MULBERRY MOUNTAIN — They know that when they build the city, people will come.
That’s what the Wakarusa Music Festival amounts to: a temporary, fully functioning village of about 20,000 people in the Ozark mountains. Almost a musical mirage — with a sea of stages, cars and tents — it appears briefly, but just long enough. This year’s festival runs Thursday through Sunday (May 31-June 3).
Organizers brought the music festival from Kansas, where it was successful but limited by the space of the site at Clinton State Park near Lawrence. They relocated to Mulberry Mountain, just north of Ozark on Arkansas 23, in 2009.
Discovery is a big part of the fun of this festival, said Brett Mosiman, festival director, who’s been with the festival from its start in 2004. He encourages their 75,000 Facebook friends and others to get familiar with the bands before they arrive, and to make a list of the ones they want to see. But, then, as they walk between the five stages, whimsical moments of discovery can happen.
The more people learn about the festival in advance, the more fun they’ll have, he said. The Wakarusa website offers information about the musicians, including a stage schedule and videos. It also tells about the festival location, with rules, maps and other details. There will be 20 to 30 food vendors and another 100 arts and crafts booths at the festival. Activities will include morning hoop classes, yoga and a Friday night costume parade and contest.
Mosiman grew up in Kansas, but regularly went to Austin for that city’s popular South by Southwest festival. In his mind, that’s what a festival should be. And that’s what has steered the development of Wakarusa.
In addition to space limitations at the state park in Kansas, organizers “felt like we could have more freedom on private land.” They researched sites in about four states and landed on the Mulberry Mountain site, south of the Ozark National Forest. The natural setting offers streams, waterfalls, picturesque scenery and wildlife galore.
“We just think it’s the best festival site in the country,” Mosiman said. “A lot of these festivals are in corn fields or polo fields, and this is just an idyllic site.”
The owners of the site provide solid infrastructure, including the backbone to any community — power, plumbing and trash service — as well as asphalt roads that make getting around easy in all weather conditions.
And they’ve expanded the offerings this year. In addition to the 10-story Ferris wheel from last year, this year will also boast a water slide in the same area.
Wakarusa can still be experienced based on personal preference — by the choices of where to camp and the self-directed participation of shows and activities. People can be in the middle of things or on the fringe, with a bit of solitude.
Only about 20 percent of the festival-goers are from Arkansas. For the past several years, they’ve sold tickets to people in all 50 states and as far away as Germany, Ireland, Japan and Brazil.
“They come from all over. It really is a national festival,” Mosimon said.
Wakarusa has garnered accolades recently, with comparisons to Coachella in California and Bonnaroo in Tennessee. Last fall, it was one of seven festivals nominated by Pollstar for Festival of the Year
“That’s an incredible feather for Northwest Arkansas and us,” Mosimon added.
This festival has doubled in size in the last three years it’s been in Arkansas. Mosiman estimates there were more than 20,000 people last year, counting fans, vendors and volunteers. The focus remains on making it a quality experience. Mosimon said they’ll sell 20,000 tickets this year and no more.
“We don’t want to be the biggest festival, but we wouldn’t mind being the best festival,” he said. “It’s really important to us that the bands and the fans come away saying, ‘That was one hell of a weekend. I’d do that again in a heartbeat.’”
The beauty of a music festival is the outright plethora of possibilities. Wakarusa features five main stages, plus other informal areas. About 150 artists will play about 170 sets of music. The music typically starts around noon and lasts long into the night for the first three nights of the festival.
Tickets to single shows for some of the headliner artists — such as the Avett Brothers, Pretty Lights, Slightly Stoopid or Primus — would cost at least $50 to see one band at other venues. Event passes are $200, and with 170 shows total, the price of a single set of music comes to about $1 per set — if only you could catch them all.
In addition to the previously mentioned headliners, Mosiman said the festival wouldn’t be the same without acts, such as Umphreys McGee and Split Lip Rayfield.
“We like to say you’ll come for your favorites or the headliners, but you’ll always leave with five or six new favorites,” he said.
The team is already working on the lineups for future festivals. Planning in earnest starts about a year and a half out. They send offers to some artists every year, hoping those will eventually pan out. The stars finally aligned for one of those bands, My Morning Jacket, which played the festival last year. Summertime can be a busy time for bands, with European festivals, summer schedules and album releases.
“There are a lot of things that go into a band saying ‘Yes’ to a festival,” he said.
Mosiman’s wish list has Beck and Neil Young at the top. They’ve been asked to play several years now.
When scheduling the bands, they look at the grid of bands and potential time slots, and try to make it diverse. Many artists play multiple sets because of the density of the stage schedule. They try to keep similar genres from competing in the same time slot.
And those genres are eclectic and wide ranging — acoustic, bluegrass, newgrass, Americana, reggae, rock, blues, techno and jam, among them.
Many bands go on to make it big right before or after playing Wakarusa. Organizers booked Mumford & Sons in the fall of 2010, the summer after they’d broken out, for the 2011 festival.
“By the time June rolled around, they were just huge,” Mosiman said. And a year after the Black Keys’ 2010 performance at the festival, they were selling out arenas.
Need to know
In order to enjoy the multi-day festival, most music fans bring tents, campers or RVs. Reserved campsites sell out months in advance. There are also car camping passes, as well as VIP camping and event passes. Shuttles transport people from the remote camping and parking spots to the main area.
It can get hot during the festival, so water, sunscreen, sunglasses, hats and umbrellas become essentials. General stores offer many supplies fans might forget or run out of. A blanket or bed sheet can easily create a place to sit during a show.
People can bring food and beverages from home, but vendors also offer a variety types of food, plus non-alcoholic and alcoholic drinks. A good air mattress, sleeping bag or bedroll will help fans get a good night’s sleep. But, no pets are allowed.
In about a week’s time, all the plumbing, trash and power is put into place. With volunteers, site and production crew and vendors, the space becomes a small city — complete with medical, police and locksmith services. After an event, they tear it all down in a couple days.
“They put in ungodly hours to pull this thing off,” Mosiman said. “It’s an amazing undertaking. Hopefully, we make it look effortless.”
For the most part, the noise from the crowds scares away the wildlife in the area — which includes coyotes, deer and bears. Still, Mosiman advises people to not leave any food out.
In addition to the water slide, this year’s festival will offer painters and interactive art installations, such as a piano and a living chalkboard.
In order to check people in more efficiently, festivalgoers will pick up their credentials at booths set up on the north and south ends of Arkansas 23.