Now in its sixth year, the Sunset Strip Music Festival attracts sweaty denizens to Sunset Boulevard every summer, many dressed in leather pants and other hair metal-era duds. The entertainments include food trucks, booze and a long list of bands, who play on outdoor stages and at the indoor venues popularized in the area's heyday. The festival's primary purpose is to promote the Strip, an area which maintains thriving businesses despite often seeming to be on the verge of musical obsolescence, highlighted by the recent closing of the Key Club.
Put on by a non-profit group promoting the area, the Festival wasn't created to make money. But it nonetheless has been struggling to draw attendees and find an artistic focus. Ticket sales dropped last year, and while organizers say that number will go back up this year — “We are way ahead of last year, so we anticipate that we are going to be selling out,” says the festival's Executive Director Todd Steadman — they recently requested another big cash infusion from the city of West Hollywood.
The event hasn't been able to pay for itself. According to the festival's tax returns, in 2011 its expenses — through sponsorships and ticket sales — were about $100,000 more than its revenues. Last year, meanwhile, the event saw a sharp drop in ticket sales (organizers declined to give an exact figure) and again failed to break even.
SoCal residents routinely head out to the desert for events like Coachella, but those in charge of the Sunset Strip festival blame last year's attendance downturn on hot weather. “It was 90-plus degrees, so a lot of people made the last-minute decision that it was too hot,” says Nic Adler, the owner of the Roxy and a co-producer of the festival.
This year the festival takes place the first three days of August, and organizers have asked West Hollywood for $100,000, on top of the $95,000 that the city was already set to donate. While this is likely a drop in the bucket for a thriving municipality, it begs the question: Is the festival sustainable?
West Hollywood's City Manager, Paul Arevalo, speaking with local publication Weho Ville suggests it's got a long way to go. “For successful music festivals, their success is based upon sponsorship and the 'VIP experience' they can create. We are not at that level yet.”
Nonetheless, representatives of both the city and the festival insist that, regardless of its financial well-being, the festival is important.
“It didn't escape us that it was a significant donation this year,” says Maribel Louie, West Hollywood's Acting Economic Development Manager, who serves as the liaison to the Sunset Strip Business Association — the parent group of the festival. “But we are interested in maintaining The Strip's position in the industry as an epicenter for music and entertainment.”
The event has three stated purposes: 1) Paying homage to the street's musical history (which it will do in part by honoring Joan Jett in a special ceremony today) 2) Marketing the area and 3) Keeping the area relevant.
“There has been a lot of new activity and a lot of new places are opening up,” says Steadman.
Adler says they are prepared to do whatever's necessary to make the festival work, including changing the dates and the makeup of the lineup.
The last part may be the key. Indeed, the Festival hasn't caught on like popular area events FYF and Hard. Part of the reason is likely the curation, which seems unfocused. Whereas the aforementioned festivals focus on indie rock and electronic dance music, respectively, the Sunset Strip Music Fest's lineup has been a melange of hair metal, hip-hop, hipster rock, and nostalgic favorites. This year's headliner Linkin Park, meanwhile, doesn't seem to fit in any of these categories.
While Steadman says their target age range is 18-34, Adler suggests they want a more general appeal.
“For good or bad, we are trying to get that person who loves music,” said Adler. “The festival has every genre of music.”
Representatives of both West Hollywood and the festival say they will run the numbers and again give the event a hard look this year.
In the meantime, however, grab a boot full of whiskey and prepare to sweat.
“There is no feeling like walking the Sunset Strip with no cars on it,” says Adler. “Anywhere in the world where they are able to shut a street down and you can sit on the curb with a drink in your hand — that's an amazing feeling.”