Eternal Summer of Love: The Evolution of the Music Festival

Sandra Canosa


This summer, chances are you’ll never be too far away from a music festival. For every dog day weekend of the high summer months, there’s an outdoor festival to match in every stretch of the country, of every genre, and of every shape and size. From the behemoth veteran multi-day festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza to backyard one-offs, inner-city park stages, and burgeoning neo-Woodstock imitators popping up around every corner, the dawn of the 21st century has breathed a vigorous new life into the music festival concept, with few signs of slowing down any time soon.

With two unofficial bookends in the country’s “Live Music Capital of the World” – Austin’s annual South by Southwest (SXSW) in March and Austin City Limits Music Festival in October – festival season now spans more than half of the yearly calendar. Within the past 15 years, more and more multi-day, multi-artist outdoor gatherings have cropped up to fill the gaps in between, with over 150 music festivals currently operating in the United States alone and hundreds more abroad. According to Billboard, more new festivals were launched in 2013 than in any other year in history; it’s little wonder why.

In the current digital age of streaming and downloads, the music record industry has taken a precipitous nosedive. Album sales are down by nearly 50% since 1999 and numerous labels and retailers have folded as a result. But in the same span of time, the live music industry has enjoyed an unprecedented renaissance. Concert ticket sales more than tripled in a single decade, from $1.5 billion in 1999 to $4.6 billion in 2009; years of economic recession slowed the industry’s growth until 2013, when live music had its best-ever year with $4.8 billion in gross ticket sales. Since 2012, public attendance of concerts has increased by a generous 27 percent, while the number of actual concerts produced has only increased by 6.6 percent. So many people concentrated into a limited number of live shows points to one sure trend: the dominance of the large-scale music festival.

While music festivals have been around since the era of Ancient Greece, with long-standing histories in jazz and blues gatherings in America, modern music festivals draw the bulk of their inspiration from the first festivals of the 1960s devoted to popular music, like 1967’s Monterey Pop or 1969’s seminal Woodstock. Large, open spaces; lots of musical talent; and, more than anything, lots and lots of people. For many, the point of the outdoor festival, as opposed to a traditional concert venue, is as much about the human connection as it is about the musical connection; as our culture shifts increasingly toward a solitary, Internet-oriented lifestyle, perhaps the need for human-to-human relations is felt all the more strongly than ever before.

More than 330,000 people flocked to last year’s Ultra Music Festival in Miami. Another 300,000 will attend Chicago’s Lollapalooza. Every day at Tennessee’s Bonnaroo or California’s Coachella, more than 90,000 people arrive en masse for a chance to soak up music, culture, sun, and vibes. Coachella in particular has emerged as the festival scene’s crème de la crème: in 2012, it became the highest-grossing festival in history with more than $67 million in net sales, and not by any sheer coincidence. The increasing demand for tickets to what’s become not just a music festival, but a high-fashion event and notable celebrity hangout, compelled Coachella’s organizers to expand the 15-year-old fest into two identical weekends, in effect doubling possible attendance. Despite the supply increase, prices have gone up, too: in 2010, a three-day general admission pass cost $269. In 2014, those same tickets cost $375 – not including the price of camping or lodging, food and drink for the weekend, or transportation into and out of the festival’s remote desert location. This year, tickets sold out to both weekends after just two hours of being on sale – a new Coachella record.

For every success story, though, there are dozens of failures. Even well-established festivals like England’s Glastonbury, which has been going strong since the 1970s, face threats of closure due to lack of funds. Many new festivals, which even on the smaller end of 20,000 attendees can cost millions of dollars to produce, will falter before they ever turn a profit; inclement weather, especially rain, is a promoter’s worst nightmare.



But when it works, it works. Bonnaroo’s profits are estimated at more than $12 million a year, and the festival pumps more than $50 million into the normally quiet economy of Manchester, Tennessee. And it’s not just the organizers and communities cashing in on the surge of music festival popularity. The gathering of hundreds of thousands of festival goers – who tend to be young people with disposable income – is a dream come true for advertisers. From Coors to Coke and cars to clothes, corporate sponsorship not only helps underwrite the enormous costs of putting on a festival, but promises a huge potential turnaround for the companies themselves. Beverage company Anheuser-Busch, which includes Budweiser, Stella Artois, Michelob, Shock Top, and other beers, spent over $335 million on festival sponsorship in 2012, getting their names onto everything from stage backdrops to drink cups. And they’re not alone: North American-based companies are projected to dish out more than $1.34 billion in 2014 for music festival support alone.

For sponsors, it’s not just about visibility, but about connecting with the brand image of festival culture itself – about being fun, cool, and young. Coachella has become a well-known hotspot for fashion and lifestyle trendspotting, and sponsors like H&M, Old Navy, and Lacoste host on-site events and giveaways as well as after-parties. Several brands, including Lacoste, went an extra step this year and paid models and actors to wear their clothing line while attending the festival. A whole new business sector has surfaced in recent years that caters entirely toward the festival experience: website guides, festival-specific camping gear, clothing lines, and even weight-loss programs like “The Coachella Diet” that promises to deliver a short-shorts-and-bikini-tops-ready bod in time for the festival’s launch.

The money surrounding festival culture has revolutionized the live music industry into a reckonable force of its own. Concert sales have long outstripped record sales in the UK, where festivals are arguably even more ubiquitous than they are here in the States, and we’re not far from catching up. While all of the commercialism, the luxury, and the constant influence of social media may make modern festivals seem like a far cry from the peace-and-love minimalism of the hippie gatherings that inspired them, they still have ostensibly one concrete thing in common: it’s all about the music.

This should be good news for musicians and artists, who historically make more money from live performances than record sales any day. In a still-fragile but slowly-recovering economy, it’s encouraging that many people are more than willing to fork over $100-plus for a one-day pass to a festival. For musicians themselves, playing festivals seems like a no-brainer. The exposure to tens or even hundreds of thousands of people, some of whom might never have heard the music otherwise, can be crucial for up-and-coming bands to augment their fanbase. But the competition is fierce: nearly 8,000 musical acts applied to fill just 2,371 performance slots at Austin’s industry-heavy SXSW this year. Those who make the cut often travel at great personal expense for the chance of being “discovered” at the conference; it’s their only hope of compensation, since performers choose between free admission to the rest of the festival or $100-250 cash as payment.

The large-scale music festivals that cater to fans offer a much better fare. The lowest-tiered opening acts at Coachella are promised $15,000; still, even this may not be enough to cover the costs of touring. Musicians are left to face the same conundrums as in recording and distribution: to give away their art for free in the hopes of reaching more ears, or to try to make a living. Either way is a huge gamble.

Meanwhile, already-successful artists continue to garner huge profits from records and festivals alike. Headliners easily rake in seven-figure sums for a single festival performance. The duo OutKast, who reunited this year for a 40-stop festival-only tour, will reportedly earn over $60 million this summer. Compared to their last tour in 2001, with 46 bookings at traditional venues that grossed $4.8 million, festivals are a literal walk in the park.



But as festivals become the norm for summer-concert seekers, the traditional venues stand to suffer, too. The undeniable appeal of festival performances, for headliners and newbies alike, leaves a dearth of crowd-pleasing acts to fill local venues – and not just during the summer. Lollapalooza, for example, prohibits all their signed acts from performing within a 300-mile radius of Chicago for the six months prior to and three months following the festival. That cuts out not only a sizable portion of the calendar year in one of America’s most music-forward cities, but also a good chunk of the Midwest: 300 miles span all of Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan, most of Wisconsin, half of Ohio and Iowa, and as far as St. Louis.

Ultimately, the costs of music festivals get passed down to the consumers. While $250 for 150 acts sounds like a great bargain to a lot of fans, it’s more than steep enough to price out countless others. Increasingly, festivals are becoming one of the only ways for fans to catch their favorite acts on tour, but the sticker price for a festival weekend is a lot harder to justify when you’re only in it for that one band. With 80,000 other people to compete with for a view of the stage, festivals can be anathema to music fans who prefer the intimate, focused atmosphere of a club or music hall.

Yet the shift towards an increasingly all-encompassing and possibly permanent festival culture only mirrors the trends and shifts our music culture as a whole has taken since the turn of the century. Streaming and downloading services provide consumers with unprecedented freedom to sample all different kinds of music and try a little bit of everything without ever having to make the full commitment to purchase an album or a single. Festivals promise much of the same: instead of investing concert money into one or two artists, festival-goers can buffet their way through a range of diverse musical experiences. They can pick or choose, love or leave, as the whims of the moment deem fit. It’s telling that big-name festivals like Coachella and Nashville’s Country Music Festival routinely sell out even before the lineup of performers is announced: it doesn’t matter so much who’s playing as long as there are options enough to go around.

In this sense, maybe our modern festivals are more like Woodstock than we’re prone to admit: never before has the spirit of free love ever been so well applied to our universal love of music. But as our culture shifts from vinyl records to streaming clouds, from club concerts to massive festivals, the industry is stalled at a precarious crossroads of quantity versus quality. Which is best might just be a matter of personal choice.


Author Bio:

Sandra Canosa is Highbrow Magazine’s Chief Music Critic.

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