The news is not so sweet, nor all that surprising: Sweetlife Festival, the music-and-food bacchanal thrown by salad chain Sweetgreen for six years at Merriweather Post Pavilion, is done.
Sweetgreen co-founder Jonathan Neman told The Post that Sweetlife, which began in 2010 as a small but memorable block party behind its Dupont Circle store, will be returning to its roots in the District. “We wanted to make it more intimate, we wanted to bring it into the city, and we wanted to make it free,” he said. The name, “Sweetlife,” he said, will
The festival, which moved to Merriweather in 2011
, regularly attracted a Pitchfork-approved lineup that included the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Kendrick Lamar, Solange, Haim and the Weeknd. Billed as a music and food festival, it also regularly tweaked its formula. As the District's food scene blossomed, it added buzzier food vendors; later, it swelled from one long day to two , before settling at one day again.
Neman said the return to the city and the block party format is simply another pivot. “We see this as an evolution,” he said.
But the festival has had its fair share of troubles, in part because in recent years it has felt like you couldn't walk past a grassy field without coming across a major music festival. With many artists playing several festivals in a single summer, the competition has grown fierce. The District hosted the first Landmark Music Festival
on the Mall in 2015, with rapper Drake as its headliner; Trillectro, whose organizers savvily booked the likes of Schoolboy Q and Chance the Rapper ahead of their mainstream fame, also set up shop in the District and wooed the cool kids, as did Broccoli City, which this year has booked “Black Beatles” stars Rae Sremmurd and Solange. And for those who prefer the big, bloated Coachella-style getaway, there is Firefly in nearby Delaware, and well, Coachella.
Sweetlife could give its audience
interesting acts, such as Tove Lo and Vince Staples, but in the end, it could not always make 20,000 attendees care about performers spanning such disparate genres. “The lineup was an unimaginative assemblage of Sasquatch-Lollapalooza-Bonnaroo bait,” wrote The Post's pop-music critic Chris Richards in 2015. “The tickets were overpriced. And perhaps to project a little gravitas, the festival itself was foolishly stretched into two long, thin days.”
Sweetlife also seemed to attract crowds young enough that they had to be dropped off by legal guardians. The effect was one of musicians playing to half-present crowds, unfamiliar with such bookings as Billy Idol. Food vendors sometimes were forced to eat losses. “We worried a little about the age set. It tended to skew super-young. They don’t have the same kind of disposable income. For them, it was a … concert with no parental supervision,” said Bettina Stern, co-owner of Chaia, the plant-based fast-casual that sold its tacos at Sweetlife in 2014 and 2015.
Last year, Stern said, vendors were notified that the crowds would be low and that they had the option of bowing out. Chaia opted to skip it, she recalled, adding that Sweetlife itself was a good experience for the business, which was then a farm-market stand. “It was a great setup. It was totally not right for us." (It also didn't help that the festival, which was often held in April or May, seemed a lightning rod for downpours, in some years turning into one giant mud-slick.)
In a statement emailed to The Post, Seth Hurwitz, chairman of I.M.P., which operates Merriweather Post Pavilion, said low ticket sales didn't contribute to the festival's demise.
“The shows always did well…that wasn’t the issue,” he wrote. “These guys have always wanted to do things differently and, when it became apparent that festivals around the country started looking the same, they didn’t want to just be this area's edition of that.”
Sweetgreen, which now operates in seven states and the District, has already experimented with a scaled-back format in Los Angeles, where it hosted an outdoor concert with a much more compact bill: Banks and Alvvays. In Chicago, it hosted an indoor “Sweetlife Session” with Taylor Bennett, who is Chance the Rapper's brother.
The free, outdoor event replacing Sweetlife in D.C. could take place in May or June.