Las Vegas has a unique musical history. For decades the casinos on the Strip have hosted some of the biggest names in showbiz, in the most extravagant settings. Musically, Vegas has always meant old-school glitz and glamour, and a certain level of safe palatability.
But as the city’s population has grown, it’s begun to develop a grassroots musical scene that it’s always lacked. One of the key components of it is Life Is Beautiful, which since 2013 has been bringing bands from near and far, as well as tens of thousands of people, to downtown Vegas. In the process it’s helped to turn downtown into as much of a destination as the Strip, and is starting to put Vegas on the musical map in a whole new way. We asked festival co-founder and CEO (and former UNLV outside linebacker) Justin Weniger to tell us how the Vegas music scene has grown.
(As told to Intersect Magazine.)
Long story short I got out of college and started a printing company that was really in the middle of the nightlife industry. There wasn’t social media back then. We weren’t doing email blasts. It was all about street teams and flyering and that sort of thing. It was crazy. The town had grown so fast that we didn’t have a lot of the basic fundamental business to support a musical community. If you were accountable and worked hard you could find success.
The printing company naturally evolved into us publishing a magazine, a glossy monthly nightlife publication called The Night Before. From there we launched a city weekly publication that was 112 pages a week, 65 thousand copies. And there were spinoff websites and things. Somewhere in the middle of that I wanted to go and give back to the community in some way.
At the time, Vegas was going from a tourist town to an actual–I hate to say this–”real city.” We looked at how we could help fuel a sense of community in the city. I grew up in New Jersey, and if the Yankees were in the playoffs and you were walking down the street, it didn’t matter who you were, if someone walked by wearing a Yankee hat you’d say “sup.” There was that thing that bound that community together and Vegas was really lacking that. I went back to UNLV and went back to helping build a sense of community around the athletic department there. We started with basketball, where we got the basketball attendance from four thousand a game to seventeen thousand people a game.
The sex appeal that Vegas has at every turn, you need to do something that separates you from everything else going on. It was the most rewarding and fulfilling thing that I’d done during that chapter of my life, and I just became really, really addicted to it.
Fast forward a couple of years and the next opportunity like that that presented itself was downtown Las Vegas. A guy named Tony Shea who’s the CEO of Zappos.com. In 2009 Zappos sold to Amazon, and at that time they decided that with his personal proceeds of the sale that he was going to build a campus in downtown Las Vegas and invest $350 million in the community surrounding it. My ears really perked up when I heard that. When I was here in college I felt that what we were lacking was an actual community, an urban core that has bars you can actually have a conversation in and coffee shops where you could see an emerging artist or spoken word or whatever. There was no fundamental sense of culture at all.
We raised our hand and asked how we could contribute. I couldn’t write any check that could make a difference compared to a $350 million contribution, but I could do other things that could be helpful. We opened a bar downtown called Commonwealth. Even with the name we wanted people to know it was for the greater good of the community. We realized right away that it was a new experience for people in Vegas to go to a bar downtown rather than a club in a casino with valet and all those things.
It’s been really cool to see. People are actually coming to see us as a music destination. When we were first doing the festival, our biggest challenge was just getting artists to want to come to Vegas. At the time, no one really wanted to play in Vegas. Fans would show up late and leave early because there’s so much else going on.
On any given day, on a Wednesday before Thanksgiving, there’s ten concerts happening. I know that’s probably not too dissimilar from a city like New York or LA. More and more things are happening across the board. There’s always something happening, so if you want to stand out you have to stand out. The things I’ve seen be really successful are the things that lean into purpose and support the community and drive a bigger purpose.
The idea around Life is Beautiful is to create this ideal version to show people what the city could be, even if it was just for three days. What happens if you just inject music and culture and art into the foundation of the community and see what grows from there? How could art create more walkability? How could more walkability create a feeling of safety? Then you start to dive into problems like homelessness and land development. That became my calling, helping to nurture that. Since then downtown Las Vegas has changed. Seven years ago people wouldn’t walk three blocks downtown. Now there are people traveling from all over the world to see the street art that we’ve contributed to the community.
We’ve had bands come out of Vegas before, like the Killers and Panic! at the Disco and Imagine Dragons, but now there’s an actual music scene here. In a lot of ways the Killers created our sound–Seattle had grunge, Nashville has country, but Vegas was a hodgepodge of a bunch of different stuff. Now you’re seeing a lot of younger artists coming up who are modeling themselves after this electro-synth sound.
What’s exciting right now is that as recently as five years ago the only shows that would do well in Vegas were big arena-type acts. Those were the only things people would take a risk on. Emerging acts would literally drive through Vegas because they didn’t have a place to play. Now there’s an underbelly beneath all of the clubs in casinos. You’ve got the Bunkhouse, downtown, which has a 250 capacity, or Sand Dollar Lounge just off the Strip by Chinatown. On any given night you can walk in there and hear a blues band you’ve never heard of absolutely shred. We’re starting to have this kind of scene that honestly never existed here. It’s gone from being driven only by big shows to now having more venues to play, which is bringing more artists in, which is creating more parity between 20 thousand person venues and 200 person venues.
There’s all this crazy stuff happening here, but when you live here it just becomes the norm. The nightlife here isn’t an afterthought anymore. Now it’s a reason people are coming to Vegas.