Tucker Gumber isn't sure how many festivals he's been to, but it's a lot. Probably more than any other person in the world over the last five years. I count it at 77, but Gumber says his website doesn't include all the fests he's been to that never got written up, so it's likely much more than that.
Gumber — who was quoted in our recent feature on the continued success of Summer Set — is the authority on what makes festivals worth the investment. He's been reviewing the musical weekend gatherings for five years, earning himself the title of "The Festival Guy." He started out repping SpiritHoods for free tickets and moved on to critiquing every festival he could get into, driving from bash to bash in his '88 Subaru.
Gumber's since pivoted his business, launching an app called FestEvo and sitting on the board of the International Music Festival Conference. He's become something of a music industry curiosity.
Gumber's only ever been to one Midwestern festival (2012's Summerfest in Milwaukee), but the intrepid experience connoisseur is a wellspring of insights on what makes a good festival experience. Our conversation on Summer Set, fan safety, and the allure of the festival lifestyle was simply too good to reduce to a couple pull quotes in our print edition, so we submit below the entirety of our interview with the sage-like Festival Guy.
City Pages: What made you want to start reviewing festivals in the first place?
Tucker Gumber: There wasn't anyone talking about it from the fan’s point of view, which is, in my opinion, more important than the music or festival side of it. We are the headliners, a little bit. That’s what [Insomniac Events founder and Pasquale Rotella] is really about these days. He calls the fans the headliners.
CP: In your interview with Consequence of Sound, you talk about how something in the festival "resonated" with you. I think it's the same for a lot of Summer Set attendees. But what exactly is that feeling that resonates?
TG: I couldn't find my people. I was living in Los Angeles, and I just didn't know where to find the people I get along with best. Going to music festivals really introduced me to all of my friends. It’s that way for a lot of people. Going to a festival is like adding new, exciting, fun DNA to your friend pool. It’s like an ever-evolving friend group that you see at each festival.
CP: So, what makes a festival successful? Festivals die all the time. Summer Set was founded at the same time as SoundTown and River's Edge, but it's the only one left of the three.
TG: Marketing and fan experience. If those other two festivals were getting the people that came one time to come back and bring their friends, they'd still be in business. When you throw a festival for the first time, it’s like you're auditioning. If you throw the right festival, you could literally sell tickets to next year as people are on their way out the gates on the last day. If a festival is done right, by the last day, you're already making plans with the new friends you made that weekend for coming back next year and doing it bigger and better, just like the festival should be doing, too.
CP: What are some things specifically that contribute to a festival's downfall?
TG: There’s a reality that, no matter how good the lineup, if it isn't a successful music-viewing experience, it doesn't matter how good all of that is. Long lines, it’s the little things like that. They become not-so-little things over time ... It has to be easy to go to. We don't want to do any work, we don't want to feel stressed, we just want it to be easy and fun the entire time.
With some festivals, it’s hard to get from one stage to the next, and over the course of a weekend, that’s frustrating. These are the things you remember next year when you're deciding whether to come back or not. It’s all about understanding it from the fan’s point of view and building the experience around that.
CP: I have a theory that part of what's made Summer Set so successful is its emphasis on EDM and dubstep, which are more high-energy, big-crowd genres. It's sort of like Electric Forest in that way. Is there anything to that?
TG: I'm all about what’s right for right now. You'll never find me at a dubstep show in the middle of the day. Last act of the night? Let’s talk. I'm all about what’s right for the time of day.
[Both genres are] what’s popular right now. There are a lot of people who have this desire. What I think it really is, is name a better $200 you can spend your money on. The value you get for your experience is just bonkers.
CP: With any big fest like Ultra or Coachella, Summer Set has a bit of a reputation for people overindulging. What can festivals do to keep their patrons safe?
TG: It’s really time people have the ability to test their drugs. It’s a tough situation, because, on one hand, you're saying that you acknowledge that people are doing drugs, but as the festival lawyer says, you can't keep drugs out of prison, how are you gonna keep them out of everywhere else? At some point, it’s about being safe. People need to know what they're doing so they can make informed decisions.
A lot of problems with these overdoses is that they're people who are taking something and it’s not what they think it is. Having DanceSafe also gives people a place they can go to get help and feel safe about it. One of the other problems with these events is that people get too messed up, and then they worry about going to get help because they don't want to get in trouble.
The festival wants you to get helped. They spend thousands of dollars to bring in a medical team, they're ready for you, you're not gonna get in trouble. (Ed. note: In another interview for the original feature, Summer Set festival organizer Lucas King confirmed that this is indeed the case). Go get help. Go get other people help. If you ever see someone passed out, someone take care of them, and everyone else run in every direction and look for someone with a walkie talkie.