X Games Aspen: How the coolest and coldest of music festivals takes shape
The Aspen TImes
X GAMES MUSIC SCHEDULE
FRIDAY, JAN 25
10 p.m. Lil Wayne at Buttermilk
10 The Chainsmokers at Belly Up
SATURDAY, JAN 26
5 p.m. Louis the Child at Buttermilk
9:30 The Chainsmokers at Buttermilk
10 Lil Wayne at Belly Up
SUNDAY, JAN 27
3 p.m. Kygo at Buttermilk
10 Louis the Child at Belly Up ($195 reserved seats available)
PAST X GAMES HEADLINERS
2015: Chromeo, Skrillex, Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa
2016: Deadmau5, DJ Snake, Kygo, Nas, Run the Jewels, Twenty One Pilots
2017: Bassnectar, Anderson .Paak, The Chainsmokers, G-Eazy
2018: Martin Garrix, Method Man & Redman, LCD Soundsystem, Marshmello
2019: Lil Wayne, The Chainsmokers, Kygo, Louis the Child
X Games Aspen has sold out its entire music festival lineup for the first time since the snow-sports mega-event began hosting concerts in its dedicated 5,000-capacity venue at Buttermilk in 2014.
Running today through Sunday, the shows feature rap legend Lil Wayne and EDM superstars The Chainsmokers, Louis the Child and Kygo.
Music has been an integral part of X Games through its 18 years in Aspen and integrated in the concept since its inception as the summertime Extreme Games in 1995. Previous configurations in Aspen included free concerts downtown in Wagner Park, free but very short, low-production performances on the awards stage at Buttermilk and one year of ticketed shows in Wagner Park. Five years ago, ESPN began building the venue with a full-production music festival stage off of Panda Peak at Buttermilk.
“It’s been a cool evolution,” said Jennifer Rieber, ESPN’s director of music and cultural elements, who has overseen the X Games concerts since 2011. “We, as a team, made a concerted effort that we were going to put our backs into music — we were going to fund it, put resources toward it. We’ve seen it pay off.”
Over the past five years, X Games has booked some of the biggest pop artists of the moment and leaned mostly toward hip-hop and EDM. The ESPN team, Rieber said, doesn’t limit itself by genre, but looks to find whoever the biggest draws and best shows are for the young, action-sports crowd.
“Honestly we’re open to just about everything,” Rieber said. “The booking process is about doing the research, seeing who is touring and who is selling what kind of tickets, but then just asking everybody: Who are people listening to that they love? What live shows have they seen that have blown them away?”
They gather opinions from the ESPN staff and partner with the team at Belly Up Aspen, which also hosts intimate concerts from the X Games artists in its 450-capacity club.
That process has led to some of the most memorable concerts in Aspen in recent years: Twenty One Pilots headlining as the band was cresting as arguably the most popular band in the U.S. in 2016; getting The Chainsmokers in 2017 as they did the same; booking LCD Soundsystem on its momentous “American Dream” reunion tour in 2018; hosting rap legends like Nas, Snoop Dogg, Method Man and Redman.
Along with three of the hottest EDM acts in pop music on this year’s bill, booking Lil Wayne at this moment was a coup for ESPN, coming on the heels of the resurgent rap legend releasing his first album since 2013. Rieber said they sought to book the show before they knew that Lil Wayne would be releasing his long-rumored, long-delayed “Tha Carter V” in September — a week after he was announced as an X Games headliner.
“We just hit miraculously when he was coming out with ‘Tha Carter V,’” Rieber said. “When we first started talking about him, we didn’t know that was the case.”
On ESPN’s X Games preview show last weekend, music host Hannah Rad compared Wayne to an X Games athlete working on a trick for years and then unveiling it under the lights at Buttermilk.
“Where he is right now, after like six years of just teasing it out, is like when you talk to the athletes and they’ve been practicing a trick for so long but haven’t quite nailed it,” she said. “Weezy has nailed that trick this year. He is going to crush it.”
After years of growth since the early 2000s, the national music festival space appears to finally be saturated, evidenced in Colorado by the recent announcements of Denver’s Grandoozy and Velorama festivals both folding after one-year outings.
But the X Games event has boomed in the past five years. Rieber chalked up that success to its relative intimacy, compared to the massive crowds of Lollapalooza or Coachella or Bonnaroo, its one-of-a-kind setting and its positioning at the youthful cross-section of extreme sports and music.
“With the festival landscape being so crowded, it’s hard to stand out and make sure you’re not riding the same wave with everybody else,” Rieber said.
For the artists, X Games Aspen is a unique gig, playing to fevered energy drink-guzzling crowds in the outdoors in January in the mountains. All of the shows have been cold, and all of the artists have commented and joked about the frigid temps. (This weekend, it’s expected to dip as low as 8 degrees during Friday’s Lil Wayne’s set.) But snow has usually held off for the concerts. The exception was a Deadmau5 set in 2016 in an all-out blizzard that’s become the stuff of legend.
“It looked like 7,000 snowmen from behind, it was incredible,” Rieber said.
The prospect of a frosty dance party in the high country, Rieber said, is actually a draw for artists.
“There’s something about braving that weather and bringing the heat yourself that makes this so special,” she said. “How often can you have a massive party on the side of a mountain? It’s pretty unique.”
And, of course, it’s more than a music festival — it’s a sports competition, a TV broadcast, an international multi-platform blitz powered by the muscle of the ESPN brand, a weekend-long destination party for the college set and a multi-generational tradition for Roaring Fork Valley families.
Many of the artists grew up watching the X Games. Lil Wayne is among them, as he explained in a recent “Sportscenter” segment about his skateboarding team.
“First of all, the history of X Games, just being a pure natural fan, being able to say I watched it as a teen and that was before I picked up a board and knew anything about it,” Wayne said. “I actually snowboarded before I ever skated, so I can’t wait to snowboard again and see what I’ve got now.”
Most X Games artists bring a similar enthusiasm.
“We try to work with artists who are familiar and into the vibe and who are into the scene, because we want it to be fun for them,” Rieber said. “We want them to be wowed and have a great time.”
All of the headliners get featured on the ESPN broadcast over the weekend. In recent years, during the Saturday night competitions, one artist has performed live on the X Games broadcast in the superpipe. Last year, there was an unexpected crossover between the concerts and the competitions, as Method Man and Redman were joined by big air skier and Wu-Tang Clan superfan Henrik Harlaut during their halfpipe performance (Harlaut won a big air gold that night wearing a Wu-Tang sweatshirt).
Rieber and her team hunt for artists who are into the idea of performing in the pipe, skiing and snowboarding and digging into the X Games scene. Kygo, the EDM superstar, for instance, is bringing a group of friends out and making a vacation out of the X Games bookended by his shows at Belly Up on Thursday and his closing set at X Games on Sunday.
“We’re not looking for people to come in, play a show and punch out,” Rieber said. “We’ve been lucky to have artists that are excited about the X Games specifically.”
The afternoon shows have typically drawn sparser crowds than the nighttime sets, but apparently not so this year, as Louis the Child has become the first X Games act to sell out the Saturday afternoon concert.
2019’s shows also mark the first time that the festival is bringing back repeat artists, in The Chainsmokers and Kygo.
The Chainsmokers have become regulars here as their star has risen, including their X Games headlining spot in 2017, and frequent stops at Belly Up including a surprise late-night show at the club in June. The ever-prolific duo’s X Games set comes on the heels of last month’s “Sick Boy” album release and the announcement of a new Blink-182 collaboration.
“The Chainsmokers is such a huge production for Saturday night,” Rieber said. “You can’t beat it.”
Kygo headlined in 2016, playing on a sunny afternoon in the same Sunday slot he’s filling this year.
“On a Sunday afternoon, it’s so sweet,” Rieber said “It’s a perfect way to end the event. We really loved it last time.”