Sleeping in a tent for days to catch a glimpse of Beyoncé making history at Coachella. Crowding into a park for a surprise performance that turns out to be Dolly Parton at the Newport Folk Festival. As music festivals have taken off in popularity, these kids of experiences have become a key feature of cultural life in America.
Within the last decade, music festivals have grown into a major moneymaker in a competitive industry that sees hundreds of such events each year in the U.S. There are the big ones—Coachella, Lollapalooza, Outside Lands, Governors Ball—with big-ticket prices, multiple stages, camping options and nearly endless lists of performers. And alongside their rise in popularity, hundreds of smaller, niche or genre-specific festivals have flourished. Look up “music festival near me,” and you’re likely to find one within at least a few hours’ drive.
The origins of music festivals date back to ancient Greece, where such events often involved competitions in music, arts and sports. Modern music festivals in the U.S. grew out of the establishment and ethos of Woodstock. Though it was not the first event of its kind (the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals, Milwaukee’s Summerfest and the Monterey Pop Festival predate Woodstock), the 1969 event holds a mythical place within American pop-cultural history. Festivals have since evolved from the DIY, communal spirit of Woodstock, growing into mainstream businesses that reap profits and embrace corporate sponsorships, as more than 32 million people attend them each year, according to Billboard. Coachella, one of the most popular festivals in the country, grossed $114.6 million in 2017, setting a major record for the first recurring festival franchise to earn more than $100 million.
“They used to be more of a communion of culture,” says Carlos Chirinos, a professor of clinical music and global health at New York University. “A group of people who were into the same type of music, they would come together. That was the driving force throughout the 1970s and 1980s until it became a profitable format.”
The mechanics that drove music festivals to becoming top earners have a lot to do with the effects of modern life, Chirinos says. People are more likely now to spend money on experiences over material goods, he says, contending that sharing a clip from a Billie Eilish or Cardi B performance with one’s Instagram followers is more gratifying than buying something expensive. That “experiential economy” has grown just as brands have gravitated toward festivals, looking to capitalize on the opportunities that one large group in a singular space presents, he says. A 2019 Deloitte survey of millennials—a group that makes up at least 45% of the 32 million people who attend music festivals—finds that most value experiences: 57% of respondents said they prioritized travel and seeing the world over owning a home.
Music itself has changed, as well, making festivals a bigger attraction for listeners. As streaming becomes one of the most popular ways to listen to music, sales of tickets and merchandise make up the bulk of fans’ expenditures on music. Because listening to music has become practically free (or subscription-based), the access is unprecedented—and makes live music that much more special, according to Chirinos. “Audiences are keen to connect to the artist,” he says.
For artists, appearing at music festivals is an easier way to make money than depending on record sales or long tours, says Rishi Bahl, a musician and marketing professor at La Roche College in Pittsburgh, Pa. As record sales saw a steep decline in the early- to mid-2000s thanks to the growth of digital music, artists began depending on touring to earn money. Bahl says festival organizers quickly caught on to the spike in artists taking to the road and decided to pay them more to appear at their events. He notes that the majority of the touring schedule for a band like the Offspring, which played Woodstock ’99, now consists of festival performances. Of the 20 shows the Offspring is playing the remainder of this year, about 15 are at music festivals.
“They don’t need the grind of touring anymore. They’ll fly to a show, get paid six figures, fly home,” Bahl says. “So that model is super integral as to why artists and agents are focusing so hard on music festivals.”
On the business side, music festivals have become more streamlined and shaped by the advent of big music promoters over the last decade. Putting on a festival is a challenge, between having to pay artists enough to secure their performances, needing to sell a certain number of tickets in order to be successful, the additional costs of insurance and the risks of bad weather. Large corporate live music promoters, such as Live Nation or AEG Live, have, in recent years, acquired hefty controlling stakes in some of the country’s biggest festivals. Their organizational capacity helps to manage ticketing and other factors that come into play in organizing a festival. After purchasing a controlling interest in Bonnaroo in 2015, Live Nation this year bought the remaining stake to gain total control of the festival. Live Nation also controls, or partially controls, festivals like Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, among several dozen others. Each year, the company offers a “Festival Passport” that gives audiences access to more than 100 festivals starting at $999. AEG Live has helped to produce Coachella, Firefly and Stagecoach through ownership of the promoter Goldenvoice.
Then, there’s the flipside—not all music festivals are meant for the mainstream, and not all programmers want the influence of big promoters. Don Smiley, the CEO of Summerfest, which takes place over 11 days each year in Milwaukee, says his organization has adapted to changing times to keep the annual event relevant. Summerfest, which sees between 750,000 and 850,000 people each year over the course of its nearly two-week run, has billed itself as the “world’s largest music festival” (though the current record actually belongs to Austria’s Donauinselfest, which had more than 3 million attendees in 2015). “We keep offering new experiences, from front-row viewing to VIP experiences, to embracing new technology,” Smiley tells TIME.
Ultimately, a festival’s success comes down to the lineup. Summerfest’s 2019 roster included Lionel Richie, The Killers, Jennifer Lopez, Billie Eilish, Lil Wayne, Snoop Dogg and The National—a diverse enough group that does not rely on one genre or type of artist. “Our customer base is really eight to 80 [in age],” Smiley says. “We cover all genres of music. That’s what we try to offer.”
The Newport Folk Festival, which started back in 1959, is another one that has managed to adapt enough to remain a draw to crowds without compromising its vision to meet to attract corporate sponsorships. A non-profit, Newport’s proceeds are sent to the Newport Festivals Foundation and to charity. Jay Sweet, who heads the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals, tells TIME the folk festival has managed to last so long by “just focusing on itself.” Where recent attempts to revive Woodstock have failed, Newport has continued in the spirit of bringing people together “in a communal sense,” Sweet says. “We stuck to our own blueprint and we haven’t changed a whole lot,” he says. “It’s very artist-focused.”
While the overarching trend of consolidating music festivals under corporations has not touched some of the nation’s oldest festivals, it has affected the way audiences experience other events. Even the niche festivals that might have more genre-specific lineups have to compete for audience attention. Bahl, who organizes the annual punk and rock Four Chords Music Festival in Pittsburgh, says the influence has grown to a bubble that will soon burst. “When I started Four Chords, there were two other big [festivals],” he says. “Now, there’s 14 and Pittsburgh is such a small market—so imagine how that translates into other markets. It’s essentially kind of drowned out in many ways because everybody is picking up on this concept. Everybody is doing it.”
But the music festivals that have achieved a cultural cache are unlikely to recede from relevance anytime soon. Advance tickets for 2019’s Coachella sold out in about two-and-a-half hours, an hour faster than they sold out in the year prior, the Palm Springs Desert Sun reported. And for the first time since 2013, Bonnaroo sold out of 2019 tickets with 80,000 people attending, according to the Nashville Tennessean.
Chirinos says that through help from large music conglomerates, festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo have become akin to household brand names. “They’ve invested and partially own many festivals, which gives [festivals] the longevity and continuity that gives them a brand,” he says. “They become something that’s ingrained into the culture.”
In turn, their popularity allows people to signal that they’re a part of major cultural moments, as the ability to attend a music festival (and broadcast one’s experience on social media) has become an experience that many covet.
“Here, it’s, ‘Have you been to Coachella?’ In the United Kingdom, it’s, ‘Have you been to Glastonbury?’” Chirinos says. “It becomes a part of the culture—not just another event.”
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