How High Water Festival Could Do More for Charleston, SC

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    How High Water Festival Could Do More for Charleston, SC
    Published: May 1, 2024

    Shovels & Rope, curators of High Water Festival. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).

    High Water Festival is the largest music industry event that happens in Charleston, SC each year, by far. In 2024 it attracted 15,000+ people per day to the beautiful Riverfront Park venue, which sits on the banks of the Cooper River, at the edge of the old Navy Yard in North Charleston.

    I remember when the first High Water was announced in 2017. It was a big deal, because Charleston did not have anything remotely close to this type of event at this scale. However, as the event has grown, so has the city, and with growth comes change. In this case, the novelty has worn off, corporate power has gained more influence, and the High Water Festival of today leaves a lot to be desired.

    There are many avenues that I could go down here, but Chelsea at the Post & Courier has already discussed at length the parking situation, liquor issues, and possible theft, and Kate’s writeup on Extra Chill goes in-depth about the music.

    My role is to look closer at High Water Festival as a lens into the music industry and its place in Charleston, SC.

    Beer tent volunteers, notice his “Communities Coming Together” shirt. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    What High Water Gets Right

    Before I dive into my fairly lengthy critique about High Water Festival, I wanted to make sure I mention the things that the festival gets right.

    Bringing Major Artists to Charleston

    One thing that we cannot discount about High Water is how its existence brings top tier artists to Charleston that would not normally stop here on a tour, or at least not very often. Being able to see such a high concentration of high caliber artists back-to-back is pretty great.

    Noah Kahan, one of America’s most famous artists, headlines High Water Festival 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).
    Briston Maroney at High Water 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).

    We have had a long-running problem in Charleston with larger artists skipping our city on tour in favor of larger markets. High Water helps us to mitigate that somewhat, by providing a high capacity venue & audience for these artists.

    Non-Profit Work

    High Water works with several Charleston-based non-profits that do great things for our communities, including Charleston Waterkeeper, Habitat For Humanity, MUSC Arts in Healing, Fresh Future Farm, the Green Heart Project, and Ohm Radio 96.3. The festival provides crucial funding for these non-profits, and provides volunteer opportunities for them to allow people from the community to attend the festival.

    The Venue

    Despite the parking situation being a constant challenge, the venue itself is a nice place to see live music. From the walk through the oaks on the way there, to the views of the Cooper River right beside the stages, and the sunsets. There is a lot of natural beauty to take in, and it makes for a good live music experience, all things considered.

    Cooper River view from High Water 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    The Local Music Scene

    Charleston act Babe Club performs at High Water 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    In a perfect world, Charleston’s local music scene would be just as excited about High Water Fest as the target demographic. In reality, Charleston’s local music scene often has a general feeling of contempt towards High Water Fest. You don’t see much of the scene in attendance, unless they have a really good job, they are friends with the one local band on the lineup, or they get a ticket through volunteering/working at the event.

    There are many possible explanations for this, from exorbitant ticket prices, to lineup dissatisfaction & more, but they all have the same root: High Water Festival does the bare minimum at best for Charleston’s creative communities.

    Jenna Desmond of Charleston’s Babe Club at High Water 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    One Local Band Per Year

    In 2023, we had She Returns From War, and in 2024, we had Babe Club. Some may say, “bUt wHaT aBoUt ShOvElS aNd RoPe?” And my response would be okay, sure, Shovels & Rope count as a local band, too, but they are different because it’s “their” festival.

    Also, let me ask you this question. If High Water Festival is still truly “curated by Shovels & Rope,” then why are Noah Kahan and Hozier each headlining multiple other Live Nation festivals this summer?

    I don’t want to throw shade at Shovels & Rope. I think that having them in our corner is a massive plus for our chances at actually having things change for the better at High Water in the future.

    Cary Ann Hearst of Shovels & Rope performs at High Water Festival 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbony (@sg.mgmt).

    This comes at a time when Charleston’s own creative communities are struggling, with many talented artists choosing to leave town to seek greater opportunities. This is something I wrote about extensively in my SXSW review last month, and continues to apply to High Water.

    High Water Festival is in a position to create real opportunities for local artists, every year. Instead they book one local artist per year, in the worst time slot that exists at the event: the opening act on Sunday.

    Add A Third Stage

    Babe Club at High Water 2024. Only local band on the lineup. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    The two-stage format only leaves room for so much when there are 15,000 tickets to be sold, especially at the prices they’re going for. However, adding a smaller, third stage for up-and-coming artists and locals seems to be a feasible option that would resolve a lot of the local music scene frustrations about this event.

    It could run during the daytime, offering festival-goers an alternative option during some of the afternoon sets. This would give the event a more diverse appeal and distribute a bunch of free tickets around the scene, allowing many more local artists to attend the event.

    With more local creatives who feel like they are involved, this could lead to a plethora of possibilities. Not only will they be present, talking about it positively, but we will also likely see more pop-up events related to High Water Festival in town during the week leading up to the show.

    Such as, local lineup band Babe Club doing their dance party for “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” at Lofi Brewing during the week of High Water.

    Babe Club tossed bedazzled hats into the crowd during their set at High Water 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    Gouging Artists on Merch

    During her set that kicked off the festival, Al Olender apologized to the audience for selling hats for $40 at the merch tent, citing that they had to be that much. She didn’t finish that sentence with the truth, though, which is “because Live Nation is taking 30%.”

    I learned the full story this past Saturday night at the Royal American after talking to another artist who performed at the festival, who told me that they sold all their merch but lost 30% to fees imposed by High Water.

    Babe Club at High Water 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    Live Nation has received a lot of pushback for taking “merch cuts” from artists, and recently vowed to end this at its small clubs. 77 venues classify as “small clubs” out of over 150 that they own, and this clearly does not apply to festivals.

    So, the rising artist who is struggling to make ends meet is just happy to be given the opportunity to perform before a built-in audience, and they keep their mouth shut for fear of being de-platformed.

    Live Nation™ Liquid Death

    Live Nation™ Liquid Death is a steal at $6 per can. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    Have you noticed that Liquid Death canned water is for sale at almost every single festival and music venue that you attend? Did you know that Live Nation owns a stake in Liquid Death?

    This partnership was announced in 2021 under the guise of phasing out single-use plastic at Live Nation events. While this is a true benefit — there are no more single use plastic water bottles at these events — the reality is about profits. The “green” initiative is just a helpful coincidence.

    The truth is that Live Nation purposely makes water hard to find at their events so that people will spend more money on Liquid Death at $6 a can. At High Water Fest 2024, this manifested itself in the fact that there were only two water refill stations accessible to GA ticket holders.

    Planned Water Scarcity

    Braving the heat at High Water 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).

    With 90 degree heat on Saturday, Liquid Death was likely the number one sold product. Especially when you factor in what can only be described as planned water scarcity.

    Let’s take a look at the maps for 2023 and 2024, with GA water refill stations circled in red.

    High Water 2023 Map

    Four water refill stations for general admission.

    2023 festival map.

    High Water 2024 Map

    Two water refill stations for general admission.

    2024 festival map.

    Of course, in the press tent, and backstage for all the artists, there was always plenty of free, ice cold Liquid Death available. This is a given, but for Live Nation, it has the added benefit that nobody with a platform has a personal problem with water availability.

    So, the public just keeps on buying more Live Nation™ Liquid Death.

    Cultural Representation

    High Water Festival 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    Aside from the local music scene, there is a much larger conversation to be had about this festival in terms of how well it serves as a cultural representation of Charleston.

    Not only is the lineup filled with Americana and rock artists that appeal primarily to a white upper-middle class audience, the event itself is cost prohibitive for people who live in the surrounding neighborhood, if they would even want to attend.

    High Water Festival 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).

    Charleston is one of the most historically and culturally rich cities in America. The hope is that High Water, as one of the largest annual events, would seek to represent that aspect of the city, with both the music on the lineup and the choices of vendors & artisans that are featured.

    This aspect of the festival is severely lacking. The lineup in 2023 had the first-ever rapper to perform at High Water, Big Boi of Outkast, which I thought was a step forward, culturally. But, 2024 backtracked and we ended up with a very, very white-appealing lineup.

    Noah Kahan at High Water 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).

    I know that expecting High Water to completely change its lineup direction is not likely to happen. But, there are some things that they can do to vastly improve upon this aspect of the festival.

    Just like booking local artists, inviting local artisans & vendors, like the ones you see at farmer’s markets around Charleston, would enhance every aspect of High Water Festival for all people involved, from the festival planners, to the attendees, and the rest of the people who live here.

    Diversify Refreshment Options

    Wicked Weed was the only craft beer vendor at High Water 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    Wicked Weed, a corporate-owned brewery, was the sole craft beer vendor at High Water Festival 2024. There are more than 30 different independent breweries in Charleston, but instead, the festival featured exclusive pours from one of the biggest players in the country.

    For food, we had a few local options, but again, there was a noted lack of Charleston’s culture available. We had the staples like Roti Rolls and Cosmic Charlie’s, both of whom offered affordable options on their menu ($12, not bad), but there was none of the diverse food that the city is known for.

    Roti Rolls holding it down for the locals at High Water 2024. Photo by Mikayla DiDonato (@mikaylamariefilm).

    Everybody likes hot dogs, burgers, and chicken tenders, sure, but what about some good ‘ole lowcountry boil? A plate of fried shrimp and some hush puppies? Fried cheese grits? The list goes on, of all Charleston-related things that people would love to eat at a music festival, that were not available for purchase at High Water 2024.


    High Water Festival is a staple of the music industry in Charleston, but it also stands as a stark reminder of corporate influence. By infusing more of Charleston to the festival, and taking steps towards greater appreciation of the city’s culture, High Water has the potential to become a beloved event that is embraced by the city of Charleston as a whole, not just those who can afford to buy a ticket.

    High Water Festival 2024. Photo by Sarah Grace Sherbondy (@sg.mgmt).
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