This weekend’s first Portola Festival in San Francisco took six years to materialize.
Launching tomorrow (September 24) at Pier 80 in the city, the two-day event was designed by Danny Bell, Vice President of AEG Presents in San Francisco, who pioneered the concept following a 2016 music track across e-centres in Europe.
Bill had just left his job as a talent buyer for HARD Events in Los Angeles, where he had previously worked, after graduating from USC. (“I graduated on Friday and was full time [at HARD] Monday “.
“Lucky for me, I was 27 and had some money in the bank. So I was actually able to enjoy myself instead of sleeping on the sofas.”
He started in London, where he saw Four Tate and James Blake headlining the city’s City Day Festival, hit Paris, then went to Barcelona for Sonar, where he was struck by “electronic music presented in a very extreme way.” A plan to spend three days in Ibiza turned into a 12-day marathon with highlights including the legendary Sven Phat group. “I was wearing flip-flops, shorts, and a T-shirt expecting to stop for 15 minutes,” Bell recalls. “Next thing I know, it’s 6:30 in the morning.”
After touring through Berlin, Bell returned to work in San Francisco with inspiration for what in time would become Portola. He envisioned a festival that served electronic music in this way to adults – a tough transition from Neon Candy Rover style and then faced mass appeal among the kids driving the EDM boom in the US and it’s still a popular one today at most mega-festivals. He imagined an event that was more cool, rock more than rave, and something that focused on artists mostly playing their own music rather than coming up with the same old standards.
“This is the real thing I wanted, a festival where you don’t hear repeated songs all day long,” Bell says.
He’s toyed with the idea for years, even having friends make mockup posters to put together the concept in mind. After Bell successfully launched hip-hop and R&B focused on Day N Vegas in 2021, Goldenvoice and its parent company AEG lit up the idea he’d been fantasizing since Flip Flip Club night in Ibiza.
“This is one of the things I learned from [Goldenvoice CEO and Coachella Co-Founder] pee [Tollett], how personally can you make these lineups and see how people are more interested in a festival with personality and a concept behind it rather than just a group of artists who on paper look like they can sell a certain amount of tickets for a certain ticket price. “
The result of this unique vision is easily one of the top US e-fest groups of the year, with Bill incorporating some of the most credible veterans on the scene (The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and DJ Shadow), a compilation of some of the best and best of this generation. The brightest (Arca, Jamie xx, Kaytranada, James Blake, Flume, Four Tet, Caribou, Charlie XCX) and hot rising acts like HAAi, Fred Again.., DJ_Dave and more.
Although it took six years, Bell says the timing of a group of artists like these “couldn’t have worked out a few years ago, given the way many of these works have risen to the rank of headlines over the past few years and how audiences in the States have become United are very irritable for the genre of “esoteric electronic music” (as Bill calls it), which most of the team members play.
So is the timing to hold this festival in San Francisco. While the city has a long history as a center for electronic music, it hasn’t had an independent electronic festival since within city limits since Treasure Island finished seven years in 2018 (the traveling electronic Breakaway Festival will debut in California in October with an event in Oakland, while the breakaway electronic festival will return Porter Robinson Second Sky, also produced by Goldenvoice, heads to Auckland for its third year at the end of October.)
Portola is being executed at Pier 80, a million square foot marine freight dock owned by the Port of San Francisco. Amid ongoing supply chain issues affecting the global shipping schedule, the facility had one weekend in 2022 available for such an event. It was taken over by Team Portola, a group of 27 people spread between Los Angeles and San Francisco. They expect to attend 30,000 per day.
Portola represents a moment not only for the city as an e-destination, but for San Francisco itself, particularly amid headlines focused heavily on the city’s pandemic mass migration (and subsequent population returns), the homeless crisis, and the existential dilemma of the technological boom and the exorbitant cost of living. A Native New Yorker, Bell offers an alternative view, citing the “new ranger” moving into the city, great restaurants, eclectic dive bars, and the general uplifting of culture in the post-pandemic era.
In fact, the festival was named after San Francisco’s Portola Parade in October 1909, and hosted by the city to show the world it was open for business after the devastating earthquake and subsequent fires of 1906.
The way Bill sees it, Portola performs a similar function.
“I feel like the city is on the mend, and I’m betting that’s a big time moving forward, and I really hope Portola can help be a part of that.”
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