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Behind the scenes of a first-time music festival, the rewards and perils

Driving along the same path that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark blazed two centuries ago, music festivalgoers headed into Oregon territory seldom explored since then. Upon entrance to the campsite of the What The Festival, a three-day electronic music event, the rural area’s perils became clear when security issued a single piece of advice: watch out for the rattlesnakes.

“It’s not just a walk in the park,” said Peter Clark, director and producer of WTF, as the festival is colloquially called. "It’s a site that’s never been used for a festival so therefore you have to educate people as to what they’re getting into. They’re not just going to (an urban) venue where they don’t have to worry about that.”

Daniel Zetterstrom photo

Fans at the WTF stage during Ghostland Observatory's performance.

Set on a spacious cattle ranch in Tygh Valley, Ore., the weekend of July 28, the What The Festival certainly had its natural dangers, but the allure of languid country days and starry evenings clearly outweighed them. The event ended up selling out. Setting all of that up, however, and for the first time no less, was a complicated affair. Relying on exactly 172 volunteers, the inaugural festival of 3,000 took a grassroots approach that both accommodated its moderate budget and stayed in line with its bohemian feel.

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Volunteers took photographs for the festival, dealt with public relations and marketing, and worked backstage. A huge team of helpers also distributed posters in a variety of cities, including nearby Portland and Seattle, to promote the first-time event, and they were excited to help out.

“Being on the street team was not only a great way to get the word out,” said 21-year-old WTF volunteer Emily Meltzer, who lives in Seattle. “But it also made me even more excited to be a part of this inaugural festival.”

Clark noted the necessity of volunteers and their unwavering dedication, saying, “They’re the ones that will come out there and do any job and really not give you that much attitude about it.”

Daniel Zetterstrom photo

There was certainly much to be excited about as volunteers got in to the festival for free, where there was not only music but also yoga, a hookah lounge, interactive art installations, even a mobile spa offering massages and spa treatments. Although the spa seemed slightly gauche, going against the air of beatnik calm that permeated the festival, the rest of the festival’s offerings were right on point.

“We wanted a mature audience. We wanted it to be tasteful, classy, a little bit more upscale,” Clark said. “We didn’t get the kids. We didn’t get the Kandy Ravers and all that sort of thing,” referring to the groups of tweens and teens who attend raves dressed in bright colors, exchanging small trinkets to gesture friendship.

Putting on this outdoor festival takes a far different approach than more urban events, such as Chicago’s Lollapalooza and Pitchfork, Seattle’s Bumbershoot, Miami’s Ultra, or Paris’ Rock en Seine to name a few. One of the most difficult parts is finding a suitable location, but when Peter Clark and his team were approached by the cattle ranch landowners they knew almost immediately this would be the festival’s home. The spaciousness, the relative proximity to Portland, the atmosphere created by the wide sky and surrounding, acoustically complementary cliffs -- WTF had a home.

“I think this feeling really brings something out of people and creates a really amazing flow of energy throughout the event,” noted Matt Dressman, the festival’s marketing director.

Festivalgoers were quick to concur. “There’s just so much natural wonder up here,” said Andrew Oberland, 24, who works at a software company in Portland. “It’s a little hot -- maybe could use a little more shade -- but it’s amazing!”

Neither the heat nor the possible rattlesnakes put a damper on the festival that was, by all accounts, a success.

“For a first year festival, I think we knocked it out of the park,” said Clark. “Coming away from an event and already looking towards next year -- considering I just got off site yesterday -- is pretty amazing.”