North America’s live music fans have followed their European brethren in embracing the festival experience, with more festivals launched stateside in the past 10 years than in the previous 30. But several festivals — including Kanrocksas in Kansas City, Mo.; HullabaLOU in Louisville, Ky.; and Langerado in Miami — were forced to pull the plug in recent years due to weak ticket sales, while others faced financial difficulties and even established events struggle to stay fresh and maintain their identities as the market matures. The live business is inherently risky, and festivals, with their high talent and production costs and exposure to the elements, are the most risky endeavor of all, and conventional wisdom says it can take three years for a sizable festival to ever turn a profit. Even if they are sold out, the most creatively booked and professionally staged events can incur devastating losses from a rainstorm.
Yet, the festival market continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Billboard’s roundtable participants agree there is still room for more growth in the market. These producers and talent buyers, with well more than 1 million music fans attending their events annually, discuss the growing opportunities and their fear of bad weather with Billboard.
How did your events fare in 2013?
Charles Attal, Partner at C3 Presents: Everything was pretty solid. We had a double [weekend of the Austin City Limits Music Festival] — they both sold out — but we had 12 inches of rain on the final Sunday. We do all this work, but still have to worry about the weather, which sucks. Lollapalooza [in Chicago] sold out on the on-sale, without announcing the lineup. LouFest did very well, and we’re happy we have a flag planted in the ground in St. Louis and think that festival will keep growing. The yoga festivals are doing well, and overall it was a pretty good year.
Ashley Capps, President of AC: I’m a little hesitant to say things like this, but from our perspective, the fans’ perspective and the media perspective, we probably had the best Bonnaroo ever. We sold out, it was a great weather year, a great attendance year, and musically it was off the hook. Paul McCartney’s concert was one of those “pinch me” moments. Equally remarkable in its own way was the fact that we lost a headliner in Mumford & Sons, and Jack Johnson stepped in at the last minute and just blew people away. Tom Petty’s closer on Sunday was just fabulous as well. Our third year in our Forecastle festival in Louisville [Ky.], we doubled our attendance. We rebranded our festival in Asheville [N.C.] — it’s now Mountain Oasis — and we had a huge success there. I can’t complain at all.
Jordan Wolowitz, Partner at Founders Entertainment: This was our breakthrough year at Governors Ball [in New York]. We’ve grown from a one-day festival in 2011 to a two-day festival in 2012, to a three-day, 50,000-capacity-per-day festival. We sold out in advance and cracked the code for putting on a successful contemporary music festival in the New York City market. Similar to Charles, we had a tropical storm pass through New York on the Friday of the festival, but luckily we were able to weather the storm, no pun intended.
Greg Bostrom, Director of Firefly Music Festival: It was a successful sophomore year for Firefly [in Dover, Del.]. We doubled attendance in our second year at about 65,000. We ended up getting 40,000 people camping on-site, which officially eclipsed the population of Dover, a cool little milestone. The weather you were talking about, we had a lot of that during our build, but the clouds parted for three days of perfect weather for the festival. We’ve used up about all of our weather luck during our first two years, so we should probably brace for terrible weather the third year, right?
Gil Cunningham, President of Neste Event Marketing: I do eight country music festivals in North America. Four of them sold out in 2013, which is the first time that’s ever happened: the Country Thunder in Twin Lakes, Wis., and Florence, Ariz.; Oregon Jamboree in Sweet Home, Ore.; and Big Valley Jamboree in Camrose, Alberta. The other festivals all saw increases in sales, and the momentum is moving forward for 2014: Country Thunder in Florence and Twin Lakes have already sold out all their camping for 2014, and Big Valley Jamboree is ahead of last year, so we could very well have six festivals sell out in 2014.
Charles, when you have a weather situation like you had on the second weekend of a sold-out event, how does it affect you?
Attal: We immediately refunded a third of the ticket [price] for that second weekend. It’s a lot of logistics, a lot of dealing with insurance adjustors. Our park was under water. You’ve got to make sure the bands are all paid in full, regardless — we’re not fly-by-night; everybody’s got to get paid. It’s a lot of heavy lifting with the staff. We placed a lot of bands around the city that night that wanted to play — Atoms for Peace, and a bunch of other bands.
I imagine all of you are well into booking for 2014. What is the climate out there as you put together your bills?
Cunningham: We’re basically done booking 2014. In fact, probably in a couple weeks we’ll start having conversations about potential headliners for 2015. [Booking] keeps getting pushed back further and further. When a headliner starts making plans it affects us, obviously, and some of the country acts are already looking at their touring schedules for 2015. So we have to give them the information on the dates and who we’re interested in that far in advance.
Bostrom: Every year the process starts earlier and earlier, and especially in our world of festivals there seems to be a finite number of headliners. It’s about what works for your festival, who you think your fans want to see and trying to get some exclusivity, especially where we are in Dover, Del. It’s not within 30 minutes of anybody but it’s within two hours of everybody, so we have to look at blocking Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. We talk to Jordan about some acts from New York to Dover.
Capps: We’re obviously dealing with the same challenges everyone else is. We’re not quite finished with Bonnaroo yet for this year, but we’re very close, and we’re very excited about the lineup.
Wolowitz: Booking’s going great. The lineup is totally done and buttoned up. The challenges I face every year booking a relatively young event, we’re in New York City and there are a lot of very important markets for acts to hit within three hours of our town-New York, Philly, Boston, D.C. — so if a band has a record coming out, they’ll want to play to those markets. Sometimes if it’s a headline caliber act, we’ll leave it up to them: If they want to headline Governors Ball and accept our exclusivity and skip those cities for the summertime period, or if they would rather not play our festival, play the arenas in those cities, and maybe come back [to Governors Ball] the next time they can.
I hear the term “festival money” a lot, with the connotation that it’s a fatter paycheck than the band would normally get as a headliner in the market. Is that a perception you battle, and how does it affect your budget?
Attal: At C3 we have to stick to our budget or we’ll be out of business, so we have to pass on bands when the fees are outrageous. We might shoot ourselves in the foot sometimes and wish we had bitten off on a band that wanted an extra $300,000-$400,000, but we stick to our guns on that right now, because we have so many festivals out there, if we make a misstep, 10% fees going up all across the board is a lot of money.
Cunningham: On the country side, we’re fortunate that most of the festivals are in secondary or tertiary markets and we can negotiate a better price. But once you get into the major markets and the acts consider a touring date or the festival, typically the festival is going to have to pay a premium price if they want that act. We’ve done that before, and sometimes we’ve passed, and sometimes the headliner comes out and their price is too high for what we think the value is. Sometimes we have to pay a premium price for a headliner but the festival feels like they need that headliner, and instead of the headliner touring in the market, the headliner opts to play the festival.
Wolowitz: When it comes to booking, the ends justify the means. If you have the budget, stick to it, and if where you spend the money helps you sell out every year, then you’ve spent it wisely. If you don’t sell the tickets, then you need to reassess where you’re spending your dough. As it relates to Governors Ball, for nine-and-a-half out of 10 contemporary acts, New York City is their best-selling market in terms of tickets. It’s challenging. If a band I really want to be a headliner, or on the second line of the ad matte [poster] as a sub-headliner, wants to play Madison Square Garden or Barclays Center in January or February right around our announcement but won’t take a reduction on the fee — and you know they’re pulling a lot of tickets out of the market — it might not make sense. That happens every year, but it seems like the well is big enough that it hasn’t been a problem.
Bostrom: As a festival pretty new to the scene, in the first couple of years part of the festival price is the value that the band, the management and the agents put on the branding value they bring to the event. The first year for Firefly, it was, “Here’s the price for the show, here’s the price of [skipping] Philly, here’s the price of [skipping] D.C., and here’s how much we’re adding by putting our name at the top of your brand-new festival.” So that’s a piece that’s factored in as well.
Perhaps more than any other part of the live space, the fan experience is critical in the festival market. How do you enhance it beyond just who’s on the bill?
Wolowitz: The food and drink experience is a big trend. You’re seeing a lot of festivals emphasize a higher-end food experience. We bring in some of the best food trucks in New York, and bring in celebrity chefs to curate their own tents and provide even sit-down meals they host. And local mixologists who run to provide higher-end drinks instead of just a 16-ounce Miller Lite.
Capps: Certainly in the last few years we’ve been stepping up the food experience. Obviously the music is the main course, but whether it’s the cinema tent or the comedy tent or the silent disco, we’re doing everything we can to delight people at every turn.
How healthy is the sponsorship market for festivals?
Cunningham: The country festivals are heavily engaged in sponsorships, and there has been growth among major sponsors participating.
Attal: I agree. There has been an uptick, but the sponsors are wanting more activation than just having a banner on the stage. The creative teams at each of our [sponsors] are coming up with ideas on how to activate what their brand needs are.
What will you do in terms of ticket prices for 2014?
Attal: At C3 we’re pretty much holding the line. We’ve settled into a pretty good rhythm, and we don’t want to start overpricing things. Everything goes up a little bit if our production prices go up, but it’s not crazy. I think for all of us, our biggest struggle is battling production fees, vendor fees and keeping those on par, instead of them just growing out of control every year. That’s the biggest struggle right now on our side, and if it is for us, it is for everybody else, because we’re all using mostly the same guys.
Wolowitz: Governors Ball’s ticket price is going up $5 or $10, but that’s really just to compensate for upticks in production and activation. Not only is talent really expensive in New York City but, as anybody who has traveled to New York knows, everything is the most expensive here — that’s just the way it is. So it’s not only the $9 beer or the $1 million headliner, it’s also unions who build our stages, and vendors charge their highest fees here. It’s always a moving target.
Attal: Vendors are the same as the artists — they see the festivals as a big money grab. Not trying to dog on our vendors, but a lot of them are trying to get as much as they can, and you have to negotiate with them just like you do the artists.
One of the challenges I’m seeing is the potential for saturation in the festival market. Is the market mature? Is there room for more growth? Will there be new festivals launching, and will you launch any?
Attal: There’s room for growth, but it has to be strategic — in the right markets and the right spot. Festival fans in the U.S. are very savvy now on what they want to see and be a part of, and if they go to one that’s not up to par, it’s not going to survive. We’ll be launching more festivals. The trend will be the same as it has been for the last few years: Some will pop up and die on the vine quickly, and some will start off and slowly, organically build and grow into a really cool festival.
Wolowitz: You’re seeing most of the major cities and markets in this country now having tent poles with major, iconic festivals. A good trend is some of these secondary and tertiary markets getting midsize festivals that are doing really well. Charles and those guys have LouFest, which seems to the right path. There’s Bunbury in Cincinnati that’s doing really well, apparently. Instead of the massive, 50,000- to 90,000-person music festival, there’s a chance for some good new business in some of these secondary markets. The only time it could get dangerous is if there’s two Lollas in Chicago, or two Governors Balls in New York, or another big camping festival in Delaware or Maryland somewhere. But it seems like that isn’t a problem yet.
Attal: None of us are dumb enough to go plop a festival next door to a really successful festival. It would be death. I don’t care who you are, how powerful you are in the music business, it just doesn’t make sense.
Cunningham: There’s plenty of room for growth on the country music side of it. The state of Wisconsin has had five country music festivals for 10-12 years. There’s other places around the country where there are no country music festivals, and there’s only one country music festival in the state of California.
None of you are full-time EDM festival producers, but most of you book electronic acts, and Ashley has Mountain Oasis, which is primarily EDM. What are your takes on the state of that market?
Wolowitz: Governors Ball is in the same market and actually takes place in the same park as Electric Zoo. We book EDM acts — I think all of us do who book contemporary festivals — but in this market there’s a lot of competition. It doesn’t affect Governors Ball, but just in the EDM space, within two hours of New York, you have Electric Zoo, you have Electric Daisy Carnival, SFX is doing Mysteryland about an hour-and-a-half away in upstate New York. I don’t know if there’s an arms race going on, but at least in the New York market it seems pretty competitive.
What keeps you guys up at night?