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Arts + CultureMusicPortola Fest founder: 'We learned a lot from year...

Portola Fest founder: ‘We learned a lot from year one, we’re moving in the right direction’

Danny Bell on what to expect at this year's huge electronic music affair—like fewer cell phone problems and a beloved '90s pop star

Coming into its second year, Portola Festival (Sat/30 + Sun/1 at Pier 80, SF.) has to shed some baggage from its rookie edition. While year one of Goldenvoice’s electronic music-heavy festival on historic Pier 80 featured perhaps the most unbelievable slate of artists on a lineup nationwide, for many, it was the production missteps that lingered most. 

Overloaded cell towers yielded little to no cell service, a brief crowd control issue dominated headlines, while scattered sound issues and an err … sparse decor of the otherwise spectacular shipyard venue were part of the prevailing narrative. But the music was undeniable and year two promises much of the same for the 21-and-over fest. More than just EDM, headliners Eric Prydz and Skrillex are complemented by hip-hop fusion acts like Thundercat and Flying Lotus, pop stars in Nelly Furtado and Rina Sawayama, and electro rock faves in Hot Chip and Little Dragon; in short, it’s more eclectic than your run-of-the-muck electro-fest. 

Portola Festival chief organizer Danny Bell. Photo by Misha Vladimirskiy

Lineup aside, Goldenvoice SVP and festival mastermind Danny Bell says that they’ve effectively ironed out the kinks from last year ahead of this year’s function. Also overseeing the booking at The Warfield, the Regency Theatre and Frost Amphitheatre, Bell is essentially Goldenvoice’s go-to guy in SF. When he spoke to 48hills, Bell was an open book about what he and his team learned from last year’s hiccups, this year’s improvements, challenges, lineup and a whole lot more. Check it out below:

This interview was lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

48HILLS The first big change that jumped out at me about this year is that you guys pushed the festival out a week. While it’s a bummer that it coincides with Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, it now doesn’t coincide with Folsom Street Fair. What went into that decision? Are you simply at the mercy of available dates at Pier 80?

DANNY BELL It was that, but also artist availability too. That’s what it came down to for this year. For subsequent years, I’ve actually been working with the city on what weekend would be best for everyone moving forward, so we’re working through that too. 

48HILLS Right on. ‘Cause my understanding was that in year one, you were given one date and you were like, “If that’s what we got, we’re taking it.”

DANNY BELL Exactly. This year we were given the option of two dates and one worked out better. Same with next year. I’m working with some people in the mayor’s office to determine what’s the preferred date. 

48HILLS Interesting. So you’re already talking about year three, four, and five?

DANNY BELL Oh yeah, planning for it for sure!

48HILLS Was Pier 80 always the plan when you were conceiving this thing? How did you settle on this venue? 

DANNY BELL Well I was conceiving the festival and the concept for over six years and a friend of mine told me about it and showed me Pier 80. When I saw it I was like, “Wow, this is the perfect setting for this type of show.” This environment with a warehouse, and beautiful surroundings with the cranes and the ships and city skyline and the water—it’s a pretty special site. Once we saw it and knew there was an interest in working with us from the Port, it just all fell into place, which was really exciting. 

48HILLS I like that it’s a car-less festival so to speak (I biked both days last year). Now there’s a shuttle service from 24th Street BART. How easy is it to work with the city and Port Authority to get these shuttles and work on these transportation options?

DANNY BELL Well we actually bring on a local team—who we’ve worked on a lot of events in the Bay Area and Southern California as well—who specialize in shuttle programs like this. They work in tandem with our team and we spend months analyzing and going over the plan of what we think is the one for where our patrons are coming from, how they get there and all that … that’s why we ended up setting up this shuttle program from the 24th Street and Mission BART station this year. 

Last year, the Cow Palace was an option that we thought would be great and would allow some parking. It turned out really well, a lot of people used it. But what we learned is that a lot of people are coming by BART and having that short shuttle access as well as giving people a quick out, to the middle of the Mission is something that would be more desirable for the fans. We’ll see how it goes this year and do a heavy analysis again.

Toro y Moi perform at Portola Festival 2022. Photo by Quinn Tucker

48HILLS How do you and that agency learn that info and collect that data?

DANNY BELL A lot of the data about how the people get to the event is collected through our post-event survey. We have a pretty extensive one that we send out to fans. We do it for all of our festivals. It’s pretty useful and we get a high response rate from the people who went. 

48HILLS What’s the official capacity of the event?

DANNY BELL Last year we sold out our Saturday capacity at 33,000 and Sunday we had 31,000. This year will be pretty similar. And while we do have approval to sell a little more this year, we’re not gonna get there.

48HILLS I feel like you guys have had to market a lot harder this year. Do you think that that’s because last year’s lineup was so batshit crazy? Even still, I think this year is one of the most intriguing lineups out there, especially locally. But why do you think that there wasn’t as much immediate interest as last year? 

DANNY BELL It’s interesting that you say that, because last year was one of those ones where everything really fell into place. We’re very proud of that group of artists and how it all came together and we also had a couple unicorns. Like, we never saw Fred Again.. exploding the way he did. It was also the first year, which made a really strong impact. 

This year, I’m very pleased with the lineup we put together. It’s year two so it’s always harder to follow something like that. And I mean, we went up pretty strong [sales-wise] which is great; a little behind last year, but we’ve come really close to catching up. And just the market in general for all concert tickets this year has been selling a little later. Less at the initial boom, but more at the end. 

Portola Festival 2022 attendee. Photo by Scott Hutchinson

48HILLS You talked about Fred Again.., and this feels like the right time to ask about this: The whole crowd control issue last year with Fred Again.. and Charli XCX Saturday sets at the Warehouse stage, with people hopping the VIP section barricade en masse to get in however they could. Personally, I feel like it was a bit overblown online, with some people even trying to compare it to Astroworld, when it wasn’t even in the same galaxy as that. That being said, what did you guys learn from it?

DANNY BELL A lot … A lot of it was communication with our various public safety partners on site and the people we have to work with. One of the things last year that caught us off-guard too was how rough the cell reception was with a lot of people there, so it was difficult to get to each other, and that’s something we’ve addressed for this year

48HILLS I was going to ask you about that later, but we can touch on it now too …

DANNY BELL Yeah that’s addressed for this year. We do have cell COWs [Cells On Wheels; mobile cell sites] coming in and also free public wifi in a few locations on site. It’s not all over, but there are a few locations on site with free public wifi. 

But more than anything, you look at these sites as festival producers, and you think of everything from crowd control and safety to experience and vibe. And you put together the best plan you can. We learned a lot from year one with that warehouse that we had to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to use it better. What we’ve decided to do is we actually flipped the orientation of it. So the stage is now on the end by the entrance lot. So what we’re able to do now is have one large single entrance in the back of it, next to the (main) Pier Stage and people are able to exit it on the sides all the way up and down. So it’s a much easier flowing area. 

We also made a conscious decision to eliminate the Warehouse VIP area for this year, solely so we can just focus on it being a solid, free-flowing experience for all. 

Fred Again.. performs at Portola Festival 2022

48HILLS Well that’s one way to get people to stop jumping over into the VIP area! I think more than anything they were just trying to get in. 

DANNY BELL The good news is that right after that happened for the rest of the evening as well as the next day, we changed the inflow and we didn’t have any issues the rest of the festival. We just forced people to take a long walk to the entrance.

48HILLS Last year, I wrote how the fest felt like a proof of concept and that there would be a lot on the line in year two. So I wanted to talk to you about some other changes that we haven’t discussed yet. 

DANNY BELL Great. Let’s do it. 

48HILLS First off, I felt like the interactive and experiential areas, and overall art offerings were kinda lacking. What have you guys done differently there?

DANNY BELL It was. And you know, this year we’re trying to move in the right direction. It’s definitely gonna be a ways to go there, but what we do have is we focused on creating more hang areas across the festival where people can sit and have a drink with friends and take a break. You can see on the site map that we released [see image below.] We made this large area in the back of the Pier Stage called The Watering Hole. Areas where you can call your friends up and be like “meet me at The Watering Hole” or at this other space, The Barge. But The Watering Hole is this big circular bar and hang area for people to just sit and chill and relax in the back of the Pier Stage. 

We’re also having a great art exhibit on site. Spotify is presenting an art show called “The Brilliant Sticker” with all these rave flyers. This is a show that DJ DB who runs Blurring Books—a book publisher—has brought to museums around the world. It’s an exhibit about the history of famous art and dance stickers, and he’s also been collecting rave flyers from coast-to-coast, so there’ll be an exposé on the history of rave flyers in the middle of this too. 

On top of that we’ve worked with a few local cocktail bars to curate programs at both The Barge and The Shipyard. Those are two experiences themselves and there’s going to be another secret bar on site like we had last year with Gimme Gimme Gimme—I don’t want to give away the theme until you’re there though. And we’ve created a fairly large food court as well which is in between the new Warehouse entrance and the Moog Ship Tent.

48HILLS Who are some of the local bars that you’re working with?

DANNY BELL Lost Resort and Peacekeeper are two that we’ve worked with. We have a lot of great local restaurants too. Farmhouse Thai will have a pop up and Señor Sisig will be there. We’ve published the list and those two are the ones I’m personally excited about. 

48HILLS So you briefly mentioned earlier and I’m gonna ask you the $25,000 question: How can you guarantee that we can use our cell phones this year and communicate with our fellow festival goers?

DANNY BELL [laughs] Well look … there’s no guarantees, but what I will say is that we’ve worked very hard and there will be cell COWs from multiple cell companies that will be there on site and should be providing more service locally. It’s something we’ve been working on since last year. This is something we do at other festivals and it does work well. Last year, they simply thought it was too small of an event for it to be needed, but it clearly was not, so we’ve been able to work with them. 

Portola Festival 2022 attendees

48HILLS Do they get numbers set up on one of these cell COWs and say, “This can handle the phone traffic of X number of people?” Is that how it works?

DANNY BELL It’s more about setting up the tower and providing more power to a localized area. Mind you, I’m speaking without being the expert here, but it’s not so much of a numbers formula, it’s more of the actual cellular service providers themselves who’ve come in and said “OK, we need extra coverage in this area because of the great amount of people who are there,” and they [each provider] set up these cell COWs.  

We’re also making an announcement this week about a wifi partnership on site with a company called Aleo who are providing the public wifi at multiple locations on site. This is in addition to the hopefully strong cell phone reception that we’ve worked hard to hopefully be able to provide. 

48HILLS OK, I feel comfortable now that I’ve learned all about cell COWs, ha. Onto sound for a bit … There was a lot of chatter about the noise pollution from the main (Pier) stage in Alameda across the bay. Have you guys done anything to address the sound bleed? Like … I don’t know how you could possibly do that, but how’ve you addressed that? 

DANNY BELL With last year being the first show, we learned all these things … so we brought on a full-time sound consultant who’s running the sound for the entire show. And this is someone we’ve worked with at many other festivals including Coachella and he’s a specialist. So we’ve come up with a sound plan for the exact type of sound systems, the way we set it up and the way we time all the speakers in order to eliminate it [the sound bleed]. That’s been one of the things we’ve spent the most time on this year, to have a comprehensive sound plan to not disturb our neighbors across the Bay. 

One analogy that he used is that last year, the sound of the main stage was just kind of an open hose just running. And this year, the way we’ve set it up is a hose with a sprinkler head, so we were able to control the sound a lot more. 

48HILLS I also thought the sound in some areas—the Ship Tent in particular—wasn’t great unless you were standing in the front half of the area or even closer. 

DANNY BELL To be fair, we worked with various sound vendors last year and this year it’s just one vendor doing all four stages. This was the biggest priority this year and he also completely redesigned the soundsystem in the Warehouse. That was the soundsystem that disappointed me. I thought it was going to be the biggest homerun and it unfortunately fell flat for me. 

48HILLS Let’s wrap up and talk about the lineup … The first act that totally jumped off the poster when it got announced was Nelly Furtado. I think people were both stoked, but also unsure of how it fit. How did you conceive of her fitting into this slate?

DANNY BELL Well a large part of Portola is not just about being an electronic music show. It’s also a party and a big celebration. Last year, we made sure to mix in a strong pop element led by Charli XCX and it was a hit. So this year I was wrapping my head around who to get and I just had this idea of Nelly Furtado one night. My girlfriend freaked out when I mentioned it to her and I asked more people who had a really strong reaction to it. And it just turned out that she was ready to get going again. It’s one of those crazy bookings and it’s gonna be her first US show in six years …

Chemical Brothers perform at Portola Festival 2022. Photo by Scott Hutchinson

48HILLS So the worst-kept secret in industry circles is that you guys had Aphex Twin and it fell through for one reason or another. Do you think that affected your early sales at all? 

DANNY BELL That’s not true … I’ll tell you that. 

48HILLS Well I heard from SO many people in so many different corners of the industry, hence I say it’s a poorly kept secret…

DANNY BELL … Well, you know, Aphex Twin is gonna do what Aphex Twin does. I hope he plays one day, but it’s just not how the cards unfolded this year. With what was available this year, I had a lot of things that I wanted to play that had to punt a year or drop out for various reasons, but that’s every festival in every year. That’s nothing different for the course. This is the year I had to get creative with who’s gonna be on the show. And I’m very pleased with the way it ended up. I mean… last year, the combination of Jamie XX and Kaytranada and Jungle and Charli XCX and Fred Again.. all in one day. And the Chemical Brothers. 

48HILLS Insane … all of it. 

DANNY BELL This year is gonna be great again though, the Prydz HOLO show is really special. We’re doing it on the main stage, very similar to what we did at Coachella. It’s a massive production. On top of that, Labrinth is an act who rarely tours. I saw that show at Coachella and was blown away, like, ”I have to have this.” Then we also have people like DJ Koze who rarely comes to the US. I was able to convince Chris Lake and Armand Van Helden to play together which’ll be really special … We have Charlotte de Witte and Carl Cox …

48HILLS I feel like people aren’t talking about the Underworld either. I mean, I saw Underworld headline the Hollywood Bowl in 2015 and they totally killed it. 

DANNY BELL Yeah, I was there! That show was amazing. They’re incredible. To have them here and Bassment Jaxx … I mean, it’s stacked. And what’s great for me to see, is that we’re gonna end up in a very similar place [attendance-wise] as last year with this event even without the lightning in a bottle we were able to capture last year. 

Portola Festival 2022. Photo by @priscillaapple

48HILLS No doubt, and again it really is the most intriguing lineup locally. One other thing though, is that there’s not a lot of local acts on the bill. There’s Avalon Emerson, and that’s maybe the only one? How did that happen? Was there not a focus?

DANNY BELL No, it wasn’t on purpose. I actually put offers out to a lot of local acts and it just didn’t work out this year for one reason or another for them. And it really is as simple as that. Last year was great having Toro y Moi, DJ Shadow, and Justin Martin. And there was a list I had this year that I went after and either people weren’t available, or weren’t working for one reason or another. That’s definitely something that at the end of the day, I wasn’t pleased with, but it’s the nature of the beast. I will say I’m already talking to a bunch of locals for next year that I’m excited about. And I gotta say too, that it shows the strength of the scene here that this is something that multiple people have spoken to me about. 

48HILLS Well it’s been a pleasure and I’m hyped. Last thing I wanted to get your thoughts on, is this full slate of night concerts at local venues on the days surrounding the festival that you guys are doing. Like two dozen shows. What does that slate mean to you? 

DANNY BELL I’m just excited to expand the Portola week programming and I hope to continue expanding, ’cause I just want the city to feel alive for the whole weekend. 

PORTOLA FESTIVAL runs September 30 and October 1. Pier 80, SF. Tickets and more info here.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Adrian Spinelli
Adrian Spinelli
Adrian is a Brazilian-born, SF-based writer covering music, booze, festivals, and culture. Follow him on Twitter @AGSpinelli.

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