The new organizers of the annual Socotra Music Festival want to bring diverse and international artists to the event, which is coming to the Missoula County Fairgrounds on April 20.
"We hear so many people talk about how that kind of line-up doesn't exist in Montana, so we see this as an opportunity to be a catalyst to change that," said Michael Gardner, of BFK Productions.
He and Logan Foret, creator of the annual Disco Bloodbath Halloween party, bought the Socotra event from the previous owners, Royale Entertainment.
"We had to commit and trust that everything that we're hearing anecdotally in the community about wanting R&B, about wanting a diverse line-up, (and) a lot of female artists," Gardner said.
On relatively short notice, they booked headliners like Ari Lennox, a soul/R&B singer from Washington, D.C. She's signed to rapper J Cole's label, Dreamville. The video for her new song with Cole, called "Shea Butter Baby," has 7.2 million views on YouTube. Masego, a vocalist/emcee and producer, calls his style "trap house jazz," and was featured on National Public Radio. Both are bringing live bands, which Foret said will likely be a surprise for Socotra fans who've come to expect DJs only.
The two wanted to broaden the appeal of the festival beyond college-age fans of straight-up DJ music to the 30-and-up crowd who listened to older-school hip-hop, or genre-blending artists like Lizzo and Erykah Badu, Foret said.
Another headliner, the Australian producer What So Not, is the only traditional DJ act. Bass act Ivy Lab are coming in from London to play the after-party at Monk's Bar downtown. Another feature unlikely to have hit the fairgrounds, or Missoula or Montana, more than a few times, is a silent disco, where dancers wear headphones with the option of flipping between two different DJs.
"This isn't fringe culture by any stretch of the mind, but I think for Montana, it is," Gardner said. "And there's an appetite for that," he said, and they hope people are "going to show up and turn out for it and support it."
The main stage will have "an absolutely monstrous 50-foot LED wall" flanked by aerialists, Foret said. The roof of the area will allow them to put in arena-style lighting. Other colorful features include but are not limited to flame cannons, domes, live murals, glass blowers, craft vendors, food vendors and a basketball court.
The line-up includes plenty of locals, including electronic pop singer Chloe Gendrow and DJ act Partygoers, plus Billings hip-hop group Anonimus Eidentity.
A bigger venue
Last fall, the Socotra festival moved from the Wilma, where it had sold out, to the fairgrounds, and booked world-class DJ Steve Aoki. The attendance was roughly 2,600, and this year they're aiming for 3,000, said Forest, who co-produced with prior owners Royale.
He and Gardner knew each other from the now-defunct DAT Conference, a Missoula electronic music festival. Last year, they'd begun talking about ways to work together, since Foret wanted to expand his annual Disco Bloodbath party beyond Missoula into other cities in North America.
Gardner has experience with "scaling and growth," he said. He spent seven years at the Montana Food Bank Network, and then was hired on as the first employee for VidCon, the annual YouTuber conference started by Missoula-based entrepreneur Hank Green. Gardner helped the company grow significantly. Its first year, the attendance was 1,400. By the time Green sold it to Viacom, it had 22 employees and events in Anaheim, California, plus Europe and Australia. The Anaheim event has drawn upward of 30,000 people.
His titles were chief operating officer, and he oversaw the Viacom acquisition in 2018 and became chief strategy officer. After that, he decided to return to his grassroots — working in Missoula and Montana with friends rather than an international media conglomerate.
Foret said they think of the new venture as "an experience design company," and not a traditional music promoter. For instance, Gardner acquired the Holland Lake Lodge in Seeley Lake, and they envision holding special music events there.
They'll continue BFK's Sky Church series — a combination of Sunday brunch drinks and a dance party held at unusual locations. Prior parties were thrown on the rooftop of the Source gym, in the Loft of Missoula downtown, and the Unparalleled Movement parkour gym on the Westside. They said they might work with a unique out-of-state artist for a show if the chance arrives, but it likely would be more like Sky Church than a typical club show.
They're planning a margarita festival for Caras Park in July that will feature good tequila and mescal, along with talks about the respective drinks and regions they're produced in, along with food trucks.
They're looking at ways to change up and expand Bloodbath, too. For the past several years, Foret held the event in a series of bars around downtown instead of a larger, single site. Gardner said they'd like to return it to its former "cachet and authenticity" where you had to know about it, instead of just happening across a bar.