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Fresno's Gizzly Fest Brings in Big Names

Apr 26, 2018 11:00AM ● By Jordan Venema

Howl & Growl

May 2018
By Jordan Venema
Photos courtesy of Juan Verduzco

THE GRIZZLY FEST soon returns for its fifth year, and the local music festival has grown steadily – though this year proves to be a different kind of beast. Between a markedly increased budget and growing interest from potential partners, 2018 could be the year Grizzly Fest makes a name for itself as more than just a Fresno affair.

Much of Grizzly Fest’s success is thanks to promoters Aren and Vartan Hekimian, the former of whom has 20 years’ experience promoting shows between Los Angeles and Fresno. He also managed hip-hop artist Fashawn, the center of the seminal festival that would become Grizzly Fest. 

“I was managing Fashawn and in 2012 I wanted to do a music festival with him as part of it,” explains 

Aren Hekimian. “So the first year was all hip-hop and we had about 15 artist but it was a real basic entry-level festival.”  

Bringing that festival out of hibernation, Hekimian partnered with Sound N Vision’s founder Aaron Gomes, a promoter with experience booking Grammy-winning and internationally touring bands. In 2014, the pair launched the first official Grizzly Fest, which attracted 7,000 people in its first year. This year, Hekimian and Gomes expect the festival to attract at least 15,000 attendees. 

While attendance has doubled since its first year, other differences from previous years stand out. Grizzly Fest continues to host diverse genres and local bands, including Strange Vine and Gospel Whiskey Runners, but headliners will include Grammy Award-winning Foster the People, notable hip hop artist NAS, genre bending and Coachella perennial Phantogram, and Martha Stewart’s television co-star and co-cook Snoop Dogg (who has a pretty notable rap career, too). 

The leap in talent and attendance prompted Gomes and Hekimian to extend the festival to two days and relocate from Chukchansi Park to Woodward Park in Northeast Fresno. A single day ticket runs $75, and a two-day pass $130. 

According to Gomes, the growth has been planned, but this year marks a significant leap.

“The goal is to grow 35 percent each year, and this year is a 50 percent budget jump on talent specifically,” he says. “This is definitely the biggest budget I’ve ever done times 10, you know what I mean?”

Gomes has booked both Phantogram and Foster to People before, but at a festival, he says, “you literally pay about 20 times more. That’s not an exaggeration.” 

Days are gone when Foster the People would play for next to no money in a pizza parlor with a capacity of 100 people, but Gomes and Hekimian are proving even a bump in ticket costs aren’t slowing sales. “Tickets have really been moving and the buzz is insane. We’re up 60 percent already from last year.” Moreover, adds Gomes, “In the past tickets were like 90 percent from Fresno area and Central Valley. This year, 30 percent of our sales is outside the Valley.” And Gomes thinks that can increase to 35, even 40 percent outside the Valley. 

“We have people coming from England, Sweden, New York, Washington, Oregon – from all over the United States,” adds Hekimian.  

That the festival is attracting attention from all over the country is no surprise, but it also has come on the radar of a particular group that could help expand the horizon for future Grizzly Fests: Live Nation.

Live Nation Entertainment, formed by the merger of Ticketmaster and Live Nation in 2010, maintains exclusive booking rights for venues and bands, and produces nearly 30,000 events each year in 40 countries, with $30 billion in gross transaction value from ticket sales. 

In 2008, Live Nation signed a $152 million, 10-year deal with Jay-Z, and in 2017 extended the contract for another 10 years for $200 million.

And now they’re looking at Grizzly Fest.

“Yeah, we had meetings with Live Nation,” says Gomes, who with Hekimian recently met with Live Nation representatives. “They’re coming down to check out the festival.”

“Live Nation has artists that you can’t get without them,” he explains. “Look at BottleRock in Napa. They’ve got Bruno Mars, the Killers, Muse. Well, Live Nation partnered with them.”

If Live Nation does partner with Grizzly Fest, it’s very likely that the festival’s growth between 2017 and 2018 will pale by comparison to growth in future years. It would mean bigger bands, wider genres and more focus on Fresno. 

And for those who might doubt that Fresno could become a festival destination, tell that to the promoters who made the middle-of-nowhere desert an annual pilgrimage for burners and festival heads alike. Nobody would have guessed that Coachella would become the media frenzy that it is. But as Gomes and Hekimian might say, it was really only a matter of time. •

Grizzly Fest 2018 • Woodward Park, Fresno

Saturday and Sunday, May 18-19, 2 pm – midnight

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