Portola Founder On Expanding The Festival’s ‘Grown Up’ Vibe For Year 2 – Billboard
Written by GRB on 29/09/2023
“it’s a daunting task, to follow up that lineup,” says Danny Bell. He’s referring to the bill for last year’s inaugural edition of Portola, which debuted in San Francisco with artists including The Chemical Brothers, Flume, Fatboy Slim, Kaytranada, Peggy Gou, Jamie xx, James Blake and so many more heavy-hitters that the event quickly made its case for being the strongest U.S. electronic festival lineup of the year.
The even more difficult trick would be doing it all again. “This year really put my booking skills and creativity to the test,” says Bell, the SVP Talent Buyer for Goldenvoice in San Francisco. “There were a lot of changes from the initial plan to what ended up being this year’s lineup. But that’s just the nature of booking festivals. Some years, everything falls into place. That was year one. This year, it was like every time I picked up the phone, there was another piece of news derailing the plan. But we got through it, and I’m very proud of the lineup we’ve put together.”
This weekend (Sept. 30-Oct. 1) Bell and the team are bringing Portola Festival round two to Pier 80 in San Francisco, with another hefty lineup and the credibility culled from year one, with one in-the-know agent calling the event one of the most important electronic festivals in the United States.
Night one will be headlined by Eric Prydz, performing his technical masterpiece of a show, HOLO. The Portola play was made more possible after Prydz closed out the Outdoor stage at another Goldenvoice property, Coachella, on the second night of the festival this past April, allowing the Portola team to use the same equipment and tech elements this weekend in the Bay.
“It definitely helps that we share a production team and an ethos,” Bell says of Portola and Coachella, “so [artists and their teams] know who they’re working with what they’re stepping into.”
Skillex is headlining Portola night two, flying in from a festival play in New Zealand and, through the magic of time zones, managing to play both the show in Auckland and Portola on the same day. “They just really want to make this happen,” Bell says of the producer and his team, recalling the first time he tried booking Skrillex back during Bell’s time as a student at USC.
“The first Skrill quote I got was $2,000 bucks, and I couldn’t afford it. He’s obviously a lot more than that now.”
Other lineup standouts include Jai Paul, the enigmatic artist doing his first major touring run this year. “Jai Paul’s just the s–t, man,” says Bell. “There’s a handful of these super artists that you don’t know if you’ll ever get the chance to see live or book, and it magically worked this year.”
Nelly Furtado will perform her first show in the U.S. in 16 years on Saturday, with Bell saying this pop element (lead by Charli XCX last year) is essential, in that it adds a different and overtly fun facet to a lineup largely composed of house, techno and what Bell calls “esoteric electronic music.” (He adds that when he ran the idea of booking Furtado by his fianceé, “she freaked out.”)
This year, the festival site — located on an industrial shipping pier outfitted with a massive crane, warehouses and an actual giant ship — will be slightly reconfigured to prevent the sound bleed that occurred between a few spaces last year. (This reconfiguration should also help mitigate the sound that traveled across the water to Alameda last year, resulting in sound complaints from residents. Bell says San Francisco city officials worked with them on solutions to this issue and hav been altogether great to work with.)
A warehouse space used as a venue — the site of a brief crowd rush incident during Fred again..’s set last year — will be flipped so that the stage is on the opposite end of the building, in order to improve sound quality and crowd flow. (While this space featured live acts last year, this year it’s reserved exclusively for DJs.) There will also be more space for GA attendees to sit and hang out, including an expanded bar area and a a bigger food court. Like last year, Portola expects 30,000 attendees per day.
This year will also feature an art gallery of rave stickers and flyers from throughout the years that’s been curated by DJ and rave culture historian DB Burkeman. Sponsored by Spotify, the gallery is meant to function as a pseudo-highbrow place for people to check out when they need a break from the music.
“The whole thing is that I want people to be treated like grown-ups,” Bell says. “I just felt like there wasn’t a festival to fulfill the desires of a 21-plus audience who’ve been electronic music and dance fans, but who also like other genres and who are interested in an event focused for the older fan.”
Bell knows something of becoming a grown-up raver. He booked shows throughout his time at USC, and started a full-time job as a talent buyer for HARD Events the Monday after he graduated college. The EDM era was peaking, electronic music was becoming a major commercial and cultural force in the U.S., and Bell was helping propel this culture in Southern California by co-designing HARD lineups that nodded to current trends, folded in genre heroes and presented smart, boundary-pushing bills to audiences who, at that time, were often just discovering the sound and scene.
Portola is thus a festival for people who became dance music fans when Skrillex was in his spaceships-and-big-drops phase and who, 10 years later, are equally as excited to hear him play the IDM his sound has evolved into this weekend.
“There wouldn’t be a Portola if it wasn’t for EDC or HARD,” Bell says, “because those were some of the fans’ first introduction to that music in a festival environment.
“I don’t think there would have been a market for a festival like Portola 10 years ago,” he continues. “The longer they stay, the older they get, their tastes change and now a festival like this can exist.”