When veteran talent buyer Jon Halperin started started putting offers out to bands for Long Beach's inaugural Music Tastes Good festival, some booking agents were confused.
Here was a pitch for a first-year, weekendlong block party of music, food and art in the heart of a city that's viewed mostly as a secondary concert market, with a hopeful list of acts that looked as eclectic as it did ambitious. It included many of the fest's now-confirmed headliners: The Specials, De La Soul, Squeeze, Dr. Dog and Las Cafeteras, among others.
"I had two agents say, 'What the hell did you guys book?'" says Halperin, who shared curating duties with Music Tastes Good's founder, Josh Fischel. "Some told us it sounded like the best festival in the country and others thought we were crazy. Who has Cambodian Space Project and The Melvins on the same bill?"
Music Tastes Good is one of dozens of boutique music festivals happening across Southern California. These more regionally drawing events, which typically attract 15,000 attendees or fewer, are part of a festival market that's more saturated than ever with small-scale alternatives to the something-for-everyone "mega-fests" of Coachella and Outside Lands.
Many of these so-called niche festivals, such as Burgerama, Supersonico and Camp Flog Gnaw, are centered around a particular genre or musical subculture. Others, like Latin-tinged Viva Pomona, psych-heavy Desert Daze and indie rock–oriented Echo Park Rising, are firmly rooted in place, showcasing the spirit and sounds of their host locales.
Music Tastes Good aspires to be of the latter persuasion. And even though Long Beach hosts lots of live music, from major fests at the Queen Mary to locally driven events like the Summer & Music concert series, this is the first time a homegrown festival of this size and scope has happened on the streets of Long Beach.
"Niche just means something for a group," says the lanky Fischel, 46. "It doesn't necessarily mean it's got to be a genre, and so for us, we are still a niche festival but we're a Long Beach festival. The point is to show Long Beach off."
Starting a new music festival is no easy task. Not only is there intense competition for the kind of marquee acts who can serve as headliners, there's also a massive amount of logistics and city planning that goes into closing down streets, dealing with musicians' travel plans and coordinating any food or art programming — because what's a music fest without food these days?
Then there's the question of how to pay for all the up-front costs before a single ticket is sold.
Some festivals have the luxury of being presented by a seasoned promotional company like Goldenvoice or Live Nation, which can provide the funds and procure sponsorships that alleviate many first-year stresses. The rest have to start small and build their audience, earning financial stability only after they have a proven track record. Even Coachella didn't start selling out until nearly a decade in.
Music Tastes Good, which various sources say is costing around $1 million to produce, doesn't have a big-name promoter behind it. Instead, it has a partnership with KCRW and major financial backing from John Molina, chief financial officer of Molina Healthcare, whose offices are just a few blocks from where the festival will be held. (Molina declined to state how much he's personally put into the fest.)
"There's a great line from the movie Grease where the vice principal gets on overhead and says, 'Come out and support the team because if you can't be an athlete, be an athletic supporter,'" Molina says. "I'm not a musician, so I want to support them."
Fischel, who grew up all over Southern California but settled in Long Beach 20 years ago, has been a touring musician for most of his life; many locals fondly remember his band Bargain Music, a Sublime-like jumble of genre-bending optimism. But until recently, he didn't have much experience booking beyond his own tours.
In 2012, he founded a rock & roll musical theater troupe called Riot Stage, which put on original productions at makeshift venues around the city. Two years later, he became the main curator of downtown Long Beach's free monthly local music series, Live After 5.
Molina attended many of Fischel's events in the last few years and admired his ability to bring together members of the local music community. According to Fischel, after he brought in bands to play Molina's 50th birthday party in late 2014, the executive asked him, "What's next and what can I do to help you?"
"I went home and I thought about it for a couple days," Fischel says. "What do I love the most? I love music and food, and those are my passions. It's time for Long Beach to have that kind and size of fest. If you're going to do something like that, now is the time."
Fischel conceptualized what soon became Music Tastes Good as a weekend music festival with a heavy food component that would draw outsiders into the city — a SXSW meets Napa's BottleRock meets French roving gastro-fest Le Fooding, with a heavy dose of Long Beach pride.
Once he had a major source of funding secured, Fischel’s dream got another score in Halperin, whose got involved at the suggestion of Music Tastes Good’s managing director, Meagan Blome, one of the project’s first employees.
A longtime Long Beach resident, Halperin estimates that he's booked more than 10,000 bands in the past 16 years, working for venues like Chain Reaction in Anaheim and the Glass House in Pomona. His previous relationships with agents meant that the unknown new festival's offer emails would at least get read. Amazingly, most of the acts on their wish list said yes.
Fischel's relationships with both Long Beach bands and area chefs meant the neighborhood presence would be secured. And as bands such as Rival Sons, Deltron 3030, Warpaint and Sylvan Esso began to confirm bookings, and the owners of restaurants including Lola's Mexican Cuisine, Restauration, James Republic and Robert Earl's BBQ signed on to serve food, it became clear that Music Tastes Good was not destined to start small like so many other boutique festivals before it.
"I think because of the regional festival market being so competitive is why we had to start in the middle instead of starting really small and growing," Blome says. "We had to come out with guns blazing."
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For all three days, the festival will rope off a city parking lot adjacent to a Blue Line station — and on Saturday, that footprint will expand to include three stages across six square blocks of the East Village Arts District. The VIP farm-to-taste food experience will be held at Padre restaurant, with each participating chef (like Eddie Ruiz, who now owns Public Beer Wine) bringing in another chef to help them create dishes made from ingredients grown on Long Beach farms.
The team was careful not to book too many bands that are playing the festival circuit this year, in order to separate the event from the barrage of options music fans have. They also say they took into consideration the diversity of Long Beach itself when preparing a first-year lineup, aiming to span generations and genres.
"Some people think the lineup is too eclectic, but I think that's what Long Beach is," Fischel says. "I've been talking about it to people as, it's the biggest block party. When you have a real block party, on one side of the street they're playing cumbia and on the other side of the street it's Joni Mitchell or whatever. That's what we're trying to re-create."
MUSIC TASTES GOOD | Downtown Long Beach | Friday-Sunday, Sept. 23-25 | mtglb.co