Summertime is the time of year to unwind under a 95-degree sun. For music fans especially, summertime is about enjoying music festivals. The nostalgia for the 1960s, when rock and roll transformed regular live shows into community building events, is never far from mind. Woodstock epitomized this. It brought together an audience of around half a million people over three days, showcased cutting edge music of a high quality, and put popular culture on a pedestal. For Rolling Stone, the Woodstock festival rates as one of the most important moments in Rock and Roll history.
Technology and social media might appear to have diminished the zeal for music festivals. Such events might be at loggerheads with a newfound social connectivity. But this is far from being the case. Events like the Vans Warped Tour and Lollapalooza make up, in combined attendance, for Woodstock’s crowds forty-seven years ago. As much as people keep coming for the music, festivals are, of course, not just about that. These are rare events where an audience can explore and find a commonality of feeling and identity unlike any other.
Today, this is in part because people of all ages, genders and ethnicities are trying to find harmony, and music festivals are a model for acceptance and community. Festivals are often the highlight of people’s summer, and in the U.S., Billboard can report that as many as thirty-two million individuals attend at least one music festival per year, a figure that is rising.
On The Go
The evolution of music has changed drastically since the 1960s, and mobile technology has revolutionized the world lately. The fans may be at the shows, but they are also glued to their phones. One of the joys of going to festivals is being able to stage hop and get a taste of different bands. But well-known bands can be booked at competing festivals so today’s millennial may double dip with live streaming through high definition platforms such as Live Media. Naturally, the cost and inconvenience of this type of multitasking will not be worth the effort for the average festival goer but live streaming of bands with a strong fan base will always have a market, especially for stay at home fans.
Still, live streaming has not had a significant effect on festival attendance — which probably means that live streaming of festivals and festival attendance are perceived as distinct entertainment experiences. The real competitor of live festivals streams is on-demand recordings. If the Newport Jazz Festival is both streamed live and sold on-demand, that is where buyers might be thinking of interchanging one for the other.
A new issue has emerged concerning video recordings and photos taken from fans’ cell-phones. Many fans record the show as it happens on their own 5-inch mobile screen even though they have a 360-degree view right in front of them. The problem is that when they hold their phone up with their arms extended, they block the view of other fans, even taller ones. Apparently at the request of venue owners of all kind, including major festivals, Apple has come up with a solution (it is unclear if it is prompted too by copyright considerations, being that content owners generally ask for viewers to refrain from taking pictures or recordings of a concert). To prevent such recordings, iOS devices will soon disable the camera feature in proximity with the staging area, where a special signal would neutralize the camera app. The technology would spread to other events, including movie theaters but there is concern as to its reach outside these confined spaces. For music festival owners, the hope is that Apple, or later others, can heighten the live experience of live performances.
Big and Small
Festivals offer fans their own closed echo system and economy. That self-sufficiency avoids distraction and enhances the experience of return customers next year.
But it comes at a price for the organizers. In a big festival, vendors will offer free clothes, wristbands, and other wares as well as body paint and fake tattoos, while beverage makers supply unlimited amounts of their product in pre selected performing areas. Contracts for bands are paid for and production sets underwritten. Security has to be hired. All of this presumes larger and larger sponsorships and administrative outlays, and only the most financially successful festivals can afford to keep up the pace.
For festivals like Coachella, this might not be a problem: in 2015, it grossed over $84 million in revenue, reaching full capacity at 99K attendees per day over six days. Nor would it be for the second highest grossing festival of that year, Outside Lands, which in its three-day run in San Francisco made a distant $25 million. Such festivals pride themselves on their high-tech stages, wide landscape, and infrastructure. They offer proper restaurants, multiple stages, and elaborate stage productions, and engage well-known corporate sponsors like Red Bull, Heineken, and Monster Energy.
Sponsorships, in particular, are zero sum games, and someone’s s gain is someone else’s loss. Enter the smaller music festivals. Laconiafest had to cut its weeklong festival short this year due to the lack of attendance and funding. It closed abruptly. Steven Tyler was only able to draw in 4,000 fans to his performance, and Ted Nugent did not do well either. The festival owes over $60,000 to local vendors, EMT coverage, and others. Tickets were being sold for $45 in advanced but then dropped to $5 on the day of the show. Some fans even claimed that they were able to get in for free.
This suggests that, even with some well-known acts, attendance at smaller festivals is hard to predict. Economies of scale play against the organizers, who have to charge more per person for a lesser experience. Even if an artist of the caliber of Taylor Swift were to agree to take the stage of a smaller festival, unless there were a special arrangement, a 45-minute set would sink the budget. This is why supermarket events are displacing boutique festivals and dimming the hopes of the smaller players. Much consolidation and liquidation are expected in this parallel market over the next five to ten years, if not earlier.
Nothing Like It
Overall, big music festivals are expanding and will continue to increase with more fans every year. History has shown that they are an important marker in the lives of many Americans. New technology may dazzle but the impact of a live music performance is still unique. Even artist holograms of beloved but dead artists have taken time to carry the day, so it may be a while before virtual reality will make its way fully into the industry. In the meantime, nothing will take away from the beer, the sweat, and the yelling.
By Summer Whittaker
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