Although there's never been a shortage of music festivals in Southern California, the bulk of them have been held in Los Angeles, Orange County or far-flung corners of the Inland Empire. But over the last few years, a new destination for festivals of all sizes and genres has emerged: Long Beach.
While certain smaller festivals have happened in Long Beach for decades (the Long Beach Jazz Festival, for example, is now in its 30th year), others have historically struggled. From the chili cookoffs and reggae festivals of the '90s to more recent events such as the tattoo-centric Ink-N-Iron festival, Long Beach and San Pedro were rarely able to draw major crowds down from Los Angeles or up from Orange County. But over the last few years, Long Beach has hosted a growing number of successful and ever-larger festivals, particularly at waterfront venues such as Marina Green Park and the Queen Mary.
The city's growth as a festival hub “is incredibly exciting,” says Brian Luallen, the Queen Mary's director of entertainment and events, who has led a recent effort to make the historic ocean liner and its adjoining park a regular venue for large-scale music events. “We've put a focus on music festivals as a way to create a new generation of connections for the ship. She transported famous musicians back in the day — like Liberace and Frank Sinatra — and now we're bringing famous musicians to her again.”
In the three years that Luallen has been at the Queen Mary, his main goal has been to add as many diverse music festivals as possible to the ship's calendar, each representing a different element of Long Beach's melting pot of sounds. The ship's grounds hosted twice as many festivals in 2017 as in the previous year, including Rock the Queen in June with Royal Machines, Sugar Ray and Smash Mouth; the Summertime in the LBC hip-hop festival in August, headlined by 50 Cent, YG and Wu-Tang Clan; and the upcoming, Latin-themed Tropicalia on Nov. 11, produced by Santa Ana–based Observatory Group and featuring Chicano Batman, Kali Uchis and Los Tigres del Norte. Luallen says they plan to add another dozen festivals next year, making the allegedly haunted ship a draw for more than just history buffs and fans of its Halloween-themed Dark Harbor tours.
“The character and diversity of Long Beach and its unique geographical location has a lot to do with the success,” Luallen says. “It's one of the most diverse cities in the country, and it's a waterfront area between L.A. and Orange County, which means there's a huge [population of nearby] consumers who are hungry for entertainment.”
A pioneer in putting Long Beach on the festival map was Music Tastes Good founder Josh Fischel. As Fischel saw it, both the music and food scenes in his hometown were good enough to compete with the rest of SoCal. With Music Tastes Good, which debuted in 2016, shortly before Fischel's death, he was able to capture the diversity, color and pleasant weirdness of Long Beach while also expanding the city's own cultural horizons.
“He wanted to bring new things to Long Beach while also representing Long Beach so the people coming into it would get a really good taste of what Long Beach is,” says Fischel's widow, Abbie. “He wanted a festival that represented Long Beach well in terms of eclecticism, multiculturalism and all those sorts of things, but he was also well-traveled and well-cultured in food and music, so he wanted to bring that to Long Beach, as well.”
“It was a total 'for us, by us' move,” adds Jon Halperin, Music Taste Good's talent buyer. “Instead of people coming into Long Beach from other places, we figured let's do this one ourselves and showcase our bands and our music, and then bring in national acts that would never play the city otherwise.”
The Queen Mary plans to book another dozen festivals next year.
As a third-generation Long Beach native, Abbie Fischel has watched the city's once-desolate downtown area bloom into one of SoCal's best cultural hubs. While the increased rents and crazy number of yoga studios may have some LBC residents complaining about gentrification, the downtown area's resurgence as a hot spot for restaurants, bars and shopping has helped make the city the home of more than just Snoop Dogg, Warren G and Sublime in a lot of people's minds.
“From what I see, the impact [of having more music festivals] is all positive,” she says. “I think music festivals build a sense of community. It's a gathering place to have a really cool experience together, and I think more and more in the past few years, people are starting to identify Long Beach as, 'Oh, that's where this festival is!' It's neat to see because I think it's changing people's perspective of downtown Long Beach.”
“A lot of people are coming down here for these festivals and they're spending some time in downtown Long Beach,” Halperin says. “They're going into the restaurants and bars, or maybe they go record shopping. It's drawing people in to check out the city.”
Live Nation's Greg Siegel didn't need to be convinced to check out Long Beach when he was looking for a venue to host the upcoming inaugural Growlers Six festival, hosted by the Orange County garage-rock band of the same name. As a kid growing up in L.A., he'd taken plenty of trips down to the waterfront area — and as an adult who plans concerts for a living, he understands the benefits of cities like Long Beach and San Pedro when it comes to hosting a massive event.
“There are a lot of good shows happening in Long Beach, and as you keep going there, it kind of grows on you and becomes second nature,” Siegel says. “To me, it became the perfect place to host a really big festival. In L.A. proper, there aren't many places that are big enough to hold a festival and don't have serious noise or parking issues. Other cities like Chicago have parks where they can host things like Riot Fest, but that would never fly in L.A.”
For Siegel and The Growlers, the decision to host Growlers Six at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro was a pretty easy one. Aside from being a much more reasonable commute than somewhere like San Bernardino or Palm Springs, the port's 12.5-acre Outer Harbor area offered a perfect space for all of the stages, art pieces, carnival rides and other attractions that The Growlers wanted to incorporate into their festival. Not only was the venue big enough but it also provided the unconventional atmosphere the lo-fi legends became known for at their previous festival, Beach Goth (the rights to that name are currently the subject of an ongoing legal dispute between The Growlers and their former Beach Goth festival partners, the Observatory Group).
“The Growlers wanted something that was kind of gritty and edgy but also something that was pretty and scenic and hadn't really been used by too many people,” Siegel explains. “We liked the space a lot, and it finally gave us a good opportunity to use it for something big. It's surrounded by water, and there's a ship right next to it that's pretty neat. You can see mountains in the distance, and we all liked the overall vibe of San Pedro. There's a lot to do around there for the people who come down to the festival.”
[Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that The Growlers had lost the rights to the name Beach Goth. The rights to the name are “currently being determined through the legal process,” according to the band. We regret the error.]