The pioneers of long-lasting touring festivals in North America have much to teach newcomers in the field. There’s a stark difference between touring fests that survive or at least end on their own terms (Vans Warped, Ozzfest, Mayhem, Rock the Bells) and those that do not (Lollapalooza, Lilith Fair, H.O.R.D.E.). While a variety of factors play a role in an individual festival’s success, or lack thereof, the fests that endure for the longest haul have one common denominator: They usually stay true to their niche. The ones that fall by the wayside (as tours, at least, as the Lolla brand thrives as a non-touring festival) all make the same critical error-trying to be all things to all fans, diluting their brands and disengaging the core audience in the process.
There’s still room for growth, but the current market for major destination festivals with broad appeal and national audiences is headed toward a saturation point, as evidenced by recent notable failures like HullabaLOU in Louisville, Ky., and Kanrocksas in Kansas City, Kan. Already, many of these fests are booking the same headliners or trading on acts booked for smaller stages just to differentiate themselves.
Since concert-going Americans have clearly bought into the festival experience in a broad way, the best opportunities may well lie in the niche market, specifically festivals with a clear identity and a targeted lifestyle. In many cases, these are artist-curated events that tap into a basic trust factor. A fan might think, “I don’t know all these bands very well, but if my favorite artist digs them, then I probably will too.”
Not every headliner has enough gravitas to pull it off, since this kind of validation requires a stamp of approval that actually means something. The ability to be a viable “curator” and effectively host a band-branded event transcends simple popularity. The band must have a community of fans associated with an identifiable set of passions, even if it’s just purely underdog status within its genre. Indeed, this might be one instance in which market fragmentation can be a good thing.
Pete Pappalardo is an agent at Artist Group International, which has several clients that successfully host these band-centric events, including Metallica with Orion, Motley Crue with Crue Fest and Insane Clown Posse with the Gathering of the Juggalos. Most recently, prog-rock legend Yes announced the inaugural Yestival, set for Aug. 3 at the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden, N.J.
Yestival is intended as prog nirvana, not just the band slapping its name on a concert event. Among the acts signed are Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy; veteran prog-rockers Renaissance; the Peter Gabriel-licensed Genesis tribute band called the Musical Box; and Tool drummer Danny Carey’s side project, Volto! Plus, Yes will do two complete album performances, and there will be an art exhibit from album-cover illustrator Roger Dean. “Yes has been involved in every decision,” Pappalardo says, “from the name of the festival, the production, choosing the artists, the ancillary events like artwork. They are curating Yestival.”
The current members of Yes, AGI and promoter Live Nation hope they have a franchise on their hands, something along the lines as Orion, Crue Fest and the Gathering. “There is a generation of younger musicians who look at Yes as prog-rock gods,” Pappalardo says. “If we grow the festival in more cities next year, we expect to bring in not only the older generation groups, but also some younger bands that idolize Yes.”
However it plays out, Pappalardo firmÂly believes a strong, unique niche is the best way forward in the fest world. “Any new festivals have to be artist-Âdriven and artist-branded,” Pappalardo says. “In addition to the music, you’re also trying to capture a lifestyle element. With Crue Fest, for example, that would include having tattoo parlors on the concourse. You want the music to provide the common thread for the lifestyle that goes with it.”