Ten years ago, as Coachella was on the verge of becoming internationally known, Tommy Dietrick had plans to create an event of his own, but on a much smaller scale. He quickly learned how difficult planning—in particular, booking—an event could be, especially since he had a narrow but distinct vision for Desert Stars.
"Back then, it was just friends putting on this event," he says of attracting acts to perform. "What's been cool has been getting over this initial challenge of being taken seriously by the bigger booking agents and managers, too. Now we get those people, even though we're still small."
Some say Desert Stars was one of the first festivals to focus on just one genre instead of stretching itself in order to attract a more mainstream audience. And as he builds the event's legacy, Dietrick is proud of keeping the same DIY ethos, though corporate sponsors have come calling. He says he has rejected overtures from large-scale companies "lining our purse strings" that would try to exert influence over the festival. "It's literally the will of our fans that have allowed us to succeed for this long," he says. "I've turned down multiple offers in the tens of thousands of dollars."
Dietrick's upstart festival had to earn the trust and respect of bands and agents in order for it to attract the likes of this year's headliners, Dinosaur Jr., . . . Trail of the Dead and Sebadoh. Even with those bigger names, Dietrick remains steadfast about keeping the ticket prices low. "When I was a kid, I couldn't afford Coachella-type prices," he explains. "But what we're doing is not only putting on a first-rate event, but also trying to not make it so exclusive that people can't afford to come. It's challenging to remain small, in a sense."
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Though he doesn't have to rely on favors as much on a smaller scale—such as when booking bands—it's still a challenge for Dietrick to pull off an event as seamlessly as he has in the eight previous incarnations. (The festival took a year off in 2012 because of Dietrick's touring schedule; he plays in Sky Parade and participates in other projects.) This is the first year he didn't have to rely on Kickstarter to raise funds for Desert Stars, as a high ticket demand allowed the event to move forward quickly and add bands such as 1960s psych rockers Strawberry Alarm Clock to the bill.
Building up the trust and credibility with fans is what has allowed Desert Stars to succeed where other micro festivals don't. "It's sheer will that makes this happen," Dietrick says. "It's also about being smart and savvy and having the right attitude. . . . This festival isn't intended to ever be a big festival. . . . We have Bonnaroo and Coachella already. Personally, I really enjoy being able to put on an event and pretty much know everyone. This has been my passion project for more than a decade, and since I make my money as a musician and a producer, this event is really meant to be something special."
Desert Stars, featuring Dinosaur Jr., . . . Trail of Dead, Sebadoh and more, at Pappy & Harriet's, 53688 Pioneer Town Rd., Pioneertown, (760) 365-5956; www.desertstarsfestival.com. Sat.-Sun. Gates open, noon. One-day pass, $65; weekend pass, $125; camping, $20. All ages.