Why the Summer Music Festival Bubble is About to Burst

Grayson Haver Currin

By Grayson Haver Currin

Contributor
on 08.05.14 in Features

Ali Hedrick seems surprised by the extent of the festival database she keeps. An agent for nearly two decades at Billions, one of the country’s highest-profile booking agencies for what might very broadly be termed independent music, Hedrick helps compile an annual, ever-evolving list of North American fests. The events are tiered, she explains, based on the potential capacity of each and the Billions acts they might be able to afford.

And right now, she’s simply trying to reach the bottom of the list.

“Hold on, I’m scrolling through it,” she says. She pauses for five seconds and slows her words, as though reading from a broken teleprompter.

“For just North America…I’m still scrolling.” She stops, pausing longer this time. “Let me see here. For just North America, we have a list of 847 different festivals.”

The index is so exhaustive and exhausting that a team of interns works to build it each year, updating festival dates and adding each new event that a presenter can conjure.

‘During the last dozen years, music festivals in North America have undergone a total transformation that’s not only overhauled the concert business but also altered philosophies on record releases, promotional strategies and advertising-and-branding approaches at large.’

After stints as an upstart band manager, club talent buyer and record label intern, Hedrick arrived at Billions in 1995, only six years after the company began in Chicago. Billions now has six offices across North America and a sister company in Australia. With a roster of more than 200 acts, Billions books some of the most notable bands in indie rock — Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, Vampire Weekend and St. Vincent, to name a few. Hedrick personally handles more than three dozen of those, including the New Pornographers and Neko Case, Sufjan Stevens and Shearwater. For each of those acts, she says, what’s inside that festival database is paramount to how they structure their years. Bands build tours around the high paydays of festivals, and they schedule album releases around the most conspicuous appearances.

When Hedrick first became a Billions agent, she says, she would have never predicted this festival phenomenon. But now, the trend constitutes a major part of her business.

“When I started booking bands, the Internet wasn’t even invented yet,” she says, laughing at her own hyperbole. “I didn’t have an email address or an internet connection. Everything was done by the phone, fax and pagers. Zero of my bands played festivals.”

And now, of course, they all depend on it.

During the last dozen years, music festivals in North America have undergone a total transformation that’s not only overhauled the concert business but also altered philosophies on record releases, promotional strategies and advertising-and-branding approaches at large. These events have metastasized from enormous gatherings of tens of thousands of people near major markets — the giants of the festival world — into a battalion of smaller, no-less-ambitious events in cities across the country — the new Meltasia between Atlanta and Nashville, the small-but-intriguing Basilica Sound Scape in upstate New York, or Hopscotch, a Raleigh festival that I helped to build and co-directed for four years until resigning earlier this year. But there are signs that the exponential curve of festival growth is a path to an unsustainable scenario, where too many festivals overshoot talent costs and overrun the ability of fans to buy tickets at all.

Just how much can the American festival circuit continue to swell before that bubble bursts, if it does at all?

“It’s an economics question. Especially in the United States, when anyone has any success, a million people come in and copy it and do it again,” says Todd Cote, a longtime booking agent in San Francisco who handles bands such as Swans and the Dodos. “How many energy drinks do we need? Once there’s an established new way to make a profit, people mimic it. And then they overload the system.”


‘In 2013, six of the top 10 grossing festivals in the world were American events, all established in the last 15 years.’

For decades, the American image of rock festivals was limited to the naked, stoned and dangerous events of a very brief period in the late ’60s. Fantasy Fair and Monterey International Pop in 1967, Newport Pop in 1968 and Newport Jazz in 1969, Woodstock and Altamont at the edge of the ’70s: Those gatherings of hundreds of thousands of Baby Boomers were considered the crest of Americans going outside for music. Especially through the ’90s, amphitheaters ruled the outdoor concert market, with bands on tour commanding crowds of 20,000 or so every summer.

Festivals were considered passé at worst, something that simply happened in Europe at best. Across the Atlantic, entire regions compensated for a lack of venue infrastructure by loading fields with bands and fans and having a party. In America, though, festivals remained a function of the niche communities of jam bands and their ilk, high-profile promotional stunts for large companies, large-scale industry gatherings such as South by Southwest, or quick ways to lose a lot of money. The stars of roving national festivals like Lollapalooza and H.O.R.D.E. rose and, in a matter of just a few years, fell. One-off spectacles like Woodstock ’94 and the Tibetan Freedom Concert remain memorable in part because they were largely unparalleled during their own time.

More or less, recurring rock festivals in America just didn’t exist. “When we first did Bonnaroo, the conventional wisdom was that this was not a good idea. We were met with some combination of horror, amusement and disbelief,” explains Ashley Capps, a cofounder of Bonnaroo and the president of Knoxville, Tennessee, company AC Entertainment.

Capps had been booking clubs, theaters, arenas and small outdoor events in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina for more than two decades before the idea of Bonnaroo seemed feasible. At first, it didn’t.

Pitchfork Music Festival

Photo by Andrew Parks for WS

“The overwhelming success of the first Bonnaroo took us all by surprise,” he says.

Indeed, around the turn of the millennium, a spree of massive stateside festivals — Austin City Limits, Bonnaroo, Coachella, Sasquatch, Ultra — proved that the idea of thousands of fans gathering for several days to sample hundreds of bands could turn major profits. Those spectacles have continued to generate increased momentum. In 2013, six of the top 10 grossing festivals in the world were American events, all established in the last 15 years. At No. 10, Sasquatch earned more than $9 million; at the top of the list, Coachella broke $67 million.

A month after Coachella 2011, producers actually announced that, beginning in 2012, their three days in the desert would expand to two identical, consecutive weekends. This year, according to Billboard, the strategy smashed their previous gross profit records, generating more than $78 million from nearly 600,000 attendees.

‘Though sales of recorded music have slumped during the last dozen years, there’s been a sort of festival gold rush during that same period.’

The reasons for this growth are both speculative and myriad: Thanks to easy online distribution and promotion of music, an upstart act can find an international audience with as little as one song to their credit. Festivals aggregate such acts, one booking agent told me, to create a sampler that reflects digital patterns of consumption. Capps himself says that music fans seem a bit bored with plug-and-play concerts in clubs; they want a social experience. Meanwhile, sponsor dollars have shifted toward already-engaged audiences, the kinds that arrive at weekend-long festivals, money in hand.

Whatever the causes, the symptom is clear.

“The festival business has continued to grow in importance,” explains Gary Bongiovanni, the founder of Pollstar, a concert-industry-data aggregator and analyzer. “And it probably continues to represent the best value for music fans.”

Though sales of recorded music have slumped during the last dozen years, there’s been a sort of festival gold rush during that same period. Last year, Billboard reported that, in 2013, promoters had launched the most new festivals ever. They proclaimed that many of them would fail in a tide of Darwinian selection. This year’s Global Festival Events Calendar, an annual Pollstar publication, offered listings for more than 1,200 events in 70 countries. It’s an overwhelming register, a list so long that you’re prone to find an event you didn’t know existed in a region you’ve called home your entire life. Still, the guide is incomplete, admits Bongiovanni, a testimonial to the sheer volume and steady growth of the industry.

“It comes out in December,” says Bongiovanni, “but even at that early date, if you look at the stuff that’s scheduled for the July or August weekends, you’d be hard-pressed to find a weekend where there aren’t 10 major festivals.”

That decade-plus of festival growth suggests this might be America’s new musical manifest destiny, where 3 million-plus square miles serve as an incubator for throngs of weekend listeners. But there’s more resource competition than simply finding an open public square or club network on some sunny weekend.

“Everyone is pulling from the same talent,” Bongiovanni continues. “And that is the problem: Everyone is chasing the same pool of talent, not just in the United States but globally. If they’re playing Yugoslavia, they’re not available in Arizona.”

‘For a festival to land a good lineup and make a grand public statement, they have to get in early, even if doing so gets expensive. Booking music festivals can become a sort of silent bidding war, where interested parties enter early and increase often.’

That’s where the trouble starts. With so many festivals pressing to book similar bands within a finite timeframe, many acts are able to command a higher price than they’d generally get for playing the same market. That is, they cost more than they’re worth. These higher numbers are a primary reason festivals have become such a boon for touring bands: They can use the high payout of one massive outdoor event — bolstered by sponsors and dozens of other bands that help move more tickets — to offset the costs of a larger tour. Or they’ll simply fly in for a few dates and a relatively large payoff.

Large festivals, Hedrick explains, begin booking their acts for the next year the weekend after the event concludes. Those festivals must compete with free municipal events — parties in public squares, concert series in parks and the like — for the same talent. Agents tend to give such festivals price quotes that presume a band’s appearance will be a one-off, a factor that multiplies the cost several times. For a festival to land a good lineup and make a grand public statement, they have to get in early, even if doing so gets expensive. Booking music festivals can become a sort of silent bidding war, where interested parties enter early and increase often.

“I have to quote money based on everything being a fly-in. If you have 12 people touring with a band, you have to say that’s three full days of salary for 12 people to come into your city,” Hedrick says. “You’re going to have maybe $25,000 extra just because it’s a one-off. But for the festival, it’s an investment in selling tickets.”

And talent is only the most obvious line item of festival expense sheets that can grow incredibly long. Festivals pay for venues and grounds, amplifiers and transportation, lighting and sound, security and sanitation.

There are fewer ways to make the ends meet, though, as most music festivals depend only on two major revenue streams: ticket and sponsorship sales. People pay to see bands or, many experts agree, experience the “festival atmosphere,” while companies pay to associate their brand with (and expose their brand to) cool kids with disposable income and cultural cachet.

Most events have found ancillary streams of income to bolster their budgets, whether that means incorporating options for cosmopolitan camping, or “glamping,” at rural festivals, well-appointed VIP tents or, more simply, festival merchandise and beer sales. Some festivals benefit from municipal or arts grants, too. After a four-year break, for instance, Knoxville’s Big Ears festival returned in March with the help of a long-term grant from the Aslan Foundation, a group with assets of nearly $100 million that is “focused on preserving and enhancing the natural beauty, assets and history of the Knoxville area.” Their $300,000 contribution to Big Ears this year helped to not only revive the festival but boost it into the black for the first time.

‘Still, as the festival numbers grow, they begin vying for those limited income sources. The overwhelming-and-still-climbing festival ranks suggest a bubble swelling to ominous proportions.’

Still, as the festival numbers grow, they begin vying for those limited income sources. The overwhelming-and-still-climbing festival ranks suggest a bubble swelling to ominous proportions.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, the MidPoint Music Festival has drawn largely major local sponsors — this year, a regional pizza chain and Bioré, a Japanese-owned cosmetics company with a significant Ohio manufacturing presence. But executive producer Dan McCabe says that this is a luxury for his festival that most others don’t have. Other events must build the backbone of their budget by pleading with out-of-town companies, arguing that their festival experience offers the best boost for the brand — in exchange for lots of money, of course.

Finding those funds, McCabe says, is largely possible because of shifts in marketing. Companies from Scion and Mountain Dew to Tylenol and Nike now pay to be positioned with bands; they become smart curators commissioning edgy art (in the instances when they book their own festivals or run their own labels, like Mountain Dew’s Green Label Sound) or cash-flush corporations helping to pay for as much (like when they sponsor entire stages at most every festival you can name).

Music festivals — essentially, a mass of young people who have paid to be in a certain place — offer hotbeds for putting that strategy to work. It’s called experiential marketing, which takes a brand’s logo off of festival posters and banners and puts the product in front of a captive crowd. Representatives rove festival grounds, passing out samples. Companies spend money on infrastructure, production, drinks, talent and more to create miniature villages, filled with their goods. At festivals across the world, attendees take photos in front of company-branded backdrops and tag them on social media for the chance to win some low-investment contest. According to AdAge, budgets for such experiential marketing rose as much as 10 percent in the last year alone.

“Festivals are able to pop up everywhere because brands are becoming more integrated with music. It is a way to carry the brand,” says McCabe. “And they’re becoming more savvy in activating experiential marketing. As opposed to when I started knocking on doors in 2008, they have budgets specifically for that [now]. It makes it easier to start.”

But those dollars aren’t endless. “Competing for those sponsor dollars is either first or second in what you’re going for,” McCabe continues. “There’s talent to go around, but getting your foot in the door with their sponsors and trying to get them to spend their money with you is a competition.”

‘The supply of festivals is at an all-time high, but no one knows if that’s necessarily true of demand. If demand hasn’t actually increased, higher ticket prices violate one of the most elementary rules of economics.’

That’s not the only competition that an increase in festival density entails. For these events to succeed, attendees must be able to afford the tickets. An increase in the number of festivals doesn’t necessarily equate to an increase in the amount the average person can allocate to attend those festivals, many of whose prices continue to climb as bookings agents fight for a critical mass of bands. Pushing for more impressive and expensive lineups means charging consumers more.

Doing so represents the potential breaking point for the entire festival model. The supply of festivals is at an all-time high, but no one knows if that’s necessarily true of demand. If demand hasn’t actually increased, higher ticket prices violate one of the most elementary rules of economics.

Andrew Morgan, who books artists such as Angel Olsen and Sleep from Billions’ Chicago office, is not sure how soon we’ll locate the festival bubble, or if it even exists. But there’s no quicker way to find out, he insists, than to perpetuate a cycle of one-upmanship that attaches ticket prices to a rocket.

“There will eventually be too many festivals for any given market to sustain, because there aren’t that many people with that much disposable income. There are only so many $300 festivals that people can go to, if any at all,” Morgan says. “That might be the thing that eventually breaks the camel’s back — not too many festivals, but too many festivals that are too expensive for a demographic. As soon as it starts happening, it sours ticket buyers, and it sours artists. That’s it.”


One way forward might be to lower or localize expectations, or to realize that every new event will not be the next Coachella or even the next Fun Fun Fest. Seth Fein, for instance, launched the Pygmalion Music Festival in the student-heavy, central Illinois region of Champaign-Urbana a decade ago. He had attended AthFest — a locally focused nonprofit event in Athens, Georgia — to see one of his clients, the surly post-rock group Maserati. He’d grown up in Champaign-Urbana, idolizing both its past and present music scenes, from Braid and Irving Azoff to Hum and Headlights. A small-scale festival, he reckoned, was a logical extension.

He hadn’t actually been to a major music festival since Lollapalooza a decade earlier, but how hard could it be?

“My goal was to do something that Champaign-Urbana as a community would be excited about,” he explains. “I worked with eight different venues in town putting on shows, and I thought I could put shows in each of those venues and curate it the best I could. Hopefully, the people in Champaign-Urbana would be happy about that.”

In the decade since, that simple approach has worked. Pygmalion has proven to be humbly sustainable, with a small but strong lineup that points to Fein’s personality without aggrandizing it. On both the map and the calendar, much larger festivals surround Pygmalion. Forecastle is only four hours to the southeast, while Midpoint occurs the same weekend as Pygmalion, just three hours due east. Two hours to the north, in Chicago, there’s Pitchfork and Lollapalooza, Riot Fest and the Hide Out Block Party. But Fein tries not to worry about the moves they’re making — the million-dollar headliners, the Outkast reunions, the Ferris wheels.

“I do my best to remind myself that my only real goal is to put on the best possible festival for Champaign-Urbana within the structure of what I can afford. It’s in the discussion of festivals, but it’s also in Champaign, Illinois,” he says. “For better or worse, I’m in a position where I don’t have to work to have a better lineup than Pitchfork or Riot Fest. I’m not going to get a Ferris wheel. I don’t even know where I’d go to get a fucking Ferris wheel.”

Fein has learned to feed off of the swell of other festivals, too. He could afford Chvrches, who headline this year’s Pygmalion, only because they were already going to be on tour in America, performing as one of the top-billed bands at Austin City Limits a week later.

‘In some cases, festival organizers are either overextending their audience or overburdening their market. In March, Sasquatch announced that it had canceled its plans to expand into a biannual festival by adding a Fourth of July event to its traditional Memorial Day fest.’

Routing acts from festival to festival is an important component of the business of Sam Hunt, a booking agent at the Windish Agency in Chicago. Hunt’s firm boasts an au courant roster that can be described as summer festival bait, from the xx and tUnE-yArDs to Cut Copy and Flying Lotus. Each year, Hunt submits an assortment of bands to festivals across the country based upon what’s realistic for that market, the amount of money a festival might be able to spend, and how many fans one event can accommodate. He books 45 bands of widely varying style and popularity — poster-toppers like Animal Collective and Major Lazer, middle-of-the-lineup meat such as Killer Mike or Deerhunter, bottom-row rookies like Blessed Feathers and Lido. Recognizing those strata and how they relate to the festival landscape is important for him in getting his bands gigs; it’s important for festivals, because it reflects their status and what they can afford to survive and advance.

“Sometimes you don’t need to be the absolute cream of the crop [to succeed],” Hunt explains. “Not every car is a Rolls Royce. Some people have to drive shitty cars, too, and that’s fine. They’re cheaper, and the people making them make less money. But they still get you from Point A to Point B.”

But it appears that a growing number of festival organizers might not have taken that analogy to heart: In some cases, they are either overextending their audience or overburdening their market. In March, Sasquatch announced that it had canceled its plans to expand into a biannual festival by adding a Fourth of July event to its traditional Memorial Day fest.

“The Sasquatch! community has spoken. They continue to support the traditional Memorial Day Weekend event with great enthusiasm,” the president of Seattle’s Live Nation branch wrote. “Unfortunately, the second weekend was not embraced.”

Lollapalooza crowd

Photo by Kirstie Shanley for WS

And in Asheville, North Carolina, a mid-sized mountain city and tourist destination, two large upstart events have found that an annual music festival wasn’t sustainable, at least as they’d planned. In 2010, AC Entertainment — the Knoxville company that co-founded Bonnaroo and helms Big Ears and Forecastle — launched Moogfest, an electronics-heavy long weekend that took hold of the city’s venues around Halloween. They’d partnered with Moog Music, the Asheville manufacturer famous for its synthesizers, to offer a series of compelling daytime panels, in addition to the nighttime concerts. The first year surpassed sales expectations and made money, but they lost a substantial amount of cash in year two. They managed to break even in year three.

And that’s when the woes began: AC Entertainment and Moog Music parted ways, with each organization subsequently announcing that they’d launch separate events in a city whose population doesn’t even rank among the top 10 in the state. AC Entertainment would keep the same October weekend and rebrand itself Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit, a phrase lifted from one of the company’s pre-Bonnaroo forays into festivals. Moogfest would return the next April with the help of several new partners and a redirected focus as a “festival of ideas,” featuring more panels and lectures.

Mountain Oasis canceled its 2014 event by the time Moogfest could happen. And Moogfest, which lost $1.5 million and was unanimously denied an increase in public funding, announced that it would be shifting to a biennial format beginning in 2016.

Emmy Parker, the senior marketing and brand manager at Moog Music, insists that the company did not plan on making money during the festival’s first few years. Moogfest is a promotional event — one designed to share Robert Moog’s story and standards and sounds, not to become Coachella in the mountains. The move away from every April, she explains, has more to do with the company’s limited personnel and how taxing running an event of that magnitude can be.

“We knew going into it that this is definitely not the way to make money, and we had to decide if that is something we were comfortable with. We wouldn’t have moved forward if it wasn’t,” she says. “With Moogfest moving forward, how do we maintain the spiritual, emotional and physical health of the company and also have Moogfest on the landscape?”

And Capps contends that he never detected one-upmanship between the two organizations as they staged separate events in the same town. They didn’t try to spend more and book the bigger lineup to run the turf. He’d been working to book Trent Reznor long before the split occurred, and an appearance by Neutral Milk Hotel, their first announced show in more than 15 years, was a happy accident. Rather, as hotel room prices skyrocketed and ticket sales nosedived, he simply thinks Mountain Oasis ran into the limits of what Asheville could support.

“The fan reaction was fantastic. There was love and appreciation there, and that makes you want to keep trying,” he says. “But the challenges of staging an event in that market and the perceived competitiveness — at some point, you use the ‘Pause’ button and don’t continue to beat your head against the thing.”

In the end, whether or not they were engaged in a faceoff hardly matters. Both Moogfest and Mountain Oasis were rather new events clamoring to quickly break into the top tier of Ali Hedrick’s festival database back at Billions — that all-important, sacrosanct “Top 75 Festivals in North America” category. Many of the tickets cost more than $200, and some of the headliners suggested those of established events in major markets.

And now the future of both is, at best, a string of question marks.

“We have Forecastle this weekend in Louisville, and then we’re not doing anything else in 2014,” says Capps, sighing with relief after a three-festival year. “In the meantime, we’re busy on several new projects — all in other cities.”