In 2017, the North American festival market is absolutely huge; it seems like there’s one that you’re missing out on every single weekend. With this massive boom of festivals, there are of course, the nightmares that you are thankful you avoided (Fyre Festival, Pemberton, etc.). However, on the other side of that spectrum, there are the hidden boutique gems that you never knew existed.
I was put on to What The Festival by my work-hard, play-hard crew of festival friends based up in the Pacific Northwest. WTFest is definitely well known around those parts, but fairly unknown everywhere else, even though 2017 was its sixth year. WTFestival was going to be my first boutique festival, and after attending nearly a dozen festivals that were 20,000 and up in capacity, I was really stoked to see what I would take away from it all.
Among many other things, I learned what makes a music festival great. I’ve broken it down into five different criteria, all of which WTFestival managed to nail right on the head.
The most basic of festival necessities. There are few things worse than being hyped up to see your favorite artist perform, but then watch as their set gets crippled by a weak sound system. WTFestival found a simple way around this: stack almost every single stage with top of the line Funktion-One speakers. If you’re unfamiliar, F-1s are some of the highest quality sound you can purchase. Having a set of them on one stage would be impressive, but nearly every stage was rocking these babies, from the splash pool to the main stage.
It wasn’t too loud, it wasn’t too quiet, and the highs and the lows were coming in perfectly almost anywhere you stood. After making my schedule for artists I wanted to see, I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about how hard the tunes would be hitting.
Boutique festivals are in. The bigger, mainstream ones haven’t lost any value, but after a number of years of seeing the same artists in different settings, it’s time to switch things up. The intimacy and community that was felt during my time at WTFestival was rivaled only by my experience on Holy Ship (at what would be ⅕ of the cost). From what I’ve gathered, there were around 8,000 attendees at WTFest this year. And when you compare that to the larger festivals like Electric Forest, which accommodate around 40,000 attendees, the differences are eye-opening.
Hey! Guess what? Your disco nap went from 30 minutes to 3 hours and your favorite DJ is playing the main stage right now. You can probably get up and get dressed in time, but shit, what about that line? Ah, forget it, it’s not worth it. May as well just go back to sleep…
The above scenario is common happening at major festivals, but not at WTFest. Get up, get your shit together, and hoof it to the entrance. Out of the four full nights I spent there, I did not stand in line for a single minute waiting to get back in the venue. Want to be front row? Easy. Just walk to the front. You may have to say ‘excuse me’ a couple of times, but that beats camping out at a stage for hours at a time and missing other great sets just so you have a good spot to dance.
As I mentioned earlier, more and more people are making their ways to festivals this summer. I think it’s great that more people are coming together to form awesome communities, to listen to music together, and to let their worries be free for a weekend. With the influx of the good, however, there’s also the bad. Some festivals don’t have to worry about this issue due to overwhelming positivity, and WTFestival is one of them.
I did not have a single negative interaction with any of the folks at WTFest, whether that was the attendees, the staff, or the security. Everyone was genuinely happy to be where they were that weekend, even if they were just posted at the gates checking wristbands. There was that one drunk girl who knocked me over mid-dance move and spilled hot chocolate all over my kangaroo onesie, but then I just smelled like chocolate for the rest of the night so… oh well!
The sheer bliss of everyone involved was no more evident than during the daytime ragers at the splash pool. It was also refreshing to see pretty much everyone being able to handle themselves. I get pretty uncomfortable by the kid mashing his jaw together with his sweaty hair matted across his face, staring straight into the lights. I did see a couple kids that had a medic-tent visit in their future, but I was thankful that that was kept to a minimum.
The further away your festival site is from civilization, the more people have to sacrifice to get there, and the more excited everyone is to ultimately be there. Dufur, Oregon is certainly out there, and it was a pleasure to drive up through Bend and all of the other small, hippie mountain towns in the area.
WTFestival is placed perfectly. The two largest stages are located on either side of a long meadow, with the biggest disco ball I’ve ever seen placed directly between them. From either of those stages you have a breathtaking view of the glorious Mt. Hood.
For the first time, I was able to camp out in a forest instead of directly next to my car, and although slightly less convenient, it felt like actual camping, which added another layer of fun to the experience. Also, being able to wake up in shade instead of a blistering, perspiring tent was worth it on its own.
5. Defining Moments
So this part is really just about being at the right place at the right time. When you’re at a party that lasts an entire weekend, chances are you’re going to see some pretty crazy shit. These moments are a part of what makes a festival great, though, and are definitely worth mentioning. In the end, besides the music, these are the memories that you bring back home with you and tell all your friends about. They can range from hilarious, to epic, to straight up nasty. What The Fest had everything on the spectrum, no doubt.
A Dirtybird Surprise
Me and most of everyone at the splash pool were soaking wet and the clouds were starting to gather above us. Hotel Garuda had just closed out their bumping afternoon house set with some heavy trap bangers and it was about time to head back to camp, change into some dry clothes, and drink some champagne. Before we had a chance to make any moves, though, Claude VonStroke’s all-too-familiar “Make A Cake” came blasting over the Funktion-Ones, and everybody near the front started losing their minds. Sure enough, the Dirtybird don was up on the decks with a snorkeling mask on, tastefully paired with a ridiculous flamingo hat.
The Twerking Gorilla
This behemoth of a machine was constructed by what must have been die-hard festivalgoers. This giant thing looked over two stories tall and was on wheels, with people controlling the arms, mouth, and yes, butt cheeks. I wouldn’t be surprised if this gorilla made an appearance at Burning Man.
The Bartering Hippie
I’m definitely used to being approached by strangers at any point during a festival, especially at the campgrounds. This one fellow, however, I will not forget.
“Is anybody looking to make a heady trade?”
I looked up from cooking my dinner to see a grinning, sunburnt hippie holding a… thing.
“It’s a heady onion wrap, I made it myself.”
I then burst out laughing as he brought over a whole onion poorly wrapped in copper wire. And then I laughed even harder as he tried to pitch it to a very innocent couple who was just trying to make some tacos.
What The Festival was an amazing introduction to what boutique festivals have to offer. The intimacy is really what it’s all about. You’re not going to get major production value, you’ll have to head to the bigger ones for your pyrotechnics and mind-blowing visuals. After you’ve experienced that, though, check out a festival like What The Fest.
I’m walking away from What The Festival without a single recommendation of things they could have handled better. The porta-potties were well placed. The security was both relaxed and appropriate. The illuminated forest was an amazing spectacle full of art that I didn’t even get to touch on. WTF 2017, you killed it.
What The Festival 2017: 10/10
Top 3 Sets of the Weekend: