The idea began with the band Hundred Waters, but given, in part, the general vibes and communitarian spirit, they don’t really take credit for it. “I believe that the stars align in a lot of things like this,” says Zach Tetreault, the band’s drummer, and a cofounder of FORM Arcosanti, which, with its location and tiny, by-application-only audience—and, until recently, a zero-dollar admission fee—can sometimes sound, well, utopian. “It’s like if the right people come together and have a similar ethos and vision, and anything is possible,” he says.
Down a long, dusty, desert road an hour north of Phoenix sits the site: the experimental town of Arcosanti. The arcological utopia (that’s a portmanteau of archaeology and ecology) was the dream of visionary architect Paolo Soleri, who yearned for a holistic environment with minimal impact on the planet. Soleri was an Italian-American student of Frank Lloyd Wright and was inspired by Wright’s creative incorporation of nature into his designs. Soleri took it one step further, though, via a process of earth casting—creating increasingly complex molds out of desert silt, pouring slip clay or concrete over them, and casting bell shapes large enough to form apses and eventually livable structures.
In the 1970s, the bulbous buildings of Arcosanti rose from the high desert, dotting 25 acres across a 4,000-acre land preserve. They helped inspire George Lucas to create Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine, and were used as a training ground for architects eager to learn from Soleri as well as families looking for a different way of life. Soleri died in 2013, and Arcosanti was never quite finished: He dreamed of building cities like this. But his vision lives on, thanks to donations to the Cosanti Foundation, the Colly Soleri Music Trust, which produces cultural events on site, and the 75 or so people who live there year round. They support themselves by providing educational and cultural programming, and by making and selling bronze and ceramic bells, pots, and original pieces by Soleri.
The year Soleri died also marked the start of a new tradition: Once a year, the festival organizers effectively “rent” the village, and the population swells to around 1,600. Soleri himself may have never imagined the community would be transformed for one weekend into an arts and culture mecca for a select few, but the festival’s spirit owes much to its location, Tetreault says. “We really did use Arcosanti as a framework for thinking about how to approach this event,” he explains.
Arcosanti’s vaulted apses, says Tetreault, make for “absolutely visually stunning permanent stages that just exist for us to come and use without having to bring in tons of stage production.” And a music festival seems to fit in perfectly with Soleri’s vision for the community, since he built the town around a massive amphitheater, says Teatreault. “Soleri largely believed that art and culture were really what propelled communities.”
The concept was born a few years ago, when Tetreault was looking for an unconventional venue to release his band’s second album, The Moon Rang Like A Bell. He was weighing a variety of far-out options—Carlsbad Cavern and the BioDome in New Mexico, for instance—but it was the proto-futuristic oddity of Arcosanti that spoke loudest to him, and helped him crystalize the idea for a festival. “If you look at the underlying values, it’s really about elegant frugality and dense, complex design.”
A 360-degree video from Arcosanti, by the New York Times:
Though the size of the festival has remained roughly the same over its four-year life, the acts have only grown bigger: At this year’s iteration, earlier this month, the likes of Solange, James Blake, Father John Misty, Julianna Barwick, Future Islands, and Skrillex, who runs the OWSLA record label that is home to Hundred Waters, all graced Soleri’s village-sized stage—and mingled with the rest of the desert throng throughout the weekend.
As they assess the lessons of their 2017 iteration, the organizers are now looking forward to 2018 and what they hope will be an expansion of their vision. That includes a possible second weekend of FORM Arcosanti as well as year-round programming, working closely with the residents and board members of Arcosanti to propel their initiatives, and ensure that the festival and the village are what Tetreault calls “a harmonious organism.”
In the wake of the disastrous Fyre Festival, where social influencers compelled fans and VIPs to pay huge sums of money for a luxury music festival experience that only resulted in irate Instagram posts, a $100 million class action lawsuit alleging fraud and negligence, and a federal investigation, Arcosanti’s frugality and community is meant to offer an antidote: an intimate music experience that allows fans and artists alike to build a community, even if it only lasts for a weekend. FORM pays tribute to the architect’s vision not only through music, but also immersive visual art installations with assistance from the Phoenix Art Museum, eclectic film screenings, and lectures on topics like immigration, Black Lives Matter, and climate change.
As Form has grown, it has also developed a stronger, sustainable business strategy, it says. As part of its shift, attendance is no longer free for most attendees, a change that will stay in place for the future. Tickets now cost $389 for general admission, and there is even a glamping option, with food and drink and a luxury tent for $2,500 per pair of tickets. There is also a refreshingly light sponsorship presence, in the form of appropriately obliquely hip brand activations that blend into the surroundings. Think a state-of-the-art recording studio sponsored by Beats by Dre, United Recording of Hollywood, Red Bull Music Academy and Outro; a Tidal photo booth; free Soylent for anyone who wanted it.
The festival’s draw—for fans, talent, and sponsors—would make much bigger festivals chew off their wristbands in jealousy. But it wasn’t always so easy to lure indie A-list talent to the desert, even to play in a vaunted setting like Arcosanti. “The first couple of years were a real struggle,” says Tetreault, laughing. “Like, ‘Hey come to this place that you’ve never heard of and play for no money and for only like a thousand people, I swear it’s gonna be worth it.'” The first year that FORM took over Arcosanti, the bill included a lineup of just eight bands playing in front of an intimate audience of 350 people, for whom the only cost of admission was filling out an application form. The bands played as a favor to Hundred Waters, the P.A. system came from their practice space, and the record label paid for flights and accommodations.
Now, artists are compensated but “more conservatively” than they would be at other festivals, according to Tetreault. “There’s generally an understanding with artists, managers, and agents that our budgets are limited due to the intimate nature of the event and low capacity,” he says, but notes that they try to make up for it in other ways, mostly by offering a unique, supportive venue for experimentation. “James Blake performed his first-ever solo grand piano set at FORM Arcosanti this year,” says Tetreault. “This was something he’d always wanted to do but never had a platform that felt right until FORM came about.”
Four years on, the real draw for artists, though, might be the fans themselves. “This is the most engaged audience I’ve ever seen at any concert,” says Moses Sumney, an electro-soul singer who has played FORM in previous years and returned to curate this year’s show. “It’s totally incredible and inspiring.”
As festivals saturate the music scene, becoming more homogenized and commercialized along the way, FORM’s immersive, Happening-like experience hinges on its application process. Click on the “buy tickets” page and you come to a web page asking, “What inspires you?” Applicants are also asked to write essays about their values, creative process, and what they hope to contribute and get out of the festival.
The process allows Tetreault and the festival’s curators to pick attendees as carefully as the lineup, but mostly it helps weed out those likely not to respect the site, to provoke attendees, or to ruin the vibe. They aren’t looking for influencers or celebrities, but for true music fans who want to be a part of a community, who can appreciate watching Thundercat play beneath the stars before waking up for yoga, will take advantage of the sponsored state-of-the-art recording studio built at the site for the festival, or will join in impromptu campsite jam sessions with members of the bands that just graced the stage.
“The application is there to encourage and cultivate a thoughtful community of people,” says Tetreault. “There’s no prerequisite for what you have to be or have done to get a ticket invite.” Once past the gatekeepers, it’s more or less first come, first served, though.
Part of the reason that the founders wanted to screen applicants is that the festival takes place in relatively close quarters. “Everyone camps,” says Tetreault. “Everyone’s here all weekend, and it really becomes this community where at the end of it, you actually know your neighbor, and by keeping it intimate like that, there’s a lot more possibilities.” That’s also why the organizers shun the drugged out, bro-tripping, party culture found at festivals like Coachella or Electric Daisy, opting for fans who prefer a more natural experience—or at least keep their drug use under the radar.
Connection and community is partly a function of Arcosanti’s size: only about 1,500 people can fit into the village. “We could probably move 10 to 20,000 tickets on this fairly easily, but that’s not our intention,” says Tetreault. “We want it to feel cozy and vibrant.” Fans say the effort works. “It sounds extreme, but FORM was one of the greatest weekends of my life,” says Allie Volpe, who attended FORM in 2016. “The festival allows for fans, press, and artists alike to intermingle, so it really felt like a collective of creatives respecting each other’s art.”
Creating a festival from scratch (rather than just Instagramming about it) is an impressive feat—especially considering that until this year, admission to Form was free. “People have been kind of shocked and appalled that we’ve done it for free,” says Alex Hoffman, a festival co-founder and former general manager at the recently-defunct Family Artists, a management group that worked with Hundred Waters and helped start the festival. “People were like, ‘What are you doing? Take something from us. It’s not right.'” For the organizers, though, money was simply not the point. “Money doesn’t ensure a great experience,” says Hoffman. “That really comes from passion, from creating a passionate experience for people who care about building something.”
In the past, they relied on subtle, understated sponsorship to foot the bills, but this year, FORM started charging for tickets, which, perhaps surprisingly, hasn’t seemed to frustrate fans. “We had a community that was willing to invest,” says Hoffman, and that has allowed them to turn a corner financially as attendees pony up ticket fees. While Tetreault and Hoffman opted not to share specifics on their profitability, they’re close, they say. And they have been able to give back more to the local community.
“Now we have this definitive financial structure in place and that has allowed us to make significant improvements,” said Tetreault. “Our site fee allows them [the residents of Arcosanti] new infrastructure and site improvements that are like substantial and visibly recognizable every time we come back here.” That assistance can be as simple as a new railing on a staircase or funding much-needed renovations to some of Arcosanti’s permanent housing. It’s a modest goal, one that stands in stark contrast to the legacy of Fyre Festival: not just a handful of lawsuits and an investigation, but piles of garbage and hundreds of thousands in unpaid bills to Bahamian business owners.
“We have a very long-term agreement on developing this relationship, and every year it’s building more trust and a foundation for this thing, which has evolved a lot,” explains Tetreault. As for the residents, they don’t seem to mind the upheaval to their daily routine, he says. “It’s sort of become like their annual holiday.”
While Hoffman and Tetreault have a pretty chilled-out vibe about them, they both hold MBAs and know that building a long-lasting brand—and one that lasts all year—isn’t just about pulling in a profit. “It’s about the steady build,” says Hoffman. “It’s about the time and effort and thoughtfulness that goes into building a community. That’s also part of why we have the application model, because we knew from the outset that having a foundation and a core community of the right kind of thoughtful people would lead to a sustainable long-term business for us.”
Building a trusted brand with a committed base of fans has given the festival ample room to grow, even as it stays small. Soleri may not have been a Skrillex or even Future Islands fan, but the festival’s organic approach—its slow effort to build community before profits, to focus on form not just function— would probably make him proud.