Is a six-month festival season sustainable?
It’s peak festival season in an era where demand for music festivals worldwide has reached a fever pitch. A recent Nielsen report found that 32 million people attend a festival in the United States every year, and these attendees travel an average of 903 miles for said event. They pay an average of $207, although some of the more well-known festivals like Coachella set attendees back almost $400 – and still sell out in less than an hour. It’s no different elsewhere. In the United Kingdom, there were 80 music festivals in 2004, while there are over 250 today scattered throughout the country. All the tickets for Glastonbury Festival, which took place last weekend in Somerset, England, sold out in a ludicrous twenty-six minutes in 2015.
It’s no longer any secret that sales of recorded music have fallen in the past decade, while revenue from streamed music and live performances has gone up. “Festival season” can last for almost half of the year, and unlike recorded music, both artists and event promoters see huge profit from performances.
There has to be a catch, right? Right. The popularity of festivals has grown at roughly the same exponential rate in Europe, the United States, Asia, and Australia, but the pool of artists who can drive ticket sales and play satisfactory sets to crowds with diverse musical tastes has not expanded at the same rate. This can be explained by a classic economic supply-demand relationship. There’s a constraint in the supply (artist) side – those that are able to perform at festivals and reap the financial and reputation rewards continue to do so for as long as possible, which keeps smaller, lesser-known artists out of headlining or even supporting slots.
There are other key players perpetuating this cycle, as well. Record labels, once the gatekeepers for the entire music industry, now wield less power than they once did. As a result, they are less likely to take risks or invest in new talent. Whereas in the past, an artist could have up to six albums with which to prove themselves before being dropped by a label, nowadays if an artist’s second album flops, it is usually their last. Online music and the ubiquitousness of streaming has changed the way people consume music. The need for an album is less important than it once was now that listeners can pick and choose nearly everything about their music experience.
There is no simple solution to this, but several festivals are already trying. Many, especially in the United States, specialize in only one genre of music – the festivals put on by Insomniac and HARD promoters, for example. Others may scale down their size in the future, or choose several mid-tier artists to populate their stages (Mysteryland US) rather than a superstar with a correspondingly astronomic booking fee. As music fans and attendees, this actually may be the best possible thing – as live music becomes more popular, it becomes more competitive, forcing the cream to rise and the rest to fall away.