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Outdoor Festivals Need to Sell Out to Survive

Do smaller, niche festivals stand a fighting chance in a world of mega concerts?

by Kevin Spurgaitis
Mar 1 2019, 4:10pm

Blondie performs at Osheaga 2018, photo via P. Beaudry

Thanks to a couple of recent documentaries—and a viral instagram post featuring one sad sandwich—most people know all about the uber-exclusive flop known as the Fyre Festival.

If nothing else, the 2017 event in the Bahamas—characterized by over-hype and mismanagement—has shown us how not to put on an outdoor music festival. This, despite the fact that outdoor musical experiences, held over a number of days, have never been more popular. And in its own peculiar way, Fyre’s failure reflects back two competing trends in the music festival sphere: industry pundits say that the growing consolidation—and corporatization—of festivals required to pull off such massive events runs the risk of robbing each of its uniqueness. They also suggest that disruption may come in the form of smaller affairs, whether niche or non-profit.

A life less ordinary

Outdoor music festivals have long been de rigueur in Europe and South America, drawing crowds of more than 200,000 to the UK’s Glastonbury and Brazil’s Rock in Rio, among others. And for more than a decade, these mammoth, multi-day productions have expanded rapidly in North America. They each feature established or emerging performers with a pop, alt-rock or rootsier aesthetic, and bring in tens of million dollars in revenue.

Each year, one in five millennials attends at least one of these hot tickets, according to Eventbrite, a US-based event management and ticketing service. That’s nearly 15 million people in America, alone—almost half of all festival attendees. And on average, they paid between $400 and $1,000 USD for passes in 2018.

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The crowd gathered at Osheaga 2018 to watch the Yeah Yeah Yeahs perform. Photo via Susan Moss.

Establishing itself as the biggest event of its kind in Canada, the Osheaga Music and Arts Festival now attracts 120 bands and more than 135,000 people to Montreal’s Île Sainte-Hélène. Attending festivals like Osheaga has been a rite of passage for Justin Zoras—his first being the 2003 Molson Canadian Rocks For Toronto benefit concert, which was better known as SARSfest or SARS-a-palooza.

The 31-year-old, Toronto-based filmmaker admits that attending these is an affordable way to see a slew of artists in a fixed number of days. But besides “celebrating music,” Zoras says they simply provide an “escape,” even if you’re not into bedazzled footwear and holographic, spandex onesies. “I don’t dress differently and become a total festival head. I just like being a part of something bigger than I am, as actively and passively as I choose.”

Aimee Robinson, 25, says “escapism is definitely an element of it.” “Because for the length of time that you’re there, you generally don’t have to think about other parts of your day-to-day life that might be worrying you—or just plain mundane.” Call it a “short vacation from the real world,” says Robinson, adding that there’s a “community aspect that comes with being at a festival.” Originally from Sunderland, U.K., she has attended these events since she was 15. She has travelled to Scotland and Croatia for multi-day camping festivals—“perfect for hazy, sunny days on the beach”—featuring artists like Beyoncé, Blondie and Arctic Monkeys. More recently, she has been to the Reading and Leeds Festival and Osheaga, where she only wished she wore more glitter.

In his book Music/City: American Festivals and Placemaking in Austin, Nashville, and Newport,” Jonathan Wynn acknowledges the sense of engagement and connection at outdoor music festivals. “More broadly, I suppose, festivals are opportunities for communion,” says Wynn, who is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, and former backup performer and volunteer at Austin’s South by Southwest Conference and Festivals. He also points out that we now live in an “experience economy.”

“People used to generate status by expending money on material goods and displaying them,” Wynn says. “But it’s a bit gauche for many young folks, in particular, to do that these days… We now flaunt our experiences via social media, which is where these consumed experiences have become conspicuous.”

The Reemergence of Festival Culture

Perhaps fittingly, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, the almost mythological gathering on a 240-hectare dairy farm in Bethel, New York, in August 1969. Woodstock attracted 32 performers, including the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and a Fender Stratocaster-shredding Jimi Hendrix, as well as 400,000 attendees. It was called the most peaceful human-made event in history, and as part of Woodstock 50, more than 60 artists will perform on three stages in Watkins Glen, New York in August.

But during the years between the original Woodstock and the 1990s, most music festivals experienced a dramatic drop in attendance. They only saw a resurgence with the alt-rock infused Lollapalooza, which toured between 1991 and 1997, and has been held in Chicago since 2005. The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, held in Indio, California, and the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, in Manchester, Tennessee, also exploded in popularity in the late 2000s and remain a couple of the biggest draws in the US.

Since 2000, large entertainment firms have purchased many of the bigger-name productions: Live Nation, alone, produces more than 60 festivals and has controlling stakes in marquee music events, including Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits, while AEG, the world’s second largest music promoter, today produces 11 festivals, including Coachella, having acquired Goldenvoice. Given their deeper pockets, these agencies are able to book musical artists for multiple venues while augmenting their events with other forms of entertainment: comedy, art and immersive theatre.

The problem with that, Wynn says, is that such consolidation brings about uniformity, which—in turn—begets monotony. Particularly during times of economic crisis, larger organizations tend to operate in a similar fashion—something sociologists call “institutional isomorphism.” In many cases, competing companies will adopt the best practices of their more successful counterparts, according to Wynn. And with only a couple of promoters organizing the largest festivals, roughly one-tenth of Bonnaroo’s lineup now mirrors about one-fifth of Coachella’s.

Wynn has acknowledged that outdoor music festivals are the most expensive to produce, when you consider the cost of event spaces and the fees of artists. As a result, they require financial backing from corporate sponsors. He just has doubts about those stages designed in the theme of Doritos vending machines. “The homogenization of festivals is a concern,” Wynn says, “particularly when it comes to corporations owning the fibre of our musical culture.”

The sponsorship of so-called “super concerts”—by more than 60 companies—has reached an estimated $1.5 billion USD. They’re led by Anheuser-Busch, which has partnered with more than 30 percent of festival properties and are closely followed by the Coca-Cola Company. They’re devoting much of their marketing to what’s called “brand activation”—the engagement with potential consumers through corporate products and experiences on festival grounds.

Organizers, like Osheaga co-founder Nick Farkas, say they need to get creative with corporate partners or scale back their festivals if they’re going to “exist at all.” “We’re trying to compete with giant festivals in the US. At Osheaga, people expect the talent that they’re getting at Coachella and Lollapalooza,” he says of the reasons for brand activations like the Bacardi bar, the H&M Loves Music tent and the House of Vans skateboarding ramp. “How else do we keep tickets affordable and still have 100 bands playing on six stages with state-of-the-art sound and lights?”

After looking at Europe’s vast live music landscape, Farkas and his partners set out in 2006 to “create an equally great” destination festival both for the bands and fans. “We wanted to come up with something that we knew would respond to the growing market—a microcosm of Montreal with the food, the art and the music,” says Farkas, who is also the vice-president of Concerts and Events for Evenko, the company that produces Osheaga.

Niche festivals

Still, there are smaller, homegrown festivals in Canada and the US, too. And they’re bucking the trend of mega concerts and catering to unique audiences, according to Farkas. “If you’re smart and specific, you can put on something that major players aren’t doing because they’re too huge to move on new ideas quickly,” he says. “I think that these niche markets are where opportunities will be in the future.”

Taking advantage of the resurgence of garage, punk and psych rock, and electronic music, a number of boutique festivals sprung up last decade. Since it started in Seattle in 2004, Decibel’s five-day program has grown tenfold, attracting more than 25,000 attendees each year. Before partly relocating to Los Angeles in 2017, it was even considered an anchor for Seattle’s burgeoning electronic music community. That’s despite being an entirely grassroots, volunteer-run affair. Others have tapped into jazz, folk and bluegrass, as well as hardcore music genres. There’s the Springfield Jazz and Roots Festival, also in Massachusetts, and MOOGfest, now held in Durham, North Carolina, among others.

Musical acts, meanwhile, have started organizing their own niche events. The improvisational, genre-blending jam band Phish has held a series of smaller festivals in Pittsburgh and Plattsburgh, New York, among other places. And alt-country group Wilco, who once referred to their loyal fanbase as a “cult following,” puts on the biennial Solid Sound Festival in post-industrial North Adams, Massachusetts. Here, over a June weekend, the population of roughly 13,000 reportedly swells by more than 7,000.

Even though Solid Sound has a roster that includes Wilco and other equally recognizable performers, it’s often described as intimate and ever-so-slightly Bohemian. On the campus of an early 19th-century textile mill, festival-goers can be treated to pairings of banjo players and experimental guitarists, as well as poetry readings and video installations. These are praised for contributing to Solid Sound’s low-key success.

These smaller festivals are “destinations for a market of aficionados,” according to Wynn. “The best festivals are those that are experimental in nature, interact with their locales, curate unique collaborations among acts, and introduce upcoming bands with the intent of launching their careers,” he says. “But niche cultural consumption is not the way that the broader consumer landscape has been heading over the last 20 years in regards to music… So niche festivals are tricky because they rely on high enthusiasm and income of patrons knowing a lot about a narrow silo of cultural tastes.”

Though Wynn says that there’s a “space for niche [festivals] to exist and thrive,” he mostly points to the success of the long-running Newport Folk Festival, which dates back to 1959 and is often considered one of the first modern music festivals in America. Because of the 2008 recession, it could no longer attract corporate sponsorship from Dunkin’ Donuts and others. It was then rescued and transformed into a non-profit enterprise, and now offers “a more locally sourced and modestly-branded music experience,” he says.

Although Newport’s lineups don’t include acts that headline larger festivals, it continues to sell out at Rhode Island’s Fort Adams State Park, attracting an estimated 10,000 attendees each day of the event. It more resembles what outdoor music festivals looked like long before corporate consolidation and sponsorships.

“[Newport] has a clear philanthropic mission as a non-profit, and more festivals should model themselves after that,” Wynn says. It justifies its non-profit status by working with the Boys and Girls Clubs America and other local groups. It’s become part of the identity of the smallest city in the smallest state in the US, with people saying, “Oh, I live in Newport, where the festivals are.”

With all of these being such signature events for their locales —and for the “public good”— Wynn wants cities to support them in times of financial crisis. It would safeguard them from ever having to scale up. “Successful and vibrant cities have a wide palate of cultural activities,” he says, adding that both organizers and city officials often justify events to the local community in sheer economic terms: indirect visitor spending, when it comes to transportation taxes, tolls, parking, dining and accommodations. “And they’re good for economic development in other ways, as folks look to relocate to these same vibrant places for jobs.”

In his book Music/City, he highlights the fact that more than 40 percent of American music festivals receive funds from city governments, in order to keep police and firefighters on-site. “But convention and visitor bureaus, chambers of commerce and municipal offices of economic development should all pony up more resources [for smaller festivals], whether it’s for parks and closed streets, or advertising,” Wynn says.

The evolution of festivals
Of course, it’s anyone’s guess whether or not the North American festival market will “burn out” altogether—as Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young once sung about rock performers, in general—or simply “fade away.” Here’s hoping that the Fyre Festival—not to mention the schadenfreude surrounding it—isn’t a harbinger.

This coming festival season, at least, Zoras will again “tune out the gross smells, the ear-ringing noises and the sea of smartphones” to enjoy any number of outdoor music festivals. “Millennials will definitely be remembered for experiencing a growing festival life and the last group to take it somewhere completely different, for better or worse,” he says, referring to the holographic Tupac seen with Snoop Dogg during a 2012 Coachella performance.

Robinson agrees. “I think festivals are certainly a huge thing for our generation,” she says. “I’m not sure if they’re a perfect image of millennial life, but they have definitely played a defining role in my adolescent and young adult life.” Whenever Robinson looks back on her own festival experiences, she says that she’ll mostly picture those reddish-orange skies fading into a deepish blue, while “headliners close out an amazing weekend.”

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