Changemakers is a content series produced by Cole Haan and Forbes. It provides a platform for industry leaders who are disrupting business and society by combining their professions with their passions. For more information, visit ColeHaan.com and follow @ColeHaan.
By Deb Landau
We all know the glories of summer — relaxing in warm sunshine, sipping fruity IPAs, swimming in lakes, hiking dry trails and road-tripping to outdoor music festivals.
A good music festival can fuel our souls and make us feel part of something bigger than ourselves. But the crowds and craze of the biggest festivals can leave some feeling more drained than connected.
Lower-key events, meanwhile, often have smaller crowds and cherry-picked acts of the best up-and-coming artists. Here are some festivals that excel in creating that chill-summer vibe:
Big Ears Festival (Knoxville, TN)
March 21 – 24
Need to Know: The New Yorker once suggested that Big Ears might be “the most open-minded music gathering in the country” and for good reason. This four-day festival — which launched in 2009 and sets up stage in Knoxville’s theaters, bars, churches and parks — is a happy kumbaya for the arts. Inclusion is the aim here, where festival goers might hear avant-garde jazz at lunch, classical harp in the afternoon and neo-psychedelia late into the evening.
Good to Know: Many events are free and family-friendly and Knoxville’s business owners are pleased as punch to welcome the global crowd. Whatever your musical tastes, this festival’s aim is to gently, convincingly expand them.
Hangout Music Fest (Gulf Shores, AL)
May 16 – 19
Need to Know: This three-day event consumes the coastal Alabama town of Gulf Shores and invites attendees to swap their dancing shoes for flip-flops, bikinis and surf trunks. Essentially a giant party on the beach, Hangout Festival attracts some big names. And while the vibe is decidedly spring break dance party, there’s something for everyone. Sweaty stage huggers bounce giant beach balls like bubbles in the sky, but there’s also beach volleyball, hammocks for chilling and even pools built into the sand.
Good to Know: The usual festival food gives way to delicious shrimp straight from the Gulf, and watching the incredible sunsets while dancing into the night isn’t bad either.
Root’s Picnic (Philadelphia, PA)
Need to Know: Started by Philadelphia treasured sons of hip hop in 2008, Roots Picnic is an annual event at Philly’s Penn’s Landing on the Delaware River waterfront. The day-long festival features five stages and a full lineup of some of the world’s best hip hop, rap and R&B performers.
Good to Know: The all-ages festival is rain or shine, which can be stressing when the weather doesn’t cooperate. The 2018 festival was cut short when organizers deemed a rainy deluge too dangerous to continue.
Firefly Music Festival (Dover, DE)
June 20 – 23
Need to Know: Attendees can totally immerse at this three-day festival set in the woodlands on Delaware’s Dover Speedway festival grounds. A themed Pathway (annually designed by festival goers) winds its way through the festival grounds to seven different stages. Since the festival’s inception in 2012, it has pulled in power acts.
Good to Know: Most attendees choose to camp or “glamp” at the Firefly’s Great Atlantic Campout, where there’s everything from daily yoga to silent raves, where attendees don headphones and rock out to DJ-spun vibes only heard through the headsets.
Essence Festival (New Orleans, LA)
July 4 – 7
Need to Know: Marking its 25th year, this four-day, city-wide festival dedicated to African-American music and culture centers on a killer musical lineup at the New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome. But there are other events at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and around town that support the ten festival tracks, which include beauty, technology, travel, finance and style. The lineup comprises the best in soul, funk, reggae and hip hop.
Good to Know: More than 500,000 attendees come to the festival, so book hotels early.
Pickathon (Happy Valley, OR)
August 2 – 4
Need to Know: Held in the forest on Pendarvis Farm in Happy Valley, about 10 miles from Portland, this four-day festival feels fueled by magic. Most attendees camp in the forest surrounding the six intimate stages. And by the final day, they become forest nymphs at peace and one with the land (and ready for a hot bath). The family-friendly event features some excellent up-and-coming singer-songwriters. It’s is a great place to expand your music iQ.
Good to Know: You won’t find a single plastic cup or paper plate here, as Pickathon is one of the most sustainable festivals in the country – with bamboo utensils and staffed dish-washing stations.
Together Festival (Boston, MA)
Typically September; 2019 dates not yet announced
Need to Know: Spanning multiple venues in Boston and Cambridge, this annual event is dedicated to electronic music and the arts and technology surrounding it. Not just a weeklong dance party, the festival features art installations, panel discussions and workshops designed to support the future of music.
Good to Know: The Boston Globe said the hometown festival “isn’t just to provide a good time, but to illustrate the fertile mix of art and technology intrinsic to current-day Boston, a city that celebrates its visual artists and musicians even as it cultivates a fresh identity as a hub for technological advancement.”
RiotFest (Chicago, IL)
September 13 – 15
Need to Know: The windy city has no shortage of music festivals, but RiotFest holds a special place in the hearts of punk rock music lovers. This annual event now held at Chicago’s Douglas Par launched in 2005. Today, it’s more rock concert and carnival than punk-fest, but it’s a good place to see up-and-coming bands, along with the likes of headliners that fill arenas.
Good to Know: In addition to carnival rides and a general carney vibe, the festival has spawned things like the Riot Feast, a pop-up restaurant with Riot-themed menu items.
Deb Landau is a writer, editor and producer who has traveled through many intersections of publishing — from writing guidebooks for Lonely Planet Publications to running a digital magazine. She is an outdoor enthusiast and lives in Portland, Oregon.