America’s Music Festivals Could Use a Boost, With or Without U2
Musicians are getting a big payout from the saturation of music festivals, but are lineups getting more homogenized as exclusive acts become a rarity?This article originally appeared on Bloomberg
As the musical duo Big Grams took the stage at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival last June, Antwan Patton, better known as rapper Big Boi, looked out at the crowd in Manchester Park, Tennessee, and saw an audience that had shrunk by half from his previous appearance.
Bonnaroo, named best festival by rock bible Rolling Stone magazine in 2008, has earned a reputation as one of the most successful and innovative music events in the country. Yet ticket sales fell to an all-time low in 2016 -- a 46 percent drop from 2011 -- and the festival lost several million dollars, according to people familiar with the finances who asked not to be identified.
“What we did last year didn’t resonate with the fan base,” Joe Berchtold, chief operating officer of Live Nation Entertainment Inc., said in an interview. Live Nation, which bought a stake in Bonnaroo in 2015 as part of a festival-buying spree by the world’s largest concert promoter, has sunk millions of dollars into improving physical facilities, such as bathrooms, and will have U2 perform its iconic “Joshua Tree” album in June.
Even though the U.S. concert business has been growing 10 percent annually for a decade, and 32 million people attend at least one festival every year, Bonnaroo’s struggles worried many music industry executives. If one of the premier North American music events can’t make money, trouble might be contagious.
A number of smaller country festivals, including one created by Live Nation, have folded. Sweetlife, a festival created by food chain Sweetgreen, has shut down, too. Just two years ago, it expanded to two days and booked rapper Kendrick Lamar, one of the hottest acts in music. And attendance at Sasquatch, one of the biggest music festivals in the Pacific Northwest, fell about 40 percent in 2016. The festival booked reclusive crooner Frank Ocean to lift sales this year.
The closures and strains all point to a glut of festivals, promoters and agents say, with the least creative promoters suffering the most.
“There will be more cancellations,” said Evan Harrison, chief executive officer of concert promoter Huka Entertainment. “The market got saturated, and there are only so many dollars to go around.”
Huka stages two of the more popular festivals in the world, Pemberton in British Columbia, Canada, and Tortuga. Tortuga, a country festival, garnered $6.7 million in grosses in 2016 -- 18th among all festivals in the world, according to Pollstar. The event takes place in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in April -- a prime time and location -- and blends stars with up-and-coming acts.
“Having a destination location is important,” Harrison said. “You don’t build brand or loyalty if you aren’t doing a bunch of things differently.”