The evolution of Treefort: How the beloved local festival rallied Boise towards a cultural renaissance

A close-up of Emma Proulx's guitar while the band Men I Trust performs on the Main Stage of Treefort. Claire Keener | The Arbiter

In March 2012, Treefort made its debut in Boise, Idaho, a community in recovery from an economic recession that skyrocketed the city’s unemployment rate and left small businesses scrambling to stay afloat. 

In the following years, the music festival became a cultural cornerstone for the City of Trees, with resounding economic impact, funneling millions into the local economy before coming to an unexpected halt in 2020 at the height of the festival’s growth. 

With the conclusion of Treefort 10, the future of the festival may feel uncertain after a tumultuous two years fighting against the financial woes of the pandemic. However, the legacy of Treefort is one deeply intertwined with the local community. Just as Treefort played a role in the revitalization of Boise after the 2008 recession, so did Boise in the revitalization of Treefort during the pandemic.

[Concert-goers filled downtown Boise last week as Treefort’s 10th festival returned with few pandemic restrictions and dozens of artists.]
Claire Keener | The Arbiter

The rise of Boise’s music scene: Treefort takes root

The 2008 economic recession wasn’t kind to Boise. Increased financial pressure and limited professional opportunities left many scrambling to make ends meet as the city confronted a rising unemployment rate, reaching its peak in January 2010 at a staggering 10.6%

However, the City of Trees slowly regained its balance, and in the aftermath of the recession, Boise saw the first inklings of an incoming artistic and cultural revolution, including the rise of the city’s music scene. 

Eric Gilbert, co-founder and director of Treefort, moved back to his hometown Boise in 2009 after touring across the country with his band Finn Riggins, playing an estimated 200 shows a year. A seasoned member of the music industry, Gilbert saw potential in the city’s still-budding music scene and became involved in booking shows for bands, beckoning friends he had made while touring with Finn Riggins to visit Idaho’s capital city.

“Prior to the recession, a lot of people were moving to other bigger cities to pursue music,” Gilbert said, “but a lot of us had recommitted to Boise, that maybe it’s a place we could build the type of music scene that we want.” 

 In 2011, Radio Boise hit the airwaves, bringing independent radio to the area for the first time since 1988. Radio Boise’s community-based programming made room for local bands to gain regional exposure like never before. 

However, these positive developments were competing against an issue that had continuously stalled growth in the city’s music scene: the inability to attract touring artists to Boise — an issue that two music lovers, unfamiliar with the music industry, were looking to address.

Future Treefort co-founders Lori Shandro and Drew Lorona were frustrated that their favorite bands never performed in Boise, attributing this issue to the lack of a substantial venue for artists to perform.

Shandro, a music enthusiast, faced unexpected tragedy after her husband died in a plane crash in 2009. Following his death, Shandro was left with extra money which she looked to invest into a meaningful cause. Lorona, also a music lover, was an MBA student at Boise State searching for an internship. Together, they sought to create a business plan for a new music venue in Boise to address the gap they saw in the local music scene.

Then, in the summer of 2011, they met Gilbert — who was also looking to attract more touring bands to Boise. Not long after, Treefort took root. 

“It was a timing thing,” Gilbert said in an interview with Territory Magazine. “Post-recession, RadioBoise on the FM airwaves, a lot of Boise music scene momentum, and more local excitement, in general. It just felt right.”

The inaugural Treefort Music Fest took place in March 2012, hosting 137 bands across 13 venues. The festival was so popular that the first batch of tickets for Treefort 2013 sold out in 17 minutes, well before the next year’s lineup had been announced. 

The beginnings of Boise’s cultural renaissance were now underway. 

For the community: Treefort stays true to its roots

[Built to Spill drummer Teresa Esquerra performs on the Treefort Main Stage.]
Claire Keener | The Arbiter

In the years following Treefort 2012, the festival established itself as a pervasive cultural force in the Boise community and demonstrated sustained success as the number of bands, venues and attendees steadily increased with each passing year. 

Treefort’s connections with the city’s creative sector also grew deeper as the festival expanded beyond music, introducing new “forts” such as Storyfort, Comedyfort and Artfort. 

And it wasn’t just Treefort experiencing this growth. The larger Boise community made gains of its own. In the festival’s seventh year, Treefort brought an estimated $11 million to Boise according to the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau. 

With the festival becoming more profitable each passing year, Treefort looked to reaffirm its commitment to the festival’s foundational values, and in 2015, it became the first music festival in the United States to receive B Corp status — a certification given to businesses that meet high ethical standards regarding social and environmental impact, accountability and transparency.

“After the third year of the festival, we found it necessary to look at our legal entity structure as more than a way to process the finances of the festival,” Shandro said in a Treefort press release. “We felt that we had an opportunity to shine a light on the responsibility any business has to identify and represent its stakeholders, not just its shareholders.”

Treefort lovers from near and far hail the festival’s strong sense of community, and this close-knit atmosphere is no happy accident. Since the beginning, Treefort has stayed true to its community-centric mission.

However, despite the festival’s long-standing popularity, the initial fallout of the coronavirus pandemic left Treefort with an uncertain future after the leadership team postponed the festival’s ninth installment.

But, despite facing financial turmoil of its own, Treefort never backed down from its mission, launching the Treefort Live Music Relief Fund in April 2020 to provide financial assistance for professionals working in the Treasure Valley live music sector, an industry that experienced some of the pandemic’s most devastating effects. During the early months of COVID-19, the unemployment rate for the arts, entertainment and recreation sector spiked from 4.7% to 47.2% between February to April 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Then, when Treefort needed it most, the community returned the favor, with 850 investors raising $337,000 towards the costs of Treefort 9 and 10. Comments left under the festival’s WeFunder page make it clear what inspired this overwhelming display of generosity.

“I believe in the spirit of Treefort,” wrote Andrija Barker. “Not only is the energy around Treefort one-of-a-kind, but it’s also a well designed, curated, community experience that everyone can appreciate in some capacity. I look to invest in great people and stellar ideas. I am all in.”

Fast forward to March 2022, and the festival was in full swing once again, welcoming over 520 artists across 37 states and 19 countries. According to Gilbert, the 2022 lineup featured the largest number of international artists in festival history, a welcome feat after pandemic lockdowns placed restrictions on international travel.

“I think that if something like Treefort didn’t come back, what would that say about the viability of Boise post-pandemic?” Gilbert said. “Not to put too much weight or credit our direction, but I do think it’s fair to point out that it would have been a big message to the community. For me, the creative sector has a very large role in the future of Boise, and maintaining space for it is valuable.” 

[The Regrettes’ frontwoman, Lydia Night, performs at Treefort.]
Corissa Campbell | The Arbiter

Treefort is for everyone: A retrospective on Treefort 10

While Treefort 9 was a notable comeback, Treefort 10 was the festival’s true homecoming. Featuring the largest lineup yet and little-to-no pandemic restrictions, a sense of normalcy washed over Treefort’s little slice of the Linen District and downtown Boise — or at least as normal as Treefort can get.

Treefort Music Fest is a wonderfully bizarre display: a man playing the guitar while speeding along on a skateboard, adults dueling with blue light-up swords, the occasional broken guitar string found along the sidewalk. 

But what is particularly striking about the festival is the diversity of its attendees. For years, Treefort has lived by the motto “Treefort is for everyone,” and one glance at the crowds populating the festival reveals the truth of this adage. At any given concert, festival goers both young and old gathered to listen to the music, some in jeans and a t-shirt and others donning intricate amalgamations of fabrics and patterns.

However, this motto ranges beyond the composition of attendees. Though larger artists make appearances at the festival, Treefort never fails to put Boise’s local talent on display, and even the smallest of venues can feel like the biggest of crowds.

At 9:30 p.m. on a Thursday night, a small audience gathered at the District Coffee House to watch a performance by local musical group Pelicanesis. As band members Grant Meister, Ella Thurston, Ashleigh Cisario and Andrew Hamel began their set, they were met by an exceedingly lively crowd: listeners headbanging on a couch, baristas dancing behind the coffee bar and a mini mosh pit forming halfway through the performance.

“We have a good community that will support each other in the local scene, and that’s kind of what pushed us to get into that scene and start playing shows like this,” said Meister, a first-year environmental studies major at Boise State. 

For bands like Pelicanesis, Treefort is an opportunity to gain exposure within the Boise community and test out their music with a live audience. During their performance, Pelicanesis debuted three new songs, which will be featured on their upcoming EP.

“We are trying to find the right track — the motivation to really work hard the next few months. We’ll see where that takes us,” said Thurson, an EMT and paramedic student at Idaho Medical Academy. 

With Treefort 10 now concluded, the community now looks to the future and what the next 10 years will have in store. Conditions surrounding the festival can be unpredictable at times, as evidenced by the pandemic’s onslaught on the local music scene. 

However, through the highs and lows of the festival, one principle has held true: Treefort is for everyone, and everyone is for Treefort. With the continued support of the community, the festival that Boise has come to know and love can expect to endure, both in sickness and in health.

[A close-up of Emma Proulx’s guitar while the band Men I Trust performs on the Main Stage of Treefort.]
Claire Keener | The Arbiter

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