Where Do We Go Now? Navigating The Crowded Field Of Music Festivals In 2018 And Beyond

Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Coachella

Where Do We Go Now? Navigating The Crowded Field Of Music Festivals In 2018 And Beyond

Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Coachella

Calling the state of the music festival market anything but saturated in 2018 would be either dishonest or disconnected. The optimistic would say the festival market is thriving and profitable enough to attract new entrepreneurs each year. The pessimist would call the festival scene a bloated, hyper-competitive wasteland. The truth is somewhere in between.

A shakeout isn’t just inevitable; it’s already happening. “I tend to think there’s an overcast on the market,” says Dave Brooks, a long-time industry observer, Billboard contributor, and founder of Amplify Media. “Fans have so many options right now.”

Indeed, a person living in or near a major city is probably just a stone’s throw from a major festival. California has Coachella, Outside Lands, and Stagecoach (plus the classic rock one-off Desert Trip). The Northwest has Bumbershoot and Sasquatch. The Midwest has Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, and Rock On The Range. The South has Bonnaroo, Hangout, and Jazz Fest. Florida has Ultra Music Festival and Tortuga Music Festival. The Northeast is blessed — or cursed — with a wealth of options, from Newport Jazz Festival to Governors Ball. The list goes on.

Less-celebrated but popular multi-day festivals dot the country, too. Bunbury Music Festival in Cincinnati hosted Jack White and Post Malone this year. This month, XpoNentional Music Festival outside of Philadelphia will host an eclectic mix with headliners David Byrne and the War On Drugs. There’s a long list of EDM-only festivals around the country: Electric Zoo in New York City; HARD Fest and Nocturnal Wonderland outside Los Angeles; Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas; Ultra Music Festival in Miami; and the long-running Movement Festival in Detroit. And last but not least are hip-hop festivals, filling a void left from Rock The Bells’ departure in 2013. Three-year-old Rolling Loud is expanding from its Miami home base across the country and to Japan. A revived Smokin’ Grooves festival brought Erykah Badu, Miguel, and the Roots to Long Beach. Also in Long Beach, Summertime hosted headliners Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, and the Game.

Are you suffering from information overload yet? Don’t worry. The list will get shorter as time passes. A thinning of the herd is a natural outcome of a crowded market. Any time a successful product creates a new market, profit-seeking competitors follow. Whether the product is frozen yogurt, online food delivery services, or multi-day concerts, the original will end up fighting with latecomers for market share. Eventually, the weakest products and the inefficiently run companies will be pushed out of the market. Economists call the result an equilibrium. The music industry calls it normalcy.

Festivals cancelled just in the last year include FYF Fest in Los Angeles (no word yet about a return in 2019); the one-year-old Lost Lake Festival in Phoenix; Reggae Fest Chicago; and Chicago Open Air Festival. The 17-year-old Sasquatch! Music Festival is on hiatus in 2019. A notable failure is Pemberton Music Festival, a four-day event held in a scenic valley in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. In 2016, Pemberton drew a reported 180,000 fans for performances by luminaries Nine Inch Nail, Pearl Jam, Snoop Dogg, and the Black Keys, plus a suite of up-and-comers and lesser-known talent. Then last year, organizers cancelled the festival and, buried under a debt of nearly $17 million, filed for bankruptcy.

Sadly, some festivals never even get off the ground. The rap-heavy, four-day, overly ambitious XO Festival in Northern California’s East Bay was cancelled just days before its July 12 kickoff. Country musician Sam Hunt was behind the Nashional, an odd mix of country, rock, and hip-hop scheduled for two days in April in Nashville and then cancelled in March. Karoondinha was set to debut near State College, Pennsylvania; organizers booked Chance The Rapper, John Legend, and Odessa but failed to meet their lofty expectations. “There’s an oversaturation of festivals all over the country,” Kaleena Rallis, the inexperienced Karoondinha co-founder, told Billboard after the cancellation — although there’s evidence the event was mismanaged. The most infamous of the losers is the Fyre Festival, billed as a luxury experience at the Exuma Cayes in the Bahamas. Incompetence, not market conditions, downed Fyre Festival, however. Co-producer Billy McFarland has pleaded guilty to misleading investors and committing wire fraud; he will be sentenced later this month.

Of course, not all failed festivals suffer from poor execution. Goldenvoice, a veteran company owned by AEG Live, the second-largest concert promoter behind Live Nation, promoted and then cancelled FYF Fest. Programming may have been the cause: headers Janet Jackson and Florence And The Machine were supported by My Bloody Valentine, St. Vincent, the Breeders, the xx, and a dozen or so other indie artists. The cancelled Lost Lake Festival’s co-promoter, the well established Superfly Productions, is behind two significant brands, Bonnaroo and Outside Lands in San Francisco. The inexperience of the Karoondinha founders is an understandable reason for cancellation. Goldenvoice and Superfly are great promoters whose faults are operating in an inherently risky business. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

Here’s where things get murky, though. Overcrowding might cause a festival to affect another festival. Or maybe not. One might say Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Kentucky has eroded Bonnaroo’s attendance. However, both festivals have the same promoter, Knoxville, Tennessee-based AC Entertainment. After a decade of growth from a small gathering in 2002, Forecastle brought on AC as a co-producer in 2011. And it might appear Atlanta’s SweetWater 420 is competing with Shakey Knees because they occur a month apart — except they both have the same founder and promoter. Nevertheless, competitive forces clearly exist and promoters are picking their bets based on geography. For example, Goldenvoice, the Southern California music promoter owned by AEG Presents and Live Nation’s largest competitor, entered into a joint venture with Hangout’s owners in 2015. It’s difficult to imagine Hangout, with stages placed directly on Gulf Shores’ beautiful beaches, hasn’t lured some fans that would have otherwise attended Bonnaroo.

Now, one could argue, “Yes, well the best festivals are still around.” That’s true. But given the glut of festivals, even a brand name can feel the effects of newcomers. Consider the situation of Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, located an hour southeast of Nashville. Held in early June, Bonnaroo was a trailblazer when it launched in 2002 by AC Entertainment and Superfly Productions. Over the next few years, critics hailed Bonnaroo as a cultural touchstone and one of America’s top music festivals. Needless to say, it was the place to be in early June. In its formative years, Bonnaroo skewed heavily toward rock and jam band acts like Widespread Panic and Trey Anastasio. Over the years, organizers booked more rock and hip-hop artists while adding the occasional legend like Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen. Ticket sales peaked at 85,000 in 2011 when Arcade Fire, Lil Wayne, and Eminem appeared. As fans tastes changed, Bonnaroo updated the programming by adding EDM. This year, Bassnectar stood near the top of the bill.

But before long, music festivals were popping up throughout the Southeast. A handful of festivals have risen to prominence in Atlanta, a few hours from the Bonnaroo site in Manchester, Tennessee. The jam band-heavy SweetWater 420 Fest has grown from beginnings in 2005 to become a well-attended three-day event in late April. The Shakey Knees Music Festival launched in 2012 to serve indie music fans in early May; the EDM-focused Shakey Beats Music Festival occurs the following weekend. Also in Atlanta is Music Midtown, awoken from a ten-year slumber in 2012, in September. Down the road in Gulf Shores, Alabama, Hangout offers a diverse crop of favorite artists to its three-day concert on the beach. “Our biggest challenge, more or less, is the fact that there’s so much competition out there right now,” Jeff Cuellar, VP of strategic partnerships for AC Entertainment and Bonnaroo’s director of community relations, told Business Insider earlier this year.

It seems self-evident that the glut of these festivals has a detrimental effect on many of them. Fans who used to drive to Tennessee from the Midwest or Northeast have many options. Red Frog Events and Goldenvoice have their six-year-old Firefly Music Festival in Dover, Delaware, held the same week as Bonnaroo. Firefly mimics Bonnaroo’s camping culture and hosts major artists that also play Bonnaroo and Hangout festivals. It’s probably no coincidence that Bonnaroo’s ticket sales dropped to roughly 45,000 in 2016 before rebounding to “more than 65,000″ in 2017, according to a report. As for 2018 ticket sales, Live Nation told Stereogum it does not release attendance figures. The Tennessean legally obtained the official attendance figures mentioned here through a Freedom Of Information request to the county where Bonnaroo is located.

As late-1800s baseball player Willie Keeler said, “hit it where they ain’t.” Not every music fan wants the same experience. As such, a new festival might be better off taking a different route. The Pilgrimage Festival, in Franklin, Tennessee, a suburb of Nashville roughly 40 miles north of the Bonnaroo site, has aimed for a different type of music fan. Co-founder Kevin Griffin likens Pilgrimage to the successful BottleRock Napa, a three-day fusion of music, food, and the wine in the heart of Northern California’s wine country. Griffin, the singer for rock band Better Than Ezra, and his partners knew they couldn’t compete with the region’s established festivals. “There’s a lane here. It’s hard to sustain a mega-fest with huge budgets and keep the kids coming out,” he says.

So Pilgrimage aims for the 38-to-41-year-old crowd. It offers VIP tiers that include food from local restaurants — including Blackberry Farm, a luxury resort in the Smokey Mountains — and caps attendance at 27,000. Kids are welcome, too. “Bonnaroo is massive, I love it, but I’m a guy in his mid-40s with kids. I love great food and great wine,” Griffin explains. Pilgrimage also takes place in September, when the weather is cooler, and ends early in the evening.

The trick is anticipating what music fans want and creating a unique personality. Pilgrimage, BottleRock, and Arroyo Seco in Pasadena, California (outside Los Angeles) recognize that a person’s tastes and lifestyles change over time. A 45-year-old Pilgrimage attendee was around 20 years old when the first Lollapalooza toured the United States and about 30 when Bonnaroo debuted. Dave Graham, a BottleRock co-owner, saw potential in the millions of people who visit wine country north of San Francisco. “When we took over the festival we didn’t want to be the cool, edgy festival,” he told Amplify last year. “It wasn’t needed. We were business guys looking for an unmet customer need.” For its Grandoozy festival, set to debut in September, Superfly is capturing Denver’s culture with local chefs, beermakers, and craft distillers.

Changing musical tastes are a factor in the shifting landscape. For example, the major festivals have noticeably downgraded indie rock. “My gut — reinforced by riding a commuter train the weekend of Governors Ball — is that festival audience is high school young, and EDM and hip-hop appeal to that audience,” says veteran reporter and current host of the Inside The Studio podcast Joe Levy. Amplify’s Brooks agrees. “I’ve noticed that the crowd aren’t showing up for the rock bands. They’re showing up for hip-hop,” he says. “Beyonce was a huge hit at Coachella. Besides her, Post Malone drew a much bigger crowd than, say, St. Vincent. Hip-hop is where a lot of the energy is right now. You see that with EDM. Insomniac and [EDM promoter] LiveStyle festivals, they’re also getting into adding more hip-hop.”

The way people listen to music has also changed festival lineups. Young fans — the average age at most festivals appears to be 20, Brooks estimates — are fluid across genres. EDM and hip-hop artists, but typically not rock bands, maintain visibility by releasing a steady stream of music; the tools to create music on computers allow some genres to churn out music without the need to find a studio, set up instruments, and record multiple takes. Hip-hop artists live in a world where SoundCloud can help launch a career and land a recording contract. Once signed to a label, tracks get released at a measured cadence to streaming services like Spotify. As a result, an EDM or hip-hop artist can have a different song on the most popular playlists at any given time. They’re never not releasing music and taking advantage of fans’ habitual social media usage. “If you’ve been out [and] have not been actively putting out music for three or four years, I’m scared shitless nobody fucking remembers,” said a major festival’s talent buyer.

In spite of the bleak landscape, the festivals with best experiences, unique culture, and top-self organizers are probably going to survive. Bonnaroo has powerful Live Nation to help run and book talent. It has a distinct, somewhat hippie culture that feels like a welcoming community. And it’s one of the rare festivals where a person can escape everyday life and feel refreshed — even if the weather is unbearably hot and humid. The same goes for Lollapalooza, Coachella, Hangout, and the often-surreal Electric Forest in Central Michigan. Moreover, granddaddies like Austin City Limits and South By Southwest aren’t going anywhere. But rest assured, once the festival market settles down, entrepreneurial promoters will see openings and start the cycle again.

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