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Sundance Music Festival: 5 Ways to Grow the Live Shows Without Overdoing It

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It was night two of my first Sundance experience and I had yet to see a film. I wasn't planning on seeing one, either.

But that didn't mean I wouldn't see any actors. Off-screen I had spotted them all over Park City -- sloshing in their furry boots up and down snowy Main Street, promoting new films in the media-packed Puma Lounge, and most notably (as well as most naturally), rocking with the rest of us "normal people" at one of the many live concerts that week. It was as if all the actors in town shared my same intentions: to enjoy the time away from the city, indulge in a bit of shameless self-promotion and see as much live music as possible.

I'm not ashamed to say that I went to a film festival (Sundance Film Festival, no less) for the music. I am, however, a bit embarrassed to say that I didn't know just how substantial the music side would be. I assumed that a live performance here and there would make a nice digestif to polish off a day of screenings, but I had no idea it could be the whole meal: the singer/songwriters serenading ASCAP as an appetizer, the indie bands rocking Google Music/T-Mobile for the first course, the big-name acts playing Bing Bar as the second helping and the DJs spinning for the crowd at TAO as the rich, decadent desert (complete with pains of regret in the morning).

It wasn't until night two, during a lively performance by Vintage Trouble, that an overheard comment forced me to realize how impressive the music portion of the festival really was -- and how much more impressive it can be expected to be in years to come.

"I'm at Sundance Music Fest," shouted a tall, well-liquored blonde into her cell phone. She didn't correct herself. She didn't even flinch or notice a mistake in what she had said. It was as if the festival was "Sundance Music Festival" all along, and the films were just as much a background as the mountains.

I can understand why the music side of Sundance has snowballed (no pun intended) into it's own adjacent gathering. With festivals like Coachella selling out back-to-back weekends and Burning Man implementing a lottery system due to an increased demand for tickets, there's no denying the global presence of an audience eager to pounce on every chance they have to see great live music. Pair that with the creative crowd already present at Sundance and an impressive, yet barely advertised, lineup of musicians, and you've got a music festival formed organically, naturally, in the right place at the right time -- whether we like it (we do) or not.

In the year ahead, there's a lot to think about. The planning, the booking, the branding -- it's all going to come together sooner than we know it, and pretty soon we'll all be amped again for another round of "Sundance Music Festival." But before it gets too presumptuous, too ticketed and built-up, here are a few things I'd like preserved...

1. Please do not sell tickets, charge at the door or dupe people into purchasing all-access passes.
The one thing I loved about Sundance was that it was a music festival without being a music festival. It didn't charge me $8 for water, it didn't ask for $50 to go see Drake on a Saturday night, it didn't push me to pre-order an all-access pass to "cut the line" when everyone else waiting with me had the same credentials. It was free in all aspects of the word and it was a huge perk for frequent concert-goers.

One important component in doing things for free is sponsorship. Branding at Sundance was huge -- and very well plotted, if I may say, which leads me to my next point.

2. Brand appropriately and (perhaps more importantly) relevantly.
Although unrelated to music, one of the best branding tactics I saw this week was from Sorel. The VEVO Powerstation/Sorel Suite gave away Sorel snowboots during the first few days of the festival -- an ideal gift for visitors in snowy Park City. Similarly, Google Music and T-Mobile did an excellent job of lining up the launch of their direct-to-fans indie music service, "Magnified Artists," with a live concert series during the biggest four days of Sundance. The four-night concert series highlighted talented indie musicians from all genres of music. Indie music, indie film... it just makes sense.

3. Do not book every single venue at every single time. Space it out -- this isn't SXSW or CMJ.
Aside from not having to pay a dime to get in, I absolutely loved the casualty of Sundance's live music component. Check out this show at 4, these three at 7, this one at 12 and this one at 2. I wasn't freaking out, organizing calendars and dodging between venues to catch everyone I wanted to see. The acts were brilliant and well spaced out, so you could watch a FULL SET and enjoy it with the rest of the crowd. That can't be said for too many other music festivals and I really enjoyed the break from the exhausting routine. Don't overdo it, Sundance. I'd prefer to eat meals and go skiing between shows.

4. Do not overly advertise the shows.
At first I bitched about not being able to find a full lineup of all of the acts performing at Sundance. On second thought, I really enjoy the secretive yet nonchalant feel of it all. The shows are not hush-hush because no one is welcome, they're under-advertised because they're not huge arena productions. If you are a fan of the band and show up or RSVP beforehand, you'll get in.

5. Keep the focus of the festival on film.
After reading the beginning of this blog, my last hope for the evolution of this festival may seem a little contradictory. Please be reminded that I am not a film buff. I am not going to sit through five movies a day and I am not going to follow-up with the blogs to find out which films got purchased and which films will be box-office hits. There are people who do, though -- quite a lot of them -- and they never make it to a single concert. I love that. Although I may be fixated on the music angle of the festival, let's not forget what Sundance is built around.

Maybe next year I'll run into one of the movie-obsessed festival-goers at a concert. Maybe I will even check out a film. Regardless, I am confident that next year's Sundance Music Festival will take it up a notch and I only hope that it still retains the magic that it nailed down so perfectly this year.