Weekly Q&A: Life Is Beautiful organizer Rehan Choudhry is already busy planning next year’s festival

Rehan Choudhry is the man behind Las Vegas’ Life Is Beautiful festival, which just wrapped its second year.
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

If you attended all three days of Life Is Beautiful, chances are good you made time for a nap on Monday. Rehan Choudhry slipped three into his schedule after spending three full days wandering the streets of Downtown, watching bands, chefs and crowds in action (see Pages 42 and 50 for coverage). We tracked down the festival’s exhausted organizer Tuesday morning for a chat about this year’s success rate and next year’s plans.

Generally speaking, how do you feel about what you guys accomplished in 2014? I could not be happier about it, largely because people had such a good time. There was a guy there who said he had been at the first Woodstock and a thousand other festivals in his career—he’s part of the industry—and he said it’s the best festival he’s been to in his life, which is crazy.

In terms of your own experience, how much did you get to enjoy the festival? I got to spend a lot more time this year actually being a part of the crowd and seeing the vibe and the reactions. Last year, it felt like I spent most of my time in a production trailer.

What were a few personal highlights from the weekend? No. 1 was the Cirque du Soleil/Philharmonic Love collaboration. Knowing how much work everybody put into it, it was cool to see that come together so well and to see it so well-attended. Lionel Richie’s crowd was incredible. People were super critical about him being in the lineup, and I think he surprised the hell out of everyone—it was just one big dance party. I saw Oscar Goodman’s talk. He speaks with such conviction and principal and defiance. It’s really cool to see him in his element. And I saw the headliners each night. I loved the Arctic Monkeys’ set, and Dave Grohl running in the crowd during Foo Fighters was unbelievable.

How did the festival perform financially? There’s two ways to look at a loss. There’s a strategic loss and then there’s an unexpected loss. For us it was purely strategic, because these things take three years at a minimum to break even and start making money, and if you’re really trying to push the boundaries it can take up to four or five years.

By adding the third day, we knew we were gonna see some incremental revenue bump, because of the third-day ticket. What I would have loved to see is the third day sell well and then all three days increase incrementally. What we ended up seeing was a flat year-over-year per day, I think largely because people are still getting to know this thing. We’re still new. But I would have loved to have increased ticket sales, like 10 or 15 percent per day. But going from 30,000 to 30,000 per day is a pretty good story, given that we just added an entire third day.

Was your 90,000 reported total attendance pretty evenly distributed across the three days? Friday and Saturday were really close, like 200 tickets off from each other, and Sunday was about 500 tickets higher. I expected Friday to be light and Sunday to be big, given the feedback we got about Kanye [West]. But it turns out Kanye haters are really loud, and Kanye fans are really quiet, but they buy tickets.

Now we’ve got our format. We’re a three-day festival, and I know we can fit another 10,000-15,000, maybe more, a day, without changing the footprint much. I think next year is going to be about increasing the dailies pretty considerably. This year was, can this market handle a three-day ticket? We’re a cheaper ticket compared to other comparable festivals, but to book this type of talent it’s still an expensive ticket in a relatively young market for festivals.

The biggest indicator is the Vegoose factor—in each year they saw a decrease in daily attendance, which would have been scary. And the good news is, we weren’t there. And the even better news is, for the people who attended, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

Our reporters bumped into quite a few people over the weekend who seemed to have found discounted tickets or free tickets one way or another. How tough is it to sell full-price tickets in a market like Las Vegas, where comps are such a part of the culture? What I’ve learned over the last four years of being here is that it’s a little overstated. In reality, the influencer group in this market is not a big percentage. The people who are buying tickets are folks who don’t get into clubs for free every night and aren’t getting hookups for hotels. There’s still a lot of people who are just used to getting free tickets, but it’s not as many as you’d expect. So I’m less concerned about that.

We do the same amount of comps and promotional tickets and ticket giveaways as any festival. We’re just in a smaller market, so the locals get more of that pie than I think you’d see in most cities. But 50 percent of our audience came from outside the market and 50 percent were locals, and anyone from out of the market bought a ticket and the vast majority of locals bought a ticket.

How did that split compare to last year? We were actually 60 percent out of market last year, so we increased our percentage of locals pretty significantly.

Does the fact that Sunday sold best indicate that your crowd prefers rock acts like Arctic Monkeys and Foo Fighters to hip-hop headliners like Kanye West and OutKast? We did a rock festival last year—we had blended programming, but at a headliner level it was really a rock event—so a natural rollover of fans from last year to this year would cause a greater spike on Sunday. And with Friday and Saturday, largely we’re speaking to new audiences. If you’re a Killers, Kings of Leon, Beck, Imagine Dragons fan, you may not necessarily be into Lionel Richie, OutKast, Kanye and The Weeknd, so we had to actively market to a new audience for those days. And it turned out to be pretty successful, because we weren’t off by very many tickets on those days.

What does the 10 percent increase in local attendees tell you? I think part of it is increased awareness in the market. Last year, people who’d bought tickets didn’t know whether The Killers were gonna play on the 3rd St. stage. Nobody really knew what we were doing. So going into the second year, you expect an increase in the local market.

I do worry a little bit that the weekend we have has one of the highest weekend occupancies of the year in the city. There are still hotel rates that were as low as $120, $130 a night, but it’s hard to get something much cheaper during that weekend. So I worry that we might have to address that at some point.

Like, you might have to move the festival dates? We’ll never shift it off October, because the weather’s so great, but even if we moved it earlier a week … I don’t know. I’ve gotta sit down with Las Vegas Events and get an idea of whether that was a factor. That’s just my gut, that when you’re on a 90-percent occupancy weekend, it may affect people’s ability to travel in. But we can still shift earlier a week or later a week and not affect the vibe of the festival.

In terms of national coverage of the festival, were you surprised outlets like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork completely ignored Life Is Beautiful, from its lineup rollout to the weekend itself? I’ll take that responsibility on myself. I wanted to strengthen our marketing overall by doing some larger deals with very specific outlets. We have gotten a lot of great press—Businessweek, Billboard, USA Today—but I think a bit of our strategy played against us in that we became really good friends with a couple of national outlets, and that kind of precluded a couple of the other ones from participating. But that’s coming from a guy that’s not a media strategist by any means.

Let’s talk festival specifics. You shifted the footprint a bit this year. How do you think that worked out? I think it had a lot more energy. Last year, while some of the additional areas—like the Fremont Street bars or Jackie Gaughan Plaza across from the El Cortez—gave us some additional space to program, they also spread the crowd a little too thin. Where this year, especially in that area around the Huntridge Stage, we had a lot of energy. It always felt like there were a lot of people there hanging out, having a good time.

The introduction of the Container Park solved a lot of issues from last year. The only space we had for culinary demonstrations [in 2013] were two tents behind the Western, which were hard for people to see and access. Putting them in the Container Park not only made them more central and accessible, it created a better vibe for culinary. Having more space to do more murals—we effectively added the Ogden from 7th to 8th—gave us interesting space to add more elements. I wish the Fit Mob and Dancetronauts stage was a little more central, because where that was it probably didn’t do them much service. I liked the Western Stage; I think I want to grass that next year like we did the Huntridge Stage. And I like the new layout for Ambassador, facing that grassed beer, food and wine garden—I saw people just sitting on the Fremont Street side of the grass, watching the shows.

You opted to break apart the Culinary Village and scatter restaurant food throughout the footprint. Did that work out the way you’d hoped? I got really good feedback on that, but I still need to spend some time with my more hardcore foodie fans who go to food and wine festivals, to see how the broken-up experience compares to other tasting events they go to. But the good news is, at no point did anyone feel like they were sacrificing the quality of the food they were eating because of their programming choices.

How would you categorize your relationship with the city and the neighboring business and residents at this point? The city could not be happier. We have a great relationship there. The bars and restaurants, for the most part, were all really happy, because they saw increased business. They ones we’re having challenges with are the churches or the bail bondswoman who has a very unique business that doesn’t get better when you have more cops in the area. But we’re gonna keep trying to adjust, keep working on it. Outside Lands has been around seven years, and there are still people in the neighborhood that aren’t happy they get taken over for three days.

Is 2015 a definite go? Absolutely. We’re already talking to headliners. We still have to get some rest and debrief and figure out what next year looks like, but we’re not letting this thing go.

Musically, I’ll always bang the drum for edgier acts and more left-of-center bookings, to augment the more mainstream names. Do you see yourself tweaking the lineup in any direction in the future? In terms of the more indie stuff and some of the cool throwbacks like Afghan Whigs or The Replacements, the answer is yes, we want to skew a little more in that direction. iHeart is successful because they do mainstream well. And EDC does EDM better than anyone. We’re gonna kinda be this cultural lifestyle indie-vibed festival, and I want to make sure we have more of that cool factor. But we’re not FYF; we’re not gonna be a hardcore indie-rock event.

Positivity is part of your festival’s motivational message. Are there certain kinds of acts—punk, metal, whatever—you would steer clear of for that reason? Having created the Life Is Beautiful brand, I can tell you that we’re not a literal representation of “life is beautiful.” I’m not trying to only book people who are boy scouts. We’re trying to book people that align with our message in some deeper capacity.

Kanye’s mother tragically passed away, and he had to react on a public stage. And he ended up pushing through it, releasing one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time and getting married and having a kid. He’s learning and he’s growing and he’s a human being, and life is not pretty but it is beautiful. And I very much stand by that booking.

Would I book a hardcore metal band that promotes violence and anger? Maybe not. Would I book Rancid? Absolutely, ’cause I freaking love ’em. Some of it’s pretty subjective—there isn’t an application we can plug in to see how people are gonna work out. But I’m probably not booking death metal any time soon.

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Spencer Patterson

Spencer Patterson is the Editor of Las Vegas Weekly, having previously served as Managing Editor, Arts & Entertainment Editor and ...

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