Though the artist-curated festival isn’t new, such events have become exponentially more attractive to advertisers recently as companies struggle to connect with fragmented young consumers. Not only do such festivals get brands closer to the artist in charge, they also include increasingly valuable promotion on the act’s social media feeds, which boast far better engagement than a traditional festival’s social accounts.
"An artist isn’t going to promote a beer company for a festival that he’s playing unless it’s his own," says a branding expert who has worked on artist-curated initiatives.
Artist-led events are capturing sponsorship money and ticket sales in an increasingly cutthroat festival market, with a slew of other fests both old and new going belly-up. "There’s just a lot of competition out there for dollars," says Kevin Lyman of 4Fini, which produces the Vans Warped Tour, one of the longest-running festivals in North America that is coming off the road this year. Lyman says his decision to retire the brand after two decades isn’t "based on any one particular reason," but an overall sense that the "live music business is changing, and to survive you have to change with it."
While the amount of festivals launching in 2018 has grown significantly, the number of ticket buyers hasn’t kept up: Los Angeles’ long-running FYF Fest and the second-year, Phoenix-based Lost Lake festival announced cancellations months before they were set to take place, citing slow ticket sales and lack of consumer interest.
On top of the marketing glut and increasingly homogenous lineups, the festival space is still grappling with bad and inexperienced actors after the 2017 Fyre Festival, the failed Bahamas event whose founder is now in jail facing multiple charges of fraud. On July 11, Joe Brengle, who manages Contra Costa Event Park in Antioch, Calif., where the new XO Music festival was set to happen, canceled the event two days before it was to start due to a lack of insurance and concerns that organizers had not begun basic preparations at the site; it was supposed to include seven stages, two silent discos, a giant foam pit and high-end craft beer and wine. (T.I., Ludacris and Mistah F.A.B. confirmed to Billboard that they were paid for their headlining slots, though.) And the Montebello Festival in Quebec declared bankruptcy at the end of this year’s event because of a mix of lower-than-expected ticket sales and alleged poor accounting practices. It left many bands unpaid and drew comparisons to the 2017 Pemberton festival in Canada that also filed for insolvency protection after selling millions of dollars worth of tickets to fans.
"The big agencies are going to have to reconsider their capitalization requirements because of the harm caused by events like Montebello," says WME head of music Marc Geiger. "That means 100 percent payment in advance and guarantees that vendors won’t be left holding the bag."
Against that backdrop, artist-backed events have the advantage with lower talent costs, since they don’t necessarily have to bid for as many bigger headliners. Drake's OVO Festival in Toronto showcases artists on his label imprint, for example. Economics vary: some artists who put their name on a festival but rely on a major promoter to do the leg work get paid for a headliner slot plus royalties on ticket sales; artists who invest in the event can share in upside.
But in both cases, sponsorship is key, meaning that he acts who run their own festivals need to stay on relatively good behavior. In May, punk band NOFX lost beer sponsor Stone Brewing for its traveling Punk in Drublic fest, after the group made an off-color joke about the Route 91 Harvest attack that killed 59 in Las Vegas last October. The way the festival tour was structured, says Lyman: "They need sponsors to be successful."
This article originally appeared in the July 21 issue of Billboard.