Life Is Beautiful isn’t just another music festival

Life Is Beautiful isn’t just another music festival.

OK, sure, it’s about music, obviously — well, and food and art and learning — but more than that, it’s about reminding folks that life is, well, beautiful.

“I named it Life Is Beautiful because there are so many people who are struggling that need that perspective,” says Rehan Choudhry, who founded the festival in 2013. “I just thought that, like, if you can get people to say those words over and over and over again, people will believe it when they need to.”

When Choudhry left his position as entertainment director at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, he knew he wanted to create something different. “I didn’t want to do just another tried-and-true music event,” he says. By then, he’d developed enough cachet to embark on such an enterprising endeavor, having earned his place with his progressive programming at the Cosmo. The clout he had gained there made it easier for him to approach Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, whom he’d connected with through mutual friends, to present his initial vision.

“I knew I wanted to have a company that focused on these kinds of inspirational impact festivals and events,” Choudhry explains. “I just didn’t know what it looked like until I had some time at home putting pen to paper and designing it.” It took about a month to pull his pitch together, he remembers, and there were three requisites.

“I wanted something that, one, had some sort of meaningful impact for the city that we operate in,” he recalls. “Hence the downtown location: No better way to drive enthusiasm, momentum around a city than actually doing the festival in the city, as opposed to a park somewhere.

“So that was number one,” he continues. “Number two was creating a blend of lifestyle programming. So the collaborations between music, food, art and learning were really important to me, because it kind of touches on conversations that we’re having on a day-to-day basis, just organically, as people. And then the third was, with everything that I do now, I want to create some sort of meaningful societal impact.”

“In the context of Life Is Beautiful, we’re trying to solve hopelessness, to put it as simply as possible,” he goes on to explain. “To the idea that people feel trapped because they are feeling more and more isolated with their social issues — a 13-year-old is struggling with his or her sexuality. Or if it’s a 30-year-old or 50-year-old who went down the wrong career path, or people are getting divorced, or battling addiction, illness, et cetera. We’re trying to encourage people to see the hope and opportunity in life, via kind of shared stories and shared kind of experiences.”

Choudhry’s pitch was clearly convincing, as Hsieh soon signed on as a partner, as did Joey Vanas’ Maktub Marketing, with Aurelian Marketing Group, Choudhry’s company, which has successfully produced two editions of Life Is Beautiful. This weekend marks the third installment of the festival.

“I think that it’s given people in the city something to rally around,” Choudhry gushes. “Festivals are great. I mean, people love them, but a lot of festivals have bad stigmas associated with them, because they’re built around … a lot of them are built around partying for the sake of partying, right? There’s a tremendous amount of risk associated with them. But in our case, we’re such an integral community event, I think that’s really come through to people locally, that we’re actually a part of their city, as opposed to an outside promoter coming in to do an event.”

From doing unconventional things over the years like providing tickets to the entire incoming freshman class at UNLV or taking his whole staff and marching in the pride parade last year and handing out tickets in envelopes scrawled with messages like, “You are beautiful” on them, Choudhry remains committed to making an impact in the community. Plenty of his promoter peers in town have taken note.

“I think it’s great for the community,” says Bobby Reynolds, vice president of booking at AEG Live Las Vegas. “I lived downtown for a good amount of time that I’ve lived in Las Vegas. I love that area. I think it’s a really authentic part of the city. And bringing in a music festival, culinary festival, a celebration of the arts — which I think Life Is Beautiful really is — I think it’s great for the community.”

“I think anytime you can advertise Las Vegas and bring in the amount of people they bring in, I think it’s extremely important,” adds Billy Conn, vice president of entertainment and special events at the Palms. “The more people you can expose to music and to Las Vegas and culturally in downtown, it’s always a positive.”

“I really think when it first started a few years back, I thought it was one of the greatest things the city has ever received or taken on,” says Chas Smith, vice president of entertainment at the Hard Rock Hotel. “You know, we’re the entertainment capital of the world over here, and to do homegrown stuff and really put on a great event really shows that we are still the place to be to come see great entertainment.”

There’s plenty of that to be had this year, with 80 artists on four stages this year (well, 121 on seven, actually, if you count the local stage at Container Park and the two art cars: boombox and wideawake). While that’s certainly an impressive number of acts, it’s about quality, not just quantity, as evidenced by the addition of the Troubadour Stage, which is being curated by the folks at Insomniac and dedicated entirely to dance music.

Choudhry and Insomniac founder Pasquale Rotella have been friends for a while, and since launching Life Is Beautiful, the two have debriefed after each festival, with the former seeking the latter’s input. This year, “it was kind of just a natural fit to bring him in,” Choudhry says.

“And he’s got such a strong command of the EDM world,” Choudhry says of the Electric Daisy Carnival promoter. “He’s got EDM and that experiential element nailed. So the hope is that that partnership, over time, can really enhance the overall experience for our attendees.”

That same sort of focus is dedicated to the performers, particularly the local ones. This year’s installment of Life Is Beautiful will mark the return of a dedicated local music stage, which was offered at the inaugural edition of the festival. The local stage, which will be housed inside Container Park and feature 14 acts, is an aspect of the fest that’s important to Choudhry, emphasizing the homegrown talent and helping create industry exposure for those musicians; it’s something he wished he would have focused on even more intently from the onset.

“I think that’s something the entire city should get more actively involved in,” he says. “That when we have some of these bigger agents and managers in town that we’re actively working to get them to go to local venues to see local shows and interact with local bands. Because that’s how the next Killers and the next Imagine Dragons is going to come out of the city.”

Clearly, Choudhry, who travels to more than a dozen festivals and attends at least 100 concerts a year, and his team put a great deal of care into delivering Life Is Beautiful. “It’s year-round, man,” he says of how much work goes into the festival. “I mean, after the prior year festival, we’ll spend probably three months closing the books and getting the strategy stuff together for the next year. And then you’re in the holidays, so usually around January we’ll start booking again, and we’ll announce dates somewhere in a February time frame, and then we go from there.”

And the whole thing is a collective effort, including choosing the talent. Although Craig Nyman is the festival’s chief curator for music, everybody on the team gives input. “We all contribute,” Choudhry says. “And we all have our own kind of unique perspectives on what we think is going to work, and we build the lineup that way.”

For his part, Nyman has proven proficient at prognostication. “He’s really, really good at picking kind of the next generation breakouts,” Choudhry says. “He’s more dialed in with new music than anyone else I know.”

From the sound of it, you can say the same for Nyman’s counterparts in their respective fields: Charlotte Dutoit of JUSTKIDS, who’s overseeing the street art; John Doffing, who’s curating the Art Motel; culinary coordinator Sandra Mallut, and Catalyst Creative, who’s handling the daily learning programming. Together they collaborate to make something beautiful for the people of Las Vegas — and in a town with endless entertainment options, this is no easy task.

“I learned that this is a tough city to sell tickets in, man,” Choudhry says of some things he’s discovered over the years. “Other cities, there’s obviously competitive events going on, but when you’re in San Francisco for Outside Lands, that’s the only thing anyone’s really talking about. Here, it’s difficult to get that, because at any given moment, Avicii could be at XS, or the Weeknd could be performing at Drai’s, Celine could be making her comeback — there’s so much going on in the entertainment space, it’s sometimes difficult to get people’s attention.”

Just the same, Choudhry says, it’s totally worth all the hard work when you do.

“It’s incredible,” he concludes. “I still get chills when I hear people refer to us on the radio. It’s funny: All of a sudden, very quickly, it went from being an unknown concept — I was like boots on the ground just pitching to everybody — into something that people speak about as if it’s been around for 20 years. So to see the role that it plays in people’s day-to-day conversations is probably the most exciting part about it.”

Read more from Dave Herrera at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at dherrera@reviewjournal.com.

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