May 8, 2024 - News

Wonderfront returns to San Diego while festival industry retreats

Crowd shot of the Wonderfront Music & Arts Festival

A crowd shot of the 2022 Wonderfront Music & Arts Festival. Photo: Courtesy Wonderfront Music & Arts Festival.

Wonderfront Music & Arts Festival's road to becoming a premier music event in San Diego hasn't been easy. Now, its third iteration in six years arrives with the festival industry on the rocks.

Why it matters: Wonderfront skipped 2020 and 2021 for the pandemic, and took 2023 off while shifting from fall to spring. It's back now with an impressive lineup and a focus on single-day tickets.

Driving the news: The three-day event kicks off at noon Friday at Embarcadero Marina Park, with free community stages at Seaport Village.

  • Headliners are Kaytranada and JID on Friday, Weezer and Dominic Fike on Saturday and Beck, Mt. Joy and a Polo & Pan DJ on Sunday.

The big picture: More than a decade after major festivals revamped the music industry, they've fallen on hard times in 2024.

The intrigue: Viable headliners are scarce this year, leading festivals to overpay for mediocre talent and attendees struggling to justify ticket costs, said Paul Thornton, Wonderfront's managing partner.

  • "You see the same headliners and the same lineups at every festival," he said. "We're working hard to be different by curating emerging talent."

Between the lines: A typical weekend festival expects a 70-30 split between three-day pass and single-day ticket buyers, but Thornton said Wonderfront has flipped that this year.

  • That meant focusing genres on specific days — hip-hop and EDM on Friday, rock of all kinds on Saturday, and a crunchy roots, Americana, jam combo Sunday.
  • "For someone who is really only into hip-hop, if we spread it across three days, that might feel thin," Thornton said. "If they can focus on one day, that feels like good value."
  • "The sense is, it's hard to get people to give you three days for anything," he said.

Context: San Diego has a reputation as a tough market, but Thornton said Wonderfront officials have adjusted to its late-buying tendencies.

  • "It's just the nature of the market — people are afraid to be locked in too early," he said. "It could be a perfect beach weekend that people don't want to give up."
  • The fests that thrive here — like EDM-centric CRSSD and country-focused Boots in the Park — have stayed small and catered to a niche.

By the numbers: The public agency San Diego Tourism Marketing District has again contributed $250,000 to the festival, and the Port of San Diego waived park permit fees.

  • An industry standard is that a festival takes three years to break even, making Wonderfront's on-and-off launch even more daunting.

What's next: Thornton said Wonderfront will build momentum if it can get 12,500-15,000 attendees per day.

  • They'll get there Friday, issuing a low-ticket warning early this week. Thornton said Saturday is on track, too, but Sunday — Mother's Day — needs a boost.
  • 50,000 people attended in 2019, but that dipped to 30,000 in 2022.
  • "We know we have a challenge, but we keep getting better and if we do this right, we know people will come," Thornton said.

Read more: Insider's guide to the festival

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