Music Tastes Good aims to put Long Beach on the festival map

Festivals come and go, but Jon Halperin and Josh Fischel will have permanent reminders of their first Music Tastes Good event.

“It was in the contract that Josh and I had to get Specials tattoos,” said Halperin, the festival’s talent buyer. “I literally cried when they were confirmed.”

That ink was far from a punishment (both organizers are superfans of the groundbreaking English ska act). But it does reflect how hard the two committed to getting Music Tastes Good onto the streets of their hometown.

In a market flooded with festivals —  from established mega-destinations like Coachella and EDC down to neighborhood block parties like Echo Park Rising —  the team behind Music Tastes Good hopes to open up the city as a touring destination in its own right.  They also want to showcase a refreshing local eclecticism that stands out in a festival circuit that seems to draw the same acts everywhere.

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“We didn’t want to just do FYF Long Beach,” Halperin said, referring to the just-completed Goldenvoice event headlined by Kendrick Lamar, LCD Soundsystem and more. “It’s not just indie, it’s not just punk. We want to drive our own niche.”

The fest, which runs Friday night through Sunday on the streets of downtown Long Beach, is Fischel’s longtime passion project, spurred by the tight-knit community of Long Beach bands that, faced with fewer places to play than in neighboring O.C. and L.A., largely took matters into their own hands to make a scene. Fischel and Halperin had earlier said the fest could bring about 20,000 attendees to its grounds, centered on the blocks surrounding the intersection of East Broadway and Linden Avenue. 

Festivals like the late All Tomorrow’s Parties (which once took place on the local landmark Queen Mary) and the popular local record store Fingerprints have earned regional attention. But Music Tastes Good is the biggest bet yet that the local scene has come of age and that fans’ tastes are shifting toward smaller, more manageable fests.

That translates to the lineup, which is certainly one-of-a-kind. The acts cover punk, hip-hop, folk, ska, Latin and electronic. There’s probably no one who is a fan of everything on the bill —  and that’s the point, said Fischel.  “The thing about Long Beach is that everyone goes out to the same places,” he said. “Everyone co-exists.”

At the top of the bill are the Specials, a much-anticipated set from revived hip-hop trio De La Soul, the East L.A. son jarocho band Las Cafeteras, ska-punkers RX Bandits, groovy locals Warpaint and the feathery folk project Iron & Wine. Underneath is a smattering of Long beach acts, many of which have never had a chance to play a stage like this in their hometown.

“For us, it’s a huge chance. It was an honor just to be asked,” said Sarah Green, the singer of the Long Beach rock band Spare Parts for Broken Hearts.

Compared to getting on bills in L.A.’s more cutthroat music scenes, playing a fest like this seemed both achievable and a big step forward. “That’s how the underground scene works here —  there’s no divide, and the scene includes everyone. This is something [Long Beach] has wanted for a long time,” Green said.

For local bands, the effect could be considerable. But for Long Beach as a music town, it may be even more important.

Halperin has made a career of booking underground bands in small cities just outside L.A.’s orbit. He previously booked the Glass House in Pomona and Chain Reaction in Anaheim —  each venue with a history of staying scrappy and self-reliant in the shadow of the L.A. music industry.

But the risks are considerable. The two are throwing the fest without the help of an outside promoter (though KCRW is sponsoring, and the group has received some backing from a longtime friend, John Molina, chief financial officer of Molina Healthcare). SoCal is a boneyard for fests with big ambitions that never found traction, and even big, established fests like Bonnaroo and Sasquatch reportedly saw attendance plummet in 2016.

Yet even with the flood (and failures) of competing music festivals over the last decade, events built around a specific scene or sensibility are still doing well —  just look at fests like Burgerama and Beach Goth next door in O.C. This weekend, another small, curated event, the Desert Stars Festival, will launch in Pioneertown and feature rock acts Dinosaur Jr., Sloan, Sebadoh and more. 

Long Beach no doubt could support something similar with the right mix of acts and accessibility.

“There is talk about the over-saturation of fests,” Fischel said. “But it’s not the numbers, it’s that they all have similar acts.”

There’s also a strong culinary element to the event, with a wide crop of Long Beach restaurants and local farmers setting up shop or opening doors inside the festival grounds.

Is that all enough to make Music Tastes Good a permanent fixture in the SoCal music market? Maybe. But for now, Halperin and Fischel have a pair of new Specials tattoos, and the seventh-biggest city in California has a major local festival that’s truly its own.

“We have so much love for this town, and it’s grown so much,” Fischel said. “We’ve been dreaming of this for years, and this is the time to do it.”

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