January’s music news has been dominated by music festival lineups.
Coachella takes place over two weekends, April 15-24, and is headlined by LCD Soundsystem, millionaire DJ Calvin Harris and a reunited Guns N’ Roses. Bottlerock takes place May 27-29 and features headlining acts Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stevie Wonder and Florence + the Machine. Tickets for both are on sale now.
“That’s the trend. These festivals are announcing earlier and earlier,” says Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief for the trade publication Pollstar.
When Pollstar started releasing its annual music festival calendar, it was published in March and reporters had trouble just confirming dates, Bongiovanni says. The Global Festival & Events Calendar for 2016 was released in December and lists close to 1,900 major festivals in 74 countries.
Large-scale music events are a tradition in Europe, Bongiovanni says. Historically, there has been a lack of large, modern arenas where bands could play. If organizers wanted to host a multi-act all-day concert, it had to be outdoors, in the summer when the weather was nice.
We’re finally catching up, it seems.
Indeed, the festival circuit has become essential to succeeding in the music industry, says Mathr de León, a musician and one of the organizers of Fresno’s Catacomb Party music festival.
“I can’t think of a single successful independent artist to emerge in the last decade that hasn’t found a way to make the most of this part of the business,” he says.
Festivals such as SXSW in Austin and the CMJ Music Marathon in New York are hype machines that offer networking opportunities and the chance of being discovered by national audiences. Others are simply a way to offset the cost of touring, de León says, though many artists are now routing entire tours based entirely on festival performances.
“Festivals are a must,” says Aren Hekimian, who manages Fresno rapper Fashawn and is an organizer with Grizzly Fest, which returns to Fresno on May 7.
“You are exposed to a lot of music lovers who may or may not know who you are. So it’s a great opportunity to expand your following,” he says.
Fashawn has played in more than 40 festivals, including Rock the Bells – at the time the largest hip-hop festival in the world, Hekimian says.
“If the market can sustain a $75-$100-plus ticket price, then there’s no better music experience than a festival,” Hekimian says.
Even so-called legacy artists like Paul McCartney see festivals as a way to engage new (often younger) fans who would never spend $100-plus to see them on tour but might be interested as in a festival setting.
For promoters, staging a festival is a great risk that offers great rewards.
“A successful mega-fest promoter can make much more money executing a single festival than a hard-working small venue promoter doing two hundred shows in a year,” says Aaron Gomes, a Visalia promoter who runs the Tastemakers Music and Arts Festival. “When tens, or hundreds, of thousands of people come together for a festival, large corporate entities want to wave their advertising flag and expose the consumer to their products. This sponsorship money is what drives the success of the mega-festival. Big promoters in major cities are working with huge sponsor dollars to make the modern-day festivals happen. The big ones are cash cows.”
This puts the squeeze on smaller, independent festivals that are not backed by corporate sponsors, Gomes says.
“Bands now expect much more money to play anything billed as a ‘festival,’ ” he says.
Ironically, the biggest festivals are beyond relying on individual bands to sell tickets.
Coachella made headlines and history by booking Guns N’ Roses. But it didn’t need the band.
Indeed, the festival sold out its advance tickets before any of the talent was announced.
“Coachella is a modern marvel of social engineering,” de Leon says. No one really needs to see an artist like Perry Farrell again. Yet Coachella could put him on the bill and advance tickets would sell out a year in advance.
“Actually, there might be something to that. Note to self: Get Perry Farrell,” he says.
It should be noted that most festivals lose money over the first three years. That includes Coachella and Bottlerock, Bongiovanni.
The ones that survive play on the customer experience.
The Hangout Music Festival in Alabama, for example, is essentially a beach party. The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival is set up for camping in the mud of rural Tennessee. It’s dirty, but people know that and expect it. It’s part of the experience.
“When you examine the largest festivals (Glastonbury, Tomorrowland), their success is preceded by their unwavering attention to the user experience,” de Leon says. “Deep down, most people are born with an inherent desire to feel connected; to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Given that, I think it’s safe to say kids will likely be swapping festival stories for generations to come.”