’ wine tasting tent.

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Life Is Beautiful founder Rehan Choudhry says festival success won't be black and white, less about numbers than creating an event that celebrates Downtown's growth.

With Life Is Beautiful closing in, Choudhry has brought about 20 members of his crew—none of whom has produced a festival before—to San Francisco to get a closer look at how LIB co-producer Another Planet runs Outside Lands. While the rest of that team is off on assignments, noting ideas and features that could be transplanted to Las Vegas, Choudhry spends the afternoon on his own, attempting to take in the festival as a fan. Still, as he roams from stage to stage, he can’t help taking notes of his own along the way—a well-executed brand activation here, a tacky design element there.

LIB is just 10 weeks away; he can’t help himself. With close to 200 bands, DJs, chefs, visual artists and speakers spread across a space spanning 15 city blocks, Life Is Beautiful is massively ambitious, striving to combine four festivals—music, food, art and learning—into one. Choudhry freely admits he’s biting off a lot.

“Somebody asked me the other day if I’m nervous. I’m not nervous. I have a great safety net of experienced people who know exactly what they’re doing. But I am f*cking terrified.”

Around 200 music festivals will take place across North America in 2013, a number that has grown rapidly over the past decade. And as they’ve proliferated, festivals have also evolved, shifting from a sole focus on live music to a broader goal of building experiences.

“I think it’s more about the environment and the socialization occurring between fans of the same kind of music more than it is about the specific music itself,” says Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar, a trade publication that covers the live music industry.

As a result, such gatherings can play an important role in the civic branding of on-the-rise cities like Las Vegas, providing a boost to cultural credibility, as well as the local economy.

Last year’s inaugural Firefly Music Festival in Dover, Delaware, drew more than 30,000 attendees per day, raking in around $9 million in ticket sales alone and injecting an estimated $12 million into the local economy.

“A festival can mean a lot of things for a city. It gives the city a platform to showcase the culture that is specific to that city and the local population a chance to see entertainment from all over the world," says Huston Powell, a promoter with C3 presents, which produces Chicago's popular Lollapalooza festival. Powell explains that the event has helped put Chicago on the map as a destination for music fans across the country. "As a festival matures it can become a rally point for civic pride and as the festival gains profile the audience tends to expand both in size and geographical diversity. It is important that the local population take ownership of the festival so it feels like something they are presenting to the outside world.”

The stakes for Choudhry’s festival gamble are high: In the midst of Downtown’s revitalization, LIB could be a coming-out party for Las Vegas culture beyond the Strip. And with an expected attendance of 20,000 to 30,000 people per day, about half of whom are local, LIB could put Las Vegas on the festival map alongside other famous festival cities like Chicago, Austin and San Francisco. However, doing so means launching LIB on a scale most festivals don’t reach until their third or fourth years— all while navigating the learning curve of a first foray into festival production. Choudhry says he doesn’t have a choice: To truly succeed, Life Is Beautiful must offer a stand-out experience.

“I wanted to create something that was fundamentally different, so people weren’t looking at us saying ‘Do I go to Coachella this year or do I go to Life Is Beautiful?’” Choudhry says. “They’re saying, ‘I’m gonna go to both, because they’re two fundamentally different events.’”

"Somebody asked me the other day if I’m nervous. I’m not nervous. But I am f*cking terrified.” -Rehan Choudhry

Before Outside Lands, Choudhry’s last festival experience came at Lollapalooza 2012. Awaiting Saturday night’s headlining set from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, he and Life Is Beautiful Head of Music Craig Nyman sat in Grant Park, working their way through a purloined pack of warm Bud Light Limes and discussing Choudhry’s impending departure as Cosmopolitan entertainment director. It was at that moment, Choudhry says, that he vowed to bring a festival to Las Vegas.

“I’d been working on this idea for this festival. I just didn’t know where I wanted to put it. I didn’t know where I was going to move to or what I was gonna do,” he says. “And we were like, You know what? Vegas needs this. Like really, really needs it. We’re gonna do it. This is it. I called Craig two months later and was like, ‘I want you to be the head of music; we’re doing it.’ And here we are.”

Life Is Beautiful Murals

Interesni Kazki works on a mural on the Emergency Arts Building. Launch slideshow »

The idea was ambitious, particularly given Las Vegas’ festival track record. Most notably, Vegoose, produced by Bonnaroo organizers Superfly Presents and A.C. Entertainment from 2005 through 2007, ultimately succumbed to low attendance. (Electric Daisy Carnival, which has grown since moving from LA to Las Vegas in 2011, is an exception, though that festival brought with it an audience built up over 14 years.)

“It’s an education process,” Another Planet producer Bryan Duquette says of trying to reintroduce the Las Vegas festival concept to bands and audiences. “There’s not like, small clubs to develop bands. Beauty Bar’s trying, but there’s not that development. You have to be a big band to go through Vegas. We’re trying to change that.”

Notably, LIB organizers built the lineup with Las Vegans in mind, from hometown heroes like The Killers and Imagine Dragons to a heavy slate of local acts awarded the chance to play the festival after months of Downtown-based battle-of-the-bands-style showcases. Rather than booking acts to draw tourists from feeder markets, the goal was to tailor LIB’s lineup to the Vegas music market, Duquette says. Nielsen SoundScan reports of record sales and the Valley’s recent concert sales history were examined to produce a diverse but easy-to-swallow lineup Duquette refers to as “hip mainstream.”

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The parking lot of the shuttered Western Hotel is becoming Life Is Beautiful's Culinary Village.

That same Vegas-centric approach was applied to programming choices for the culinary, artistic and learning segments of the festival, Choudhry says, each of which he hopes will appeal to different local demographics, from bored Henderson teenagers to retired Summerlin foodies, along with diverse fans across the country.

The goal, Choudhry says, is to elevate the festival experience by bringing together demographics with entirely different creative inclinations and areas of interest. Outside Lands’ young, savvy music fans would only be part of the crowd at LIB, rather than the core, Choudhry explains as he roams the wine tent. He gestures to a group of wide-eyed 20-somethings wandering in from the stage next door: “This kind of conversation, I think, is going to be enhanced when you’re standing in line with the person who’s only here for the music and wants to get drunk and somebody who’s only there for the wine that may listen to music. I think those little opportunities for those people to share stories and get into it more are gonna be cooler.”

Programming alone won’t be enough for the festival to thrive, though. In order to create the kind of synergy Choudhry is talking about, Life Is Beautiful will need to provide the right kind of environment to accommodate it. Financial and infrastructural support from the Downtown Project have allowed LIB to debut on a scale that takes most festivals years to work up to, with much of the work doubling as a front-end investment for the city. That includes building staging areas that could be used for other events (including, of course, future LIB installments), adding murals to blank building walls and bringing other art Downtown that could stick around long after the weekend.

Coordinating traffic and street closures and wrangling the store owners within the massive festival footprint has been an overwhelming and unprecedented task for both Choudhry and his seasoned Another Planet partners. Bongiovanni says the success of the location will be key to the festival’s longevity.

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D*face and his assistant Boots work on a mural for the Life Is Beautiful festival.

“The biggest challenge is really finding an appropriate site that the public is going to enjoy going to no matter what the artist lineup is,” he says. “I have a hard time putting my head around how they are going to secure that area, but it certainly does provide an interesting environment. ... It could be a very big winner.”

As much as logistics and programming, local support and turnout will ultimately define the festival’s success. Unlike Vegoose, which Duquette says was focused on drawing out-of-towners far more than locals, an evenly divided demographic turnout has been LIB’s goal from the start. “That was Vegoose’s downfall, to the point where a lot of locals forgot or didn’t know it was happening,” Choudhry says. “For a festival to succeed, the local market has to wave a flag of pride for it year-round.”

Current ticket sales are estimated at 45 percent local/55 percent out-of-town, with 20-25 percent coming from western feeder markets like San Francisco, Phoenix, San Diego and Denver.

After a short round of wine tastings, Choudhry heads out to catch reunited hip-hop group Jurassic 5, which will also play Life Is Beautiful. He beams as he describes them among his proudest “gets,” along with The Killers and Beck. But he concedes he’s still trying to determine what true festival “success” will actually mean.

“Last night I was right next to [Outside Lands founder] Gregg Perloff in the sound booth, and he’s looking at the fireworks go off during Paul McCartney, knowing that he did that. I don’t know what that feels like,” Choudhry says. “Success, it’s not black or white. You’re not celebrating or crying. It’s all shades of gray.”

For all of the strategies, marketing and planning, Choudhry says a successful festival will be less about hitting certain numbers or sales goals than seizing the momentum of Downtown’s growth to help Las Vegas stand out. The excitement and uncertainty surrounding LIB goes beyond Las Vegas’ bid to join the festival market. It’s about the broader sentiment surrounding Downtown’s growth and ambitions. Life Is Beautiful stands poised to celebrate not just the refurbished storefronts, hip mixology bars and newly paved streets, but the community growing within them, ready to reclaim Las Vegas for its own.

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