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The future of music festivals in the COVID era is here

The Escape Tracks Virtual R&B Festival can’t replace classic summer music jams, but it showcases the innovation taking place to give fans the next best thing.

The future of music festivals in the COVID era is here
[Photo: rawpixel; Pien Muller, Alexander Popov, Austin Neill, Aditya Chinchure, Yvette de Wit, Sebastian Ervi/Unsplash]

Kyle Sassi, founder of EscapeTracks, the digital R&B curator, never imagined himself spearheading the world’s first virtual R&B Festival.

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But when change comes—as it did when the COVID-19 crisis swept the globe—you adjust accordingly.

Sassi founded EscapeTracks while still in high school, six years ago. It started as his personal digital escape, with YouTube as the foundation for enjoying music that he loved. He would create playlists of artists that he discovered on SoundCloud, which helped him build his following while also helping musicians grow their fan bases. Since its inception, EscapeTracks has amassed a following of over one million subscribers and playlists across multiple streaming platforms.

Over the past year, Sassi also began producing more visual content and live performances, content that his audience responded to.

Now the 22-year-old Toronto-based entrepreneur is using his platform’s influence to give back to the same music community that has inspired him. He came up with the idea for the EscapeTracks Virtual R&B Music Festival after finding out that MusiCares—the Grammy charity that has provided more than $60 million in healthcare and other financial resources to musicians in need—had run out of funds for COVID-19 relief.

“Everything that I do with EscapeTracks as a brand is always about trying to give everyone a sense of happiness,” Sassi tells Fast Company. “I’m kind of filling everybody’s pockets in a way, with what they want to see and what they’re hoping for. So that’s my perspective in terms of creating the entire live-streamed concert.”

Sassi partnered with Youtube’s #WithMe campaign to launch the EscapeTracks R&B Music Festival live on May 16. It was free to “ticketed” fans, who got the chance to watch and interact with headliners such as BJ The Chicago Kid, Eric Bellinger, Queen Naija, Luh Kel, and more. YouTube has functions that make donating to charities seamless, and it allows users to upload prerecorded visuals for live streams. Sassi gathered exclusive performances from selected performers ahead of time, edited their videos together, and added desired graphics and texts to make things look more streamlined.

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Then the festival went live. Fans from the EscapeTracks community around the world—who range in age from 18 to 44—got to watch the video as they interacted with each other as well as their favorite performers in the chat room.

“There were certain artists like Eric Bellinger, for example—he was telling everybody to put bells in the chat before his set,” Sassi explains. “It was so dope to see, because it was a testament to people not just watching it, but being emotionally invested and wanting to see and experience that artist and their performance.”

The festival raised over $5,000, with a total of about 50,000 participants who were in and out of the chat.

People who missed that live stream will get another chance to watch, starting with a recap video that releases today, Wednesday, June 3. The full festival video will be released next week.

“For me, it was really important that I show support to musicians in need during this time of uncertainty,” says BJ the Chicago Kid. “R&B and soul music has always reflected the times, and it was an honor to come together with my peers as well as EscapeTracks to show the power of our genre. It is my hope that we continue to uplift our community of musicians as well as provide a voice to the mainstream for those who truly need help.”

Sassi is happy with the results of his groundbreaking content, but does this mean that EscapeTracks sees more live-streamed festivals in the future?

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In a future where the status of when we’ll be able to congregate at capacity again is questionable, the answer is yes. “It’s just a matter of how things unfold and how things continue, but I think this really sets it up to do a second and a third and so on,” says Sassi. “This period of time has sparked a lot of innovation and creativity and is redefining what it means to think outside the box. As humans we crave connection and experiences [and] all of this really just fills that void in a way, and it really just gives people the level of connection and experience that we all want.”

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