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Skip Coachella. Here’s why these festivals with under 10,000 attendees are the best.

Big names and hype will always be a good reason to bucket list some of the biggest and brightest music festivals. And the numbers do not lie about their popularity. Coachella, with headliners such as Childish Gambino and Ariana Grande, had around 250,000 attendees in 2017. Ultra Music Festival had 330,000. And Lollapalooza had 400,00 attendees. There is something about being a part of something big, saying you were there and that you experienced it. Maybe Woodstock’s cultural influence lingers more than we think.

Music festivals are not just about the joy of setting your eyes on your favorite artists. It is a time to discover new music, meet new people, relish in and explore the festival setting, and, most of all, have fun. It is a time for you. It is an entire experience, but you do not necessarily need 100,000 people surrounding you and the world’s superstars flashed up on an oversized screen in order to have an amazing weekend.

The music festival scene in the United States is huge. There is so much to choose from and that is why the most obvious choice is not always the best. Here are 8 lesser-known music festivals that you should consider this summer for a more intimate, but fantastic time.

1. Desert Hearts Festival: April 23rd-27th 2020, Los Coyotes Indian Reservation, California

“House, techno and love. We are all desert hearts.” — Desert Hearts

The nonstop, 24-hours-a-day, thump of the bass characterizes many, if not all, electronic music festivals. The music never sleeps. In this festival’s case it is 80 continuous hours of potential but desired unrest. This is not for everyone, but it seems to be an integral characteristic of this festival. It helps to keep with the larger theme of Desert Hearts, which is unity, community and togetherness:

“Even at other small festivals with only one active stage at a time, the variations in musical genres and moods between performers appeal to people differently, and there are distinct beginnings and ends to sets. At Desert Hearts Festival, it’s like one never-ending wave of music, weaving in and out of a variety of house and techno styles but generally maintaining a trajectory under the tech house umbrella.” — Speed Raver, Fresh Music Freaks

At about 5,000 guests, Desert Hearts’ intimate size helps to maintain the personality of the festival that it is so proud of. Come to Desert Hearts not only for great electronic music but also art, expression, creativity and love.

2. Shaky Boots Music Festival: May 8-9th 2020, Central Park, Atlanta, Georgia

A music festival made for fans. There are no overlapping sets at Shaky Boots, ensuring you get to see all your favorites without having to experience that internal conflict of having to choose between Dierks Bentley or Brandi Carlile. The festival markets itself as country true to its Southern roots with a modern twist. You can see that in not just the musical lineup but by the setting. Shaky Boots is more or less in the heart of Atlanta, not some farmland on the edge of a dusty town. There is no camping, but the centralized location allows for easier escape from festival grounds … say to your hotel with a hot shower?

3. Nelsonville Music Festival: June 4th – 7th 2020, Nelsonville, Ohio

Nelsonville has been described as a “hidden gem” and the “best kept secret music festival” of the Midwest. Part of this festival’s charm is the small-town, close to the heart feel, as the festival is put on by Stuart’s Opera House. The theatre created the festival in order to increase the visibility of the historic town of Nelsonville while revitalizing its arts district and community.

All profits of the festival go back into the theatre. Nelsonville brings in soul to country to rock and even a little bit of psychedelia. With five stages and with up to 7,000 attendees, this festival is the perfect balance of big performance and intimate experience. Make sure to try to get into the no-fi stage. Inside an old schoolhouse with no electricity, only acoustic sets perform here, playing to a crowd of under 100.

4. Sonic Bloom Music Festival: June 18-21 Hummingbird Ranch, Spanish Peaks Country, CO.

Sonic Bloom is as much about music as it is about the process of healing and art. It is this wonderful combination of music, self-care, dance and performance that work together to create one of Colorado’s main electronic music festivals, situated at the beautiful southern tip of the Rocky Mountains. If the 2020 festival is anything like previous years, you can expect up to 100 musical sets and up to 50 performance acts — anything from burlesque to fire spitting.

For the those interested in the healing aspect, there’s an oasis bathhouse that will give you the best bathing and grooming experience you’ve ever had at an outdoor music festival, complete with an array of healers and therapists well-versed in everything from massage to yoga to kinesiology to deep listening. Most well-done electronic music festivals are now huge, so enjoy this one while it stays under 10,000 attendees.

5. High Sierra Music Festival: July 2 – 5 2020, Quincy, California

Celebrating 30 years, this seasoned music festival knows how to do what they want, right. They bring in some famous acts, however for many they will still be more obscure as the festival mostly sticks to the less popular genres of funk, newgrass, jamband, reggae and roots rock. This event is family friendly; professional nannies are available, so the adults can enjoy the nighttime festivities away from the little ones. Although the schedule is not yet announced, the attendees are strongly encouraged to dress up according to each daily costume theme.

6. Timber! Outdoor Music Festival: July 16-19 2020, Carnation, Washington

At Timber! Outdoor Music Festival, you can find crowd pleasing easy listening, rock, pop and folk music. But Timber! isn’t just made for music and its lovers. This festival is characterized by tons of outdoor and artsy activities to choose from: paddle boarding, running, yoga, stargazing, midnight kayaking, a wilderness plant walk and even recreational tree climbing. Timber! almost feels like a healthy forest escape as much as an energetic music festival. With about 3000 attendees expected, you will be sure to have lots of space and time to see your favorite act and get some fun and memorable activities in.

7. Pickathon Music Festival: Aug. 2-4 2020, Pendarvis Farm, Happy Valley, Oregon

Pickathon Music Festival takes place on a farm in the aptly named “Happy Valley” just outside of Portland, Oregon. This festival is unique in that it is purposely capped at 3500 ticket sales, does not rely on any corporate sponsors and has become well known for promoting and practicing environmental sustainability. The lineup is usually a medley of folk, rock, rap, bluegrass and indie music. With each act performing twice throughout the three-day festival, you can forgo your lineup schedule strategy necessary for so many other festivals. Sit back under the August sun, with your good view of the stage, and relax.

8. Secret Stages Music Discovery Festival: Aug. 7-8 2020 Birmingham, Alabama

You can think of this one as almost like a downtown musical block party. Secret Stages picks a different area each year. This year you can expect five stages with over 50 acts, at various bars and restaurants all a fun walk from each other in the city of Birmingham, Alabama.

A steal of a deal, a weekend pass will only run you $60. It might have that jam-packed energy of a busy, grand festival, but without the huge assortment of port-o-potties, dirt naps and lack of showers. The festival prides itself on supporting up-and-coming acts from around the country, and this alone is to enough to maintain that intimate festival feel. Yet you will not feel like you are missing out on a musical experience in the slightest.

“Despite the lack of marquee headliners, that are used to draw a large audience and boost attendance, Secret Stages continues to be a breath of fresh air in its commitment to local artists and their promotion. This ethic has proven to be effective as more and more people each year chose to attend Secret Stages”.
— The Blue Indian (Macon)

Honorable Mention

Dirtybird Campout: October 2020, Modesto Reservoir Campgrounds, California

Dirtybird must be mentioned. And although it takes place after much of the festival anticipation has died down for the summer and after classes are back in, it should be on your festival bucket list. Perhaps you are looking for an October adventure? Dirtybird is the ultimate adult “summer” camp experience.

Your hosts are dressed like boy scouts and camp counselors, there are endless childhood games with grown-up twists to them, as well as aquatic sports and, of course, music. You are encouraged to interact and play with fellow attendees; even the artists will come mingle. Exact dates have not yet been announced so keep tuned. Dirtybird has been growing each year — expected attendance for 2020 is just shy of 10,000 people.

Happy festivaling!

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