Long a mainstay in Europe, music festivals are now the most robust sector of the U.S. touring market, with fans embracing the immersive experience and opportunity for music discovery and the industry tapping into massive audiences and proven artist-development platforms. While festivals on U.S. shores number in the thousands and cover a wide expanse of genres, demographics and concepts, these four rock festivals are leading the charge in terms of influence, revenue and the highest levels of fan experience. The common theme: focus on the fan, creative programming and, most important, the site rules.
2013 edition: April 12-14, 19-21; Empire Polo Grounds, Indio, Calif.
Vibe: California cool, stately palms, primo grass
Music: Indie rock with increasing EDM influence, spiced with reunions
Beyond music: Compelling visual elements, Ferris wheel, regional food, confined alcohol
Turning point: 2004, when its first sellout featured the Pixies, Radiohead, the Cure, Nine Inch Nails and Coldplay
Corporate partners: Heineken, H&M, JBL, PlayStation
2012 numbers: $47 million gross, 158,387 attendance (record)
2013 headliners: Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Stone Roses, Blur, Phoenix, Vampire Weekend
Sites: Coachella.com, Twitter (@coachella; 334,000 followers), Facebook (672,000 likes), YouTube (85,000 subscribers)
When Paul Tollett and the team at Los Angeles independent promoter Goldenvoice were on a quest for an alternative venue for a 1993 Pearl Jam show, they ventured deep into the California desert's Coachella Valley and stumbled upon the Empire Polo Club in Indio. Tollett never forgot it, and six years later, Goldenvoice became the pioneer in the contemporary U.S. rock festival scene in launching the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, now a globally recognized festival brand known simply as "Coachella."
Unlike Bonnaroo, Coachella wasn't an instant success out of the gate. In fact, the festival lost so much money the first year--about $800,000--that it would've likely been a footnote in music history without the patience and support of a cadre of agents, managers and media that believed the concept had legs and cut Goldenvoice slack in terms of timely payments. "We didn't even think we would do the festival again," Tollett recalled in a 2012 Billboard cover story. "Losing that sort of money, who'd want to do that again?"
Well, they did it again, the festival slowly became a moneymaker, and sports and entertainment powerhouse AEG acquired Goldenvoice in 2001, giving Tollett free reign as the visionary and sole talent buyer for Coachella. "They stay out of my way, but in a nice way," Tollett says. AEG's backing brought financial stability and resources to Goldenvoice, and now, after expanding to two weekends with identical lineups in 2012, Coachella is the highest-grossing festival in the world, according to Billboard Boxscore.
Musically, Coachella has always been cutting edge, first in indie rock, then branching out into hip-hop and, increasingly, EDM, with dazzling visual elements and club-like tents providing particularly fertile ground in developing the lattermost genre. And the festival has often added spice, unintentionally according to Tollett, with what the promoter calls "reunitements," with such notable acts as Jane's Addiction, the Pixies, Iggy & the Stooges, Bauhaus and Daft Punk reconvening in Indio. Essentially, Tollett says, staging such performances is an outgrowth of that elusive element all festivals seek: exclusivity.
As a talent buyer, Tollett strives to allocate his budget among high-priced headliners, buzzworthy newcomers and "turning over a lot of rocks" in search of those promising near-unknowns that give fans the opportunity for discovery. He says he has two primary goals: "Can they deliver on ticket sales, and will the crowd view them as legitimate?"
Tollett's rationale for extending Coachella to two identical weekend bills last year was typically simple: He felt demand was double capacity. Once again, his instincts were correct-the two weekends sold out in three hours. The 2013 double play followed suit.
With Tollett at the wheel, it's unlikely the Cali-cool atmosphere at Coachella, and its appeal to fans and bands, will ever change. "How I'd like to make Coachella better is just make it even more laid-back," he says. "That's what I shoot for. Even when there's a lot of bands and a lot of things going on, you can't beat the California-chill vibe."
BONNAROO MUSIC & ARTS FESTIVAL
Producers: Superfly Presents, AC Entertainment
2013 edition: June 13-16, Great Stage Park, Manchester, Tenn.
Vibe: Woodstock meets Mardi Gras in a purple haze
Music: With roots in jam, Bonnaroo now recognizes no musical boundaries
Beyond music: Comedy, art, cinema, Ferris wheel, marketplace
Camping: 90% of Bonnaroovians overnight it
Turning point: 2007, when the producers purchased the site
Corporate partners: Ford, Miller Lite, Gap, Garnier Fructis
2012 numbers (estimate): $20 million gross, 80,000 attendance (sellout)
2013 headliners: Paul McCartney, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Mumford & Sons, Wilco
Sites: Bonnaroo.com, Twitter (@bonnaroo; 97,000 followers), Facebook (465,000 likes), YouTube (Bonnaroo365; 36,000 subscribers)
Situated some 60 miles south of Nashville on a 700-acre farm in normally tranquil Manchester, Tenn., Bonnaroo is the most immersive of all the major U.S. festivals, a four-day city whose inhabitants--Bonnaroovians--create a transcendent sense of community.
Inspired by U.K. and European fests like Glastonbury, Knoxville, Tenn.-based independent promoter Ashley Capps approached Dave Matthews Band manager Coran Capshaw in 2001 about creating a major camping music festival in Tennessee. The logic: New Orleans' Superfly (now based in New York) had built a solid foundation in the jam scene around the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival; Capps was regularly promoting shows by Phish, Widespread Panic and DMB; jam was red hot as a genre, and fans of these bands were proven travelers. So, while the founders never overtly set out to create a "jam band festival," it was a damn good place to start.
"There are so many different styles of music that fall under that [jam] umbrella that by using those artists as a core from a programming standpoint, we also had the ability to explore, as a tangent, all the music influencing those artists," Capps says. "It was a music festival we were striving to build, not a jam band festival."
With Widespread Panic as its anchor headliner, the first Bonnaroo went up quietly and then exploded, driven by the sense of community in the jam scene well before social media existed. The inaugural festival sold 60,000 tickets before the producers even had a firm handle on capacity. After a month of site analysis, they settled on a 70,000 capacity for the first year, put another 10,000 tickets up and sold them out in an hour.
Fearless musical diversity is the hallmark of Bonnaroo, surely the only festival that has featured Metallica, Willie Nelson, Kanye West and Tiesto on the same bill (2008). Bonnaroo easily transitioned into a music event with no boundaries without sacrificing its sense of community. "The audience that comes to Bonnaroo has such a wide-ranging musical taste," Capps says. "They may not always look the part, but their level and breadth of interest in a lot of different kinds of music is pretty unparalleled."
The producers purchased the bulk of the land that hosts Bonnaroo in 2007, and continually invest in the site's infrastructure. Sponsorships at Bonnaroo are part of the overall "texture" of the festival and must enhance the overall experience. For example, Garnier Fructis provides free shampoo to fans, who clearly are appreciative. "Our approach to sponsorships strikes a very strong chord with our audience, and really works best for the sponsors themselves," Capps says.
Capps says first-day sales for this year's edition were the best in Bonnaroo's history.