Okeechobee Music Festival: Eight takeaways from Tuesday's media preview
With more than 800 music festivals in North America alone, there’s a lot of pressure on anyone with the gumption to start a new one – especially one as spashy as the Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival.
The inaugural event, March 3-6 in Okeechobee County – less than three hours southeast of Tampa – has the attention of music fans across the Sunshine State, with a lineup that includes Mumford and Sons, Kendrick Lamar, Robert Plant, Skrillex and more.
“We’re a small independent company, but we’re really trying to create something meaningful here,” said co-organizer Paul Peck. “I think it’s a lot different from the other events. I really do.”
While some 70 percent of Okeechobee attendees are expected to come from around Florida, organizers are expecting guests from around the world, making this one of Florida’s highest-profile musical experiments in recent years. That the New York Times recently picked Okeechobee as one its places “where music lovers should go in 2016” certainly won’t hurt.
On Tuesday, festival organizers led about a dozen media on a tour of the sprawling festival site, a onetime horse ranch about 20 minutes north of Lake Okeechobee. We’ll have more to report in the weeks to come, but in the meantime, here are eight observations and takeaways from Okeechobee’s initial preview.
1. It’s all about location, location, location. South Florida developer Clifford Rosen bought the 800-acre property, dubbed Sunshine Grove, about a decade ago, in hopes of turning it into a housing or resort development, an equestrian ranch or some other large-scale site. He had no idea it would become home to a music festival of this magnitude.
But when concert industry veteran Steve Sybesma saw the site, he knew almost immediately that festival sites like this don’t come along very often. It has 6 miles of paved roads, a man-made beach, acres of sprawling green grass for stages and campsites, and natural pine groves perfectly suited for side stages or VIP areas.
“My intention was to come down and look at it and see if it was something that I’d turn on to my friends at (promotions companies) Live Nation or AEG,” Sybesma said. “But then I saw it, and I said, ‘No way. I’m doing it myself.’”
2. They’re thinking big … but not too big. “We look at ourselves as competition to Bonnaroo, Coachella, Firefly, other camping festivals,” Sybesma said, ticking off three of the biggest in the world.
But while the main stage area can accommodate a crowd of 35,000, organizers are capping daily admittance at about 30,000.
Moreover, the three main stages won’t be spread too far out – so while you might have about a 15-minute walk from your campsite to the music, once you get there, your walk from stage to stage might be around five minutes.
3. Nature is everywhere. Campers can swim in the lake, hang a hammock between trees or just sit out in the grass and admire the stars. During the media tour, we saw plenty of wildlife, including a gaggle of sandhill cranes and four deer bouncing through what will eventually be a campground. Spotters are always on the lookout for alligators in protected wetlands on the property, and some ponds have been stocked with fish for years.
“You could throw a net in here and pull out 15 tilapia,” Rosen said, adding: “We won’t be encouraging that.”
4. There’ll be more than just music. It’s called the Okeechobee Music AND ARTS Festival for a reason. Areas dubbed ChobeeWobee Village and Yogachobee will feature an array of non-musical activities: yoga, meditation, art galleries, live Burning Man-like art installations and performers, permaculture workshops, interactive art and a “healing sanctuary” with treatments including reflexology and thai massage.
5. Comparisons to Bonnaroo are apt and valid. There are plenty of lineup similarities between Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tenn., and Okeechobee, including the PoWoW!, a late-night, all-star jam session starring R&B singer Miguel that’s modeled after Bonnaroo’s SuperJam!.
Peck was a driving force in SuperJam! before leaving Bonnaroo; Sybesma recruited him to become a partner after seeing the site and envisioning what it could become. Peck, like Sybesma, was sold on Okeechobee’s future after his first visit.
“I saw the first 1 percent of it, and I just thought, This is incredible, and my mind started exploding at the possibilities,” Peck said. “I was just in love with the property.”
He’s aware people will compare Okeechobee to Bonnaroo, but doesn’t see that as trouble for the new event.
“I think all these festivals can coexist,” he said. “Bonnaroo’s a different thing, and we’re our own thing too. We just want to get our own community to build our own thing off of here.”
6. Organizers were surprised by Live Nation’s decision to put Tampa’s Big Guava Music Festival on hiatus. When Live Nation announced it was suspending the similar Big Guava for 2016 “due to an overabundance of returning and new festivals in Florida,” it was safe to assume they were referring to Okeechobee. But Okeechobee organizers were just as surprised as you.
“I had no idea,” Sybesma said. “I didn’t really feel that was any competition to us. I didn’t feel like we were competition to them. It’s so different. They’re a city festival, we’re a camping festival. I didn’t think we had any effect on each other.
Added Peck: “It’s a different kind of festival, and it’s not as ambitious a festival as we’re trying to do. But I was a little surprised to see that.”
7. There’s a good chance a Tampa Bay band will get to play Okeechobee. The festival is staging a “Destination Okeechobee” contest to get lesser-known bands, including many from Florida, a slot on the bill. There are more than 760 artists in contention, with at least 30 from Tampa Bay, including familiar names like Polyenso, the Applebutter Express, Four Star Riot, Funny Bunny, UNRB, Victims of Circumstance and the Real Clash. Vote your favorites by liking and sharing their photos from this album (it’s kind of an unwieldy process; you’re better off going to the individual band’s Facebook page).
The top 32 vote-getters will be invited to band battles in Orlando, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville and Miami, with each city’s winner getting a slot at the festival. The lineup hasn’t been set for the Tampa Bay battle, but it’ll take place Feb. 17 at the State Theatre in St. Petersburg.
8. They’re already looking ahead to 2017. “I’m kind of thinking about it now, in terms of artists that are going to play,” Peck said. “We’re always looking at the next step, but right now we’re so focused on the first year. We just want to have a great experience this year and then we’ll look to next year. But it’s definitely in our mind.”
-- Jay Cridlin