This weekend’s debut Portola festival in San Francisco took six years to make happen.
Launching tomorrow (September 24) at the city’s Pier 80, the two-day event was conceived by Danny Bell, VP Talent Buyer for AEG Presents in San Francisco, who came up with the concept after a 2016 music-fueled traipse through Europe’s electronic hubs.
Bell had just left his job as Talent Buyer for HARD Events in Los Angeles, where he’d worked before after graduating from USC. (“I graduated on a Friday and was full time [at HARD] on a Monday,” he says.) With eight months off before he was due to start his new gig at AEG, he wanted to take the type of extended Euro trip many embark on after college.
“Lucky for me, I was 27 and I had some money in the bank. So I was actually able to enjoy myself instead of slumming it on couches.”
He started in London, seeing Four Tet and James Blake headline the city’s Field Day Festival, hit Paris, then went to Barcelona for Sonar, where he was struck by “the electronic music presented in a very adult way.” A plan to spend three days in Ibiza turned into a 12-day marathon with highlights including a set by the legend Sven Väth. “I was wearing flip flops, shorts and a t-shirt expecting to stop by for 15 minutes,” Bell recalls. “Next thing I know, it’s 6:30 in the morning.”
After a run through Berlin, Bell returned to work in San Francisco with the inspiration for what would, in time, become Portola. He envisioned a festival that would present electronic music in that adult way — a hard turn from the neon kandi raver style then experiencing mass appeal amongst the kids driving the U.S. EDM boom and one still popular today at most mega-fests. He imagined an event that was cooler, more rock than rave, and something that focused on artists who play mostly their own music rather than banging out the same old standards.
“That’s the real thing I wanted,” Bell says, “a festival where you don’t hear repeat songs throughout the day.”
He tinkered with the idea for years, even having friends make mock lineup posters to keep the concept top of mind. After Bell successfully launched the hip-hop and R&B focused Day N Vegas in 2021, Goldenvoice and its parent company AEG green-lit the idea he’d been conceptualizing since that flip flop club night in Ibiza.
“That’s one of the things I learned from from [Goldenvoice CEO and Coachella Co-Founder] Paul [Tollett], just how personal you can make these lineups and see how people are more interested in a festival with a personality and a concept behind it instead of just a collection of artists that on paper seem as if they could sell a certain amount of tickets at a certain ticket price.”
The result of this singular vision is easily one of the best U.S. electronic festival lineups of the year, with the bill amalgamating some of the scene’s most credible veterans (The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, DJ Shadow), a gaggle of this generations best and brightest (Arca, Jamie xx, Kaytranada, James Blake, Flume, Four Tet, Caribou, Charlie XCX) and white hot rising acts like HAAi, Fred Again.., DJ_Dave and more.
While it’s taken six years to make happen, Bell says the timing for a collection of artists like this “would not have worked a few years ago, given both the way many of these acts have risen to headliner status over the last few years and how U.S. audiences have become extremely hip to the kind of “esoteric electronic music” (as Bell calls it), played by much of the lineup.
So too is the timing right for this festival to happen in San Francisco. While the city has a long history as an electronic music hub, it hasn’t had a standalone electronic fest since within the city limits since Treasure Island ended a seven year run in 2018. (The traveling electronic fest Breakaway will make its California debut in October with an event in Oakland, while Porter Robinson’s Second Sky festival, also produced by Goldenvoice, will return to Oakland for its third year at the end of October.)
Portola is happening at Pier 80, a million square foot maritime shipping pier owned by the Port of San Francisco. Amidst ongoing supply chain issues that have affected the global shipping schedule, the facility had one weekend in 2022 available for such an event. The Portola team, a group of 27 spread between Los Angeles and San Francisco, took it. They expect 30,000 attendees per day.
Portola marks a moment not just for the city as an electronic destination, but for San Francisco itself, particularly amidst headlines that largely focus on the city’s pandemic exodus (and the subsequent population return), homeless crisis, the existential dilemma of the tech boom and the extreme cost of living. Bell, a native New Yorker, offers an alternative view, citing the “new guard” moving to town, the great restaurants, choice dive bars and general rise of culture in the post-pandemic era.
In fact, the festival is named after San Francisco’s Portola Parade of October 1909, hosted by the city to show the world it was open for business after the devastating earthquake and subsequent fires of 1906.
The way Bell sees it, this Portola serves a similar function.
“I feel like the city is on the mend, and I’m betting on it big time moving forward, and I really hope Portola gets to help be a part of that.”