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.
AUSTIN CITY LIMITS MUSIC FESTIVAL
Producer: C3 Presents
2013 edition: Oct. 4-6, 11-13; Zilker Park, Austin
Vibe: Barbecue, beer and good times
Music: Anything that could play on PBS’ “Austin City Limits”-plus
Beyond music: Austin Kiddie Limits, Zilker Beach, art
Turning point: 2013, when it expanded to two weekends after years of sellouts
Corporate partners: Honda, BMI, Camelback, Austin Ventures
2012 numbers: $16.8 million gross, 225,000 attendance (aggregate, sellout)
2013 headliners: TBA
Sites: ACLfestival.com, Twitter (@aclfestival; 71,000 followers), Facebook (305,000 likes)
Months after the first Bonnaroo, before the festival gold rush, Charlie Jones, an event producer with Capitol Sports & Entertainment, teamed with up-and-coming Austin talent buyer Charles Attal (the first two Cs of what became C3 Presents with the addition of third partner Charlie Walker) to launch a music event in one of the great music cities in the world: Austin. Jones knew brands and Attal knew bands, so they hitched their wagon to the massively credible melding of both: long-running PBS music show “Austin City Limits.” They also found their site in the city’s expansive Zilker Park, and the first Austin City Limits Music Festival was born.
“We had three months to book the first ACL Fest, and it takes eight months to book it now,” Attal says, adding that ticket sales were slow out of the gate. “We didn’t know what we were doing, and we didn’t have any historicals to look back on. We were checking our dailies and we might have had 6,000-7,000 tickets sold a day, so we were nervous. Then the last 10 days, it just exploded.”
ACL Fest ended up at about 40,000 per day the first year, and has sold out every year since 2005, with capacity at around 70,000. In fact, the festival sells half of its tickets before even announcing the talent, and will make the jump to two weekends this year. Going on sale before the lineup is public “puts a lot of pressure on you to make sure you deliver every year,” Attal says. “You don’t ever want to underdeliver.”
Along the way, ACL Fest has stayed true to the scruffy, adventurous nature of its namesake and has become one of the most consistent destination festivals on the planet. The event also heralded a savvy branding strategy that has built C3 into an international force and one of the world’s top independent promoter/producers.
Producer: C3 Presents
2013 edition: Aug. 2-4, Grant Park, Chicago
Vibe: Hip, urban respite
Music: Indie rock with trend-oriented offshoots
Beyond music: Kidzapalooza, art
Turning point: 2005, when fans embraced what naysayers considered a damaged brand
Corporate partners: Red Bull, Bud Light, Citi, Toyota
2012 numbers: $25.3 million, 298,598 aggregate (sellout)
2013 headliners: TBA April 9
Sites: Lollapalooza.com, Twitter (@lollapalooza; 166,000 followers) Facebook (378,000 likes), YouTube (125,000 subscribers)
Heralded as genius for jumpstarting the festival tour concept in the ’90s, by 2004 Lollapalooza was a tainted brand, canceled in its final run due to poor sales. But C3 Presents believed the brand still had legs and approached Lolla owners Perry Farrell and William Morris Endeavor’s Marc Geiger about resurrecting it as a one-off festival. “Charlie believed, and he ran with it,” Attal says. Since then, C3 has become an international festival producer, launching Lolla editions in Brazil and Chile, partnering with Big Day Out in Australia and with Metallica on its Orion festival in Detroit, and producing or booking numerous other events.
Today, Lollapalooza Chicago in Grant Park is the biggest urban festival in the United States, but the debut of the reboot was brutal. “We lost a lot of money the first year, but we knew we had a winner on our hands,” Attal says. “Usually in a case like that you’re dragging your tail and bumming, trying to figure out what went wrong. But we were excited to get started again. We were all working on Lolla the next day.”
Like the Austin City Limits Music Festival, Lollapalooza remains connected to its brand, with lineups true to its indie-rock roots but delving into rap, EDM, edgy pop and contemporary folk–whatever’s hot. Fifteen talent buyers in 2,500 square feet of C3’s new Austin digs, inspired by Attal’s savvy instincts, turn an atmosphere of “controlled chaos” into lineups for all C3 events. And, like ACL, Lolla makes productive use of VIP ticketing and corporate sponsors seeking the rock fest demo. “You have to have sponsors these days for festivals, or your ticket price would be $500,” Attal says. “It’s expensive to be in these city parks.”
While not without its critics, Lollapalooza is clearly giving music fans what they want, and has become an elite destination festival in triplicate, with a global footprint. In Chicago, the functionality of the urban green space of Grant Park is critical. “The minute you walk out of the gates you’re on Michigan Avenue,” Attal says. “It’s the easiest festival to get in and out of that I know of, and in our world access is everything.”