The Dissolution of a Young Festival: Lessons Learned from Gratifly's Demise

Article by: Marcus Dowling|@marcuskdowling

Tue September 01, 2015 | 00:00 AM

Much to the chagrin of the tight-knit transformational festival community in the Southeastern U.S., the two-year old Gratifly Music and Arts Festival is no more.

On July 31, 2015, Gratifly Festival co-founder and producer Edwin John Leskin posted a video to the festival’s Facebook page in which he stated that because of having “no funding options for the future...a sizable debt out to performers, staff members and even volunteer deposits," plus “[exhausting] numerous routes of direct funding...that the volatile financial state of the organization makes it highly problematic to move into the future.”

But, in the aftermath, Leskin and his fellow co-founders are now building a micro-sized, sustainable concept from the ashes of their event (more on that later), and are gaining so much more of an understanding of the issues surrounding the evolution of festivals and how to ensure the permanence of festival culture.

Gratifly Festival Black Creek Photography Music 2

Gratifly’s roots were humble. The festival was built from an explosive, regional spirit radiating from the American South, and took place between Asheville, SC and Atlanta, Georgia on Lake Hartwell, SC. “There was a hive of activity in the music and spiritual communities, involving a lot of experimentation with electronic dance music," remembers Leskin. "We then went to festivals on the West Coast and saw a community of people who would learn all day and dance all night. It was inspirational.”

In November 2012, while Leskin was conversing with friends, he had an idea. “I knew that there was an amazing community of artists and teachers in the Southeast who loved festivals,” Leskin says. "So, we decided to put on a festival that would bring together the music that we loved, the teaching communities that we loved, [and] the visual artists, and pepper it with cool creators from elsewhere. The Southeast was ready to consume this type of event.”

Certainly, with Bonnaroo five hours away and other festivals relatively closer, Leskin’s community was certainly under-served and without options in their own backyard. And indeed, the time was ripe: The growth of American-based music and arts festivals in the past five years has been exponential. In fact, a 2014 Wondering Sound article stated that in 2013, “six of the top 10 grossing festivals in the world were American events, all established in the last 15 years.” While maybe unique to the Blue Ridge Mountains, a mega-event featuring a transformational spirit, arts, and music wasn’t exactly new to an already oversaturated American festival marketplace. As much of a harbinger of potential trouble as this was, it certainly didn’t stymie Gratifly’s birth.

Gratifly Festival Black Creek Photography Dancing

“When we started Gratifly, all that we knew is that we wanted, more than anything in the world, to elevate and empower a new kind of community celebration in the Southeast,” Leskin said on his aforementioned Facebook video. However, it’s in one of his follow-up statements that the issues that befell the festival become apparent. “While developing Gratifly, somewhere along the way, we let the values get ahead of the bottom-line, and forgot that only by reaching certain metrics would the event be able to sustain on [sic] into the future.”

Leskin describes the community that Gratifly developed as “a community of people who had these experiences in the past who were really excited." There were also many who had never been to these events and were enjoying what the community was all about. However, when it came to serving this community, Leskin contemplates the size and scope of what they continued to offer as likely problematic.

Gratifly Festival Yave Nunez Crowd

Photo by: Yave Nunez

Regarding issues of funding, Leskin opines, “We had financial issues after the first year. We were under where we needed to be. We found support, though.” When asked about the prevailing notion regarding ambitious festivals that private interests like monolithic SFX and thriving LiveNation acquire so as to deflect costs from organizers themselves, he offered a unique take.

“If you’re doing a small, homegrown, boot-strapped event, there’s no need to reach out to these larger organizations. Instead, be hyper-realistic about finances, experiences and the community you’re bringing in. Keep expenses low and try to grow something organically. We failed because we tried to blow up our event as big as we could. We didn’t want to be a five-to-ten thousand person festival. However, there’s still a way to have an organic experience while having interactions from these larger organizations and big funding. But, you do have to market the festival at that point in a more industry-friendly way. We didn’t want to do that.”

Gratifly Festival Black Creek Photography Music

Post-closure, Gratifly now offers benefit shows, concert tours and community projects (and one Indiegogo campaign to help repay a debt to the festival's on-site medic) to help repay numerous debts. This may actually be the solution for communities not quite ready to sustain festivals but who crave the vibe. In curating events for a smaller community that can grow into what the Bonnaroos and Burning Mans of the world have become, the most important lesson is learned.

The most significant moral of Gratifly’s unfortunate story is that, in all things, less is more. Leskin’s video quote regarding this is quite telling. “When one builds a fire quickly, with a lot of kindling and haphazard logs, it will grow to amazing heights in a short amount of time. But soon after, it will burn out and smolder into ashes. Yet if you build a fire slowly, creating the perfect arrangement of wood in a careful way, and gradually building to bigger logs, the bed of coals created will sustain heat throughout the whole night.”

In the burning embers that remain from Gratifly’s ashes, transformational festival culture now grows more sustainably in America’s Southeast. In this small festival's dissolution, we've located the key ingredients for festival culture’s survival and evolution worldwide.