Music Festivals

How SnowBall Went Downhill

Last week, tickets went on sale for the Minus Zero Festival, which will take place April 2-3 in Winter Park, a mountain music festival featuring the "world's biggest electronic music acts" like Diplo and Kaskade. Upon hearing this announcement, we couldn't help but think of SnowBall, the EDM festival that hopped around the mountains looking for a home before being officially canceled this year. We decided to look back at SnowBall's rise and unraveling, so that future festivals can avoid the same pitfalls.

Since its inception in 2011, SnowBall Music Festival was a hallmark of Colorado music festivals, and came to define what a winter festival should look and feel like. SnowBall recently announced that the 2016 festival has officially been canceled due to an inability to find a permanent home in its natural Rocky Mountain habitat. This news comes after a full year of hopeful waiting by fans, who were looking forward to the potential return of the winter festival. Originally marketed as “the ultimate marriage between mountains and music,” SnowBall aimed to provide an experience that allowed participants to ski the beautiful Colorado Rockies during the day at neighboring resorts and dance the night away with their friends at the festival. Snowball became a smash. Despite the fest's ability to capture the hearts of people from around the country, over time it became mired in a number of different issues that led to its being displaced, downsized and finally canceled altogether. 
"SnowBall Fam —

It is with a heavy heart that we can confirm SnowBall will unfortunately not be returning for 2016. Despite our best efforts and thorough exploration and evaluation of all potential options for a new home, we ultimately did not find a location that we felt perfectly synched with the experience and environment that is central to our festival’s spirit. Per your feedback, creating an authentic SnowBall experience remains our top priority, and until we find our perfect match we will wait to make our triumphant return.

Thank you for your patience as we work towards putting together our best SnowBall yet.
SnowBall spent its first two years in Avon, where a large number of arrests gave the festival a bad reputation among mountain communities. By the end of the second year, 140 arrests were logged for crimes ranging from minors in possession of alcohol and/or marijuana, distribution of narcotics and assaulting an officer. Arrests had more than tripled from the previous year, with 24 police officers, seventeen narcotics officers and eight state liquor agents staffed to work SnowBall. After reviewing these facts, Avon decided not to renew SnowBall's application.

The festival was moved to Winter Park in 2013, and resided there successfully for another year. However, when it came time to resubmit a petition to hold SnowBall in Winter Park, myriad issues prevented it from being approved for 2014. SnowBall was forced to move out of the mountains to Denver rather than face the festival missing a year. Held in the parking lot of Sports Authority Field, the festival drew a decent crowd and had a minimal number of incidents that required police attention, yet the overall consensus from fans was that this incarnation of SnowBall wasn’t in line with the intended experience. Rather than throw an altered version of the festival, an executive decision was made to take 2015 off to recapture the authentic SnowBall experience. 
Must Have Mountains
The first requirement for an authentic SnowBall experience is the surrounding area, the view of Colorado's mountains and at least enough snow for a snowball fight. The landscape is an essential part of SnowBall’s appeal, and showcasing beautiful vistas and snowy backdrops are crucial building blocks. While it still brought out big-name artists and had a fun atmosphere, a large part of the reason that SnowBall at Sports Authority Field wasn’t received as well by fans was because of this lack of snow and natural scenery. A view of downtown Denver is always appreciated; however, all of the concrete and city light was not in keeping with the ambience. SnowBall also had almost no snow in 2013. While the organizers can’t control the weather, they can do their best to place the festival where it will naturally receive the snow it deserves. SnowBall definitely took this to heart when they made the decision to postpone the festival instead of keeping it in an urban setting. Ultimately, the festival must remain in the mountains unless a comparable natural habitat can be found.
A Lack of Resources
Another issue is the location's ability to house the majority of the festival's attendees. Since there can’t be camping at a festival that is held high up in the Rocky Mountains during the middle of winter, SnowBall requires a certain amount of infrastructure to accommodate the massive influx of people visiting the area in order to keep patrons safe and avoid accidents and arrests on the road. Wherever SnowBall or any mountain festival considers settling, it must make sure that there are enough hotel and housing accommodations in the area to lodge festival guests. While there are some mountain towns with the sufficient resources to allow the festival to set up shop, many towns aren’t so keen on welcoming SnowBall or the like because of its soured reputation with permanent residents. 
Difficult Terrain
While the ability to house the vast majority of festival attendees as closely as possible is important, there won’t always be a place to sleep for every single person who wants to come. This means that access to and from the festival needs to remain relatively easy and unencumbered, which is difficult to assure during winter in the mountains. The roads up there can be treacherous, and snowstorms make travel difficult and sometimes impossible. Long commutes also want to be avoided to allow more people to attend and to keep people from traveling under the influence. In order to avoid the increased risk of accidents due to extended travel or bad weather conditions, the festival has to be located in a semi-central spot. This assures that those who aren’t fortunate enough to find a place to sleep close to the festival won’t be cut off from traveling to or from the festival, or be forced to travel through dangerous conditions. 
Police Priorities
If SnowBall is indeed ever to return to its home in the mountains, one of the most crucial aspects will be the interactions and attitudes between the local police and the festival-goers who will be visiting for the weekend. In previous years, police on the scene at SnowBall have taken two different approaches, which garnered different results. In 2012, the Avon police brought in extra officers to help manage the festival, and the result was a huge increase in arrests. The focus for the police was to arrest people for any crime they saw committed, no matter how small. Conversely, the police in Winter Park focused more on assisting with medical emergencies and maintaining safety and security. The festival saw far fewer arrests in 2013 than in  the previous year, though some of those numbers were slightly made up by trips to detox. This adjustment of policy and performance had a major impact in opinion about the festival itself in the minds of officials, making Winter Park's decision to renew SnowBall’s petition a difficult one. Had scheduling conflicts and each of the previously discussed issues not coincided to make the decision for them, it's a fair bet that SnowBall would have returned to Winter Park in 2014.
Hope for the Future
Westword would like to extend well wishes for the future of SnowBall and other mountain festivals, and hope that both fans and mountain towns will be able to come to terms with mutual respect. While it may take longer than expected, there is certainly faith that this fest can be brought back from beyond the brink. Stay positive, SnowBallers — or, well, see you at Minus Zero.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.