Festivals

As Festivals Scramble To Reschedule, Will Fall Become the New Summer?

Coachella moved to fall first, and other festivals are following its lead. Can the season sustain them all?

At the end of February, Live Nation president/CEO Michael Rapino told investors on a conference call that he expected the coronavirus to affect less than 1% of their overall business. A week later, Miami’s Ultra Music Festival was called off; two days after that, Austin’s South by Southwest was canceled. That same day, March 6, Rapino and AEG COO Jay Marciano, along with heads of the top four talent agencies, formed a private task force. Now, executives at AEG credit that alliance with helping Coachella avoid a cancellation, too.

Within days of AEG learning that public health officials from Riverside County in California — which includes Indio, Coachella’s event grounds — would not permit the festival to take place as planned starting on April 10, Marciano quickly received approval to move it to October. It wasn’t hard, sources say, to get at least some scheduled performers and their agents to commit to the new dates because the artists wouldn’t get paid if they didn’t perform — and the agents wouldn’t get their commissions. (Plus, AEG did promote the one-off Desert Trip in October 2016, so the regulatory framework for a fall Coachella was already in place to some degree.) By March 10, Goldenvoice had officially announced that both weekends of Coachella, as well as its country music festival Stagecoach, would still happen in 2020 — only six months later than planned. More recently, Bonnaroo announced its four-day festival, which this year features headliners Tool, Lizzo and Tame Impala, will take place in September. And while Chicago’s Lollapalooza typically happens in early August, it recently delayed announcing its lineup, saying in a statement that the festival will take place “as soon as it’s safe for us all to be together.”

However, industry sources at Goldenvoice and elsewhere say that saving Coachella was much more difficult than many realize, revealing that some of the headliners still haven’t agreed to perform in October. It shows how many hurdles promoters face in order to reschedule just one large-scale live-music event. Plus, no one at AEG or Goldenvoice admits to having a concrete sense of how, or even if, a 125,000-person festival that costs nearly $100 million can be seamlessly moved and if enough people will even be available to build and stage Coachella in the fall. “But we don’t want to give up being first,” said one AEG executive of announcing a new slate of dates as soon as possible instead of pulling the plug. “That’s really valuable.” (Veteran promoter and Coachella co-founder Paul Tollett, 54, declined to comment for this article.)

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock
Empty Coachella festival grounds.

Since Coachella’s inaugural year in 1999, the event has remained the unofficial festival season kickoff. And now, by being the first such event to seemingly avoid cancellation, Coachella has continued to lead the way. The festival, whose headliners for the original April dates included Travis Scott, Frank Ocean and Rage Against the Machine, has now become a peculiar litmus test for the fate of several similar gatherings whose immediate futures are still uncertain. “If we can’t pull this festival off in October, then we’re going to be in a really bad place as a civilization,” says one booking agent who has booked headliners and support acts at Coachella for over a decade. “At a minimum, it’s going to be a very bad sign for the business.”

Presuming that Goldenvoice does pull off a fall Coachella, though, there’s the unknown level of disruption it may cause to that touring season. Pushing festivals that normally take place earlier in the summer to the fall will surely affect the schedules of many artists playing those lineups, with dates that bump up against carefully plotted radius clauses that were put into place to avoid this exact kind of overlap in bookings. Already, a delayed festival season is taking its toll on artist promotional cycles. As Doris Muñoz, founder of Mija Mgmt — whose clients include Cuco and Jasper Bones — puts it: “Everything is on pause. These festivals are essentially tentpoles to build content around. We have to shift our plans.”

Moving Coachella, in particular, to October also means its first weekend falls on the same dates as the second weekend of the annual Austin City Limits gathering. While the festivals will be 1,400 miles apart, AEG is left to guess if the entire industry has employed enough people to staff two massive events at the same time. And before Coachella 2020 is even here yet, its organizers are already wondering what to do about 2021. “Can [Coachella] come back six months later and do another festival? Will that work?” asks one AEG executive who chooses to remain anonymous.

It’s possible that having another Coachella so soon might diminish demand, and a hypothetical 20% drop in attendance, according to AEG, could lead to millions in losses. But for now, thanks to the task force, Rapino and Marciano have agreed to continue supporting each other through this ongoing crisis. “That’s all they could do because no one has any idea if it’s going to be safe to do a concert in October or if fans will come out,” says one source. “There’s so much uncertainty right now, it’s very hard to plan the next chapter until things settle down.”

*For more coverage of COVID-19's impact on the music industry, check out Billboard's newest Deep Dive, A Pandemic Playbook, here.

Illustration by Wren McDonald

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This article originally appeared in the March 28, 2020 issue of Billboard.