Music Festivals Not Feeling Economic Pinch

2010 Coachella Festival Dates Confirmed
With the summer music festival season just around the corner, leading international festival producers insist that the difficult economic climate isn't putting a serious crimp on business, with key promoters reporting that ticket sales are on par with years past.

"We're not feeling it yet," says AEG Live CEO Randy Phillips, whose company produces large U.S. festivals like Coachella, Stagecoach, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Mile High and All Points West, among others. "I'm not saying we won't eventually, but the festival business is tremendous value for the money in terms of the show and what you get."

Similarly, other major festivals say they haven't been significantly affected by the recession. The United Kingdom's Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds festivals have all sold out. And ticket sales for Bonnaroo in Tennessee "are looking really good compared with last year," says A.C. Entertainment president Ashley Capps, whose company co-produces Bonnaroo with Superfly Productions.

"Two weeks ago we were up 10% and this week we're up 15%, so I'm feeling really optimistic," Capps continues. He declined to reveal specific ticket sales numbers.

The 10th annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival will open the 2009 season April 17-19 at Empire Polo Field in Indio, Calif., with headliners Paul McCartney, the Killers and the Cure. Last year, Coachella drew 151,666 people over three days and grossed $13.8 million, according to Billboard Boxscore.

Phillips says this year's Coachella is selling "almost neck and neck with last year," and he expects it to draw between 135,000 and 150,000 festivalgoers. Ticket sales for AEG's third annual Stagecoach Country Music Festival, set for April 25-26 at Empire Polo Field, are exceeding last year's pace, helped by a lower ticket price, Phillips says. He also notes that about 24% of Stagecoach's tickets were bought through its layaway plan.

Earlier this year, the festival business was shaken after organizers of the Langerado Music Festival in Miami and the Hydro Connect Festival in Scotland called off their events, citing the recession's impact on ticket sales as a major factor (Billboard, Feb. 14). The recession continues to affect smaller fests, prompting some organizers to cut ticket prices or offer other discounts.

To reflect their reduced talent and production budgets for 2009, organizers of the Edgefest, set for June 20 in Toronto, have slashed prices by $38 on early-bird tickets and $33 on regular admission. Elliott Lefko, VP at the Edgefest promoter Goldenvoice, estimates that the event in the city's Downsview Park will sell about 16,000 tickets -- 2,000 more than last year. "I knew I needed a cheap ticket price," Lefko says.

Phillips acknowledges that ticket sales for Michigan's second annual Rothbury Festival are running about 25% behind last year. "That's the one we knew was going to struggle, because it's in Michigan and you have so much unemployment," he says. "Even in a tough economy, you're not really going to be able to market your way out of it. It really becomes one of price sensitivity and the roster."

The United Kingdom's Download Festival in Donington Park, which last year was under capacity by more than 20,000, has responded by adding a stage and expanding its roster to 125 acts, up from 95 in 2008. "Our bill is strong, we've kept our ticket price reasonable and have added value," says Andy Copping, VP of music at Live Nation U.K., noting that he expects the event to sell out.

The Sasquatch Music Festival, to be held May 23-25 at the Gorge in Quincy, Wash., has sold a record 65,000 tickets since its Feb. 28 on-sale. "People are trimming their expenses and faraway vacations and instead doing things like going to concerts and a more reasonable close-by festival like Sasquatch," festival founder/producer Adam Zacks says. "It's not exactly cheap, but it's cheaper than going to Hawaii."

The status of some fests remains uncertain. The Virgin Mobile Festival, which I.M.P. Productions has produced in August for the last two years, hasn't yet announced a lineup or on-sale dates. Will it take place this year? "We're working on some very exciting stuff. We're just not ready to talk about it yet," I.M.P. president Seth Hurwitz says.

Representatives from C3 Presents, which produces Chicago's Lollapalooza in August and the Austin City Limits Music Festival in October, declined to comment for this story. Tickets for both events are on sale.

Although San Francisco's second annual Outside Lands Festival hasn't yet released a lineup or on-sale dates, Superfly partner Jonathan Mayers says it's moving forward and that he's "very optimistic" that the event will have a strong year. Outside Lands is produced by Superfly, Another Planet Entertainment and Star Hill Presents, in partnerships with the San Francisco Recreation & Park Department.

"We're setting our expectations where we understand that it's a very challenging economy out there," Mayers says, "so we're not taking anything for granted."

Meanwhile, to attract bigger audiences, some festival are offering discounted tickets for community groups. Organizers of this year's Rehage Entertainment-produced Essence Music Festival, to be held July 3-5 at the New Orleans Superdome, are giving a 10% discount on all tickets to about 20 various African-American community groups as a way to drive attendance.

"It's partially building a relationship with the overall Essence brand, but it's also getting them to come to the music festival at a special value," Essence GM Joy Collins says.

Smaller events in Europe received a boost from the Assn. of Independent Festivals (AIF) participation in VisitBritain's £1.8 million ($2.65 million) tourism advertising campaign for 2009. The campaign will target 25- to 35-year-olds in 18 European countries, with a 20% discount given on tickets for AIF member festivals when purchased through the VisitBritain Web site. The partnership was devised as a "way to reverse the trend of Brits going to Europe for their festivals," AIF co-founder Ben Turner says.

Festival sponsorships also seem to be holding up in 2009. AEG Live recently announced that such brands as AT&T, FYE, PlayStation, MLB, and State Farm have signed deals with many of its festivals. And in a tough economy, Phillips says that Goldenvoice president Paul Tollett has lightened up on not allowing more sponsors to enter Coachella.

"[Tollett] finally realized that it took pressure off the ticket price," Phillips says. "We didn't have to keep raising the ticket price to cover increasing costs from talent and production. So we found a way to make the festival more accessible."

Other stateside events like Detroit's electronic festival Movement 2009 and the Essence Music Festival are also reporting healthy sponsorship sales this year. "We have some great sponsors, and they keep coming back to us because we touch a demographic of people that so many others are trying to touch right now," Movement 2009 spokesperson James Canning says. "That's why the Red Bull Music Academy and Vitamin Water come."

Merchandise sales at festivals should also hold up this year, organizers say. In the first half of 2008, London-based merch company Firebrand Live -- which provides products to Isle of Wight, T in the Park, and Reading and Leeds -- saw revenues jump 15% year-on-year. Firebrand Live managing director Neil Boote is investing in product development to ensure sales remain strong.

"It would be foolish to take it for granted and think there won't be an impact," Boote says. "Everybody will have to work harder to deliver value for money. You have to make sure you have good products, that they're compelling and what people want."

AC Entertainment's Capps notes that merchandise sales at Bonnaroo should be on par with last year, and says that festivalgoers are "looking for a souvenir and a remembrance of that weekend."

Additional reporting by Jen Wilson in London