The million-dollar headliners, the Outkast reunions, the Ferris wheels
August 5, 2014 8:25 AM   Subscribe

Heh ... In a couple weeks I'm gonna see Daft Punk out at the trash fence at Burning Man.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:36 AM on August 5, 2014 [8 favorites]

So . . . capitalism?
posted by ITravelMontana at 8:37 AM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

1) That is exactly what I expected Grayson Currin to look like.

2) I've been to a couple hundred concerts but not one festival

3) I'm glad bands can make money off of festivals

4) as long as people still pony up the money I don't see these going anywhere soon
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:40 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

4) as long as people still pony up the money I don't see these going anywhere soon

His point basically boiled down to why people may not be able to keep ponying up the money.
posted by OmieWise at 8:43 AM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Capps himself says that music fans seem a bit bored with plug-and-play concerts in clubs

I don't even get what he means by "plug and play" here.
posted by escabeche at 8:44 AM on August 5, 2014

I'm too old for festivals. I want air conditioning and designated seating if I'm going to go see a show.
posted by winna at 8:44 AM on August 5, 2014 [12 favorites]

I live within walking distance of Outside Lands but said screw it this year. The line up is pretty good, ticket prices aren't terrible, I just hate the festival experience in general.
posted by 2bucksplus at 8:45 AM on August 5, 2014

It kind of seems like this article is only about one specific type of big giant festival. Are local festivals with local bands considered part of this bubble?
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:50 AM on August 5, 2014

Headline is "why it's about to burst"; article is "why it might not grow much further...but no one really knows for sure."
posted by yoink at 8:56 AM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Reggae on the River just finished up here in Humboldt County (Northern California).

I didn't attend any of the three days, but from the live feed and overhead shots available on line, it seemed pretty massive, successful, and costly.

I've been to a lot of concerts and festivals in my day...and I guess I'm old now as I prefer a decent seat in the smallest possible venue to the giant stadium events or camp out for several days festivals.
posted by CrowGoat at 9:12 AM on August 5, 2014

Are local festivals with local bands considered part of this bubble?

Festivals like Pygmalion Fest in Urbana-Champaign are discussed as a possible way forward. I've attended that festival multiple times over the years and it's always been hassle-free good times, with real local flavor and emphasis on the music scene (with a decent amount of big draw acts as well.) (Relatively speaking, like Chvrches and Deafheaven, not Outkast and Beyonce.) I would love to see that as a model for scaling things down and staying interesting.
posted by naju at 9:12 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Claire's, the fashion accessory store for tweens, has a section called "festival looks." Surely this is a sign of the coming crash?

I've been to one major festival. There were a lot of dumb people doing a lot of dumb things. Food was insanely overpriced, water and shade were not in sufficient supply, and the tickets were stupid-expensive. I'd prefer to see one or two acts I really like at a club than mill around with 20,000 confused 20-somethings for three days in the summer heat.
posted by 1adam12 at 9:18 AM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Getting out of the way that the headline is sort of clickbait-y, the article is well written and brings up some good points I've never read before. As to whether a bubble is going to burst: on one hand, I feel like the "big festival experience" has proven to have diminishing returns. We've all been there, done that at this point. The sound quality is poor by nature of an outside festival, there's always a huge line for the portapotties, you're on the brink of heatstroke, and the same bands play the festival circuit every year and the lineups all end up looking pretty lowest common denominator crowd-pleasing but not earth-shaking, with few exceptions.

On the other hand: there's an argument to be made that the festival experience has firmly become a social rite of passage for young people, a (mostly? if you're white?) safe space to do drugs, explore sexual situations and be a bit reckless. It's on the level of prom, maybe.
posted by naju at 9:20 AM on August 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

His point basically boiled down to why people may not be able to keep ponying up the money.

In particular, the issues he cites.

1) There are so many of them that the the talent supply is strained. You have to book acts very early, and you have to book them as a fly-in*.

2) There is only so much sponsorship money available.

3) There are now so many of the damn things.

4) At some point, ticket price increases will hurt you.

However, I don't know if we're at that point. The article rightly points out that it's often a mistake to raise ticket prices if you're at the demand limit, because that will only reduce demand. Economics 101.

Economics 201, however, will point out a few other factors. If you sell 10K tickets at $200, and only 9K tickets at $250, you've actually lost -$250K. Note, minus $250K, you've actually taken in more money. If you only have 9K instead of 10K at the festival, that reduces your costs by that factor. However, it could reduce your sponsorship money by that factor, and you really do need to play the press game right or tons of reports will be made about how you're losing people. But if you went to $300 and still got 9K people, that's $750K more ticket revenue. If you get 5K, you've blown it. :-)

So, raising ticket prices isn't automatically a bad thing if the reduction in demand is made up by the higher cost per ticket and lower costs to produce the festival. As in all economics related things, there are a shit-ton more factors than the supply/demand/price curves.

There are a ton of music festivals. I think the first tier ones (Conchella, Bonaroo, SXSW, Lollapalooza**, etc. ) will be fine unless something truly awful happens to them. Smart festivals setting up nearish (in both place and time) to the very big ones and saying "Hey, since you're coming to X, why not stop on the way here" will also continue to do well, so long as they don't try to become one of the biggest. When they stop with "Come since you're coming by" and become "Come instead", that's when you really start fighting for the talent pool.

Another factor is travel. There are people who will travel cross country to get to a festival, true. But most of a festival's market -- even the first tier ones -- comes from up close. Conchella, Bonaroo, Lolla, and SXSW don't really compete with each other because they're at different times in different places, and most of the people at Lolla are taking transit into town because they live here, and they're not going to Bonaroo because they don't live there.

So, the market is not completely elastic. As long as you don't saturate your local market, you can be successful despite the fact that there thirty dozen other music fests out there. Chicago, which has had a festival a weekend every summer weekend for years, appears to be nowhere near saturated, seems not to have shown this issue with the big exception of a large non-music festival, Taste of Chicago, which did run into money problems

So, I don't think we're near the bursting point, but I would not be surprised to seem some of the larger-but-not-largest festivals either shrink or fail completely. I would also not be surprised if one of the very largest shut down or shrunk, just because Shit Happens. Lose facilities, have a disease outbreak or some horrific crime, get tired of running it, that sort of thing.

But a true bust? Where a large fraction of the music festivals, including the largest, fail in a short period of time? Nope. Not now, not soon. There are millions willing to pay to go to all these festivals, and I don't see that demand dramatically decreasing for anything short of a depression or a war.

* A "fly-in" is an act coming who's not on a regular tour. This means they're not going to be driving by, so you have to fly them in, out, and deal with gear, either by renting it or arranging for the performer's gear to be shipped there and back. Fly-in performances cost much more than touring performances, where the cost of travel is really borne by the band and amortized over the tour, and the cost of gear, which the band has with them when they drive in.

Of course, just because you booked, say, Skrillex or Kings of Leon a year ago as a fly-in doesn't mean that they're going to fly in. They, not being stupid, will then bolt a tour around the festival performances they're doing, so they get paid as a fly-in, but have the costs of a standard tour. But you can't just assume that, because the only reason the tour is coming that way is that you booked them for the festival.

** When I was your age, Lollapalooza was a tour.

† Everyone has their own pet theory on this. Nobody's pet theory includes the recession, which makes me question everybody's pet theory on this. (Mine: Combo of the reaction to the 2007 salmonella outbreak, which reduced attendance at 2008, and then the October 2008 market collapse, which hurt 2009-2011.)
posted by eriko at 9:21 AM on August 5, 2014 [11 favorites]

I loved festivals when I was younger, but the older I get the more I notice things I dislike about them. I suppose it's partially because the novelty has worn off with time, but also because I'm just not as excited about as many currently touring bands as I was fifteen years ago. If you only want to see two or three acts, that definitely makes the whole event's cost issue stand out. Mostly, though, I find myself horribly repulsed by the wastefulness and refuse and damage that are left behind.

Worst example: I was really happy when Wakarusa moved to a spot in the Ozarks near my hometown--double excuse for a visit to the homeland!--but, ugh, in 2013 the sheer volume of litter and waste that were left behind/thrown in the creek/"artfully" tied up in trees/strewn up and down highway 23 was enough to put me off from going back.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:26 AM on August 5, 2014

Hell, I haven't been able to afford a bog-standard single-act-plus-a-warmup concert in years, let alone some multi-headliner festival. Live music, in general, has long-ago priced itself way out of my ability to partake.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:38 AM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

I want air conditioning and designated seating if I'm going to go see a show.

And BATHROOMS dear god real bathrooms where I can actually wash my hands after having had to touch surfaces contaminated by hundreds if not thousands of intoxicated and thus uncoordinated people.
posted by elizardbits at 9:40 AM on August 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

Also, 'indie' rock is a huge umbrella. Anything that has Radiohead and Outkast isn't trying to attract a subculture, its trying to attract 20 year olds. Festivals like Maryland Deathfest, which is generally awesome and usually includes an appearance by someone rare hyped and worth it (in the past they had Sleep, Neurosis, and Cobalt) are doing just fine.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:45 AM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh, this is where I can link to Alt-fest's cancellation:
It is with a heavy heart that we must confirm we have had to cancel Alt-Fest. We tried to put on a ground-breaking event for you & the alternative scene, and it was your support that was helping to make it happen. From our early days on Kickstarter through to all of you who have purchased tickets we thank you. We the organisers of Alt-Fest have done everything we can to save it, but this week we ran out of time to raise all the required funds that was needed upfront of the festival.
posted by boo_radley at 9:47 AM on August 5, 2014

There are fabulous small festivals nearly every summer weekend, 200-500 people, in the DC/VA/MD area. If the issue is that the big fests are too big and wasteful and expensive, look around. I'm 48, and there's pretty much nothing hard-core about me, but I love going to fests and don't see stopping any time soon. But the biggest one I've been to is 850 people, so we may be talking about different animals.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:47 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Festivals baffle me. I won't even go to downtown Chicago during Lollapalooza because I don't want to go back to high school. Also because it will rain.
posted by srboisvert at 10:08 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

No band is good enough to make me want to endure all those people, inconvenience and rain.
posted by davebush at 10:21 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've been to both Coachella (psst eriko, it's 'Coachella,' no n) and SXSW and to be honest I prefer smaller festivals like Summergrass.

Coachella, which I went to years before it became the best place to find young C-list stars on a given weekend in April, is an amazing festival but who the hell wants to be outside in the high desert heat for that long? Not to mention the press coverage of said baby stars and the two-class system it seems to have imposed (famous vs not, which is very LA but not very IE).

SXSW is exhausting, especially for anyone who went to Interactive events before Music even started, and there's only so much of Sixth Street one can take before going mad. Not to mention, last year it rained miserably. At least in Austin there's no expectation that you'll be outside the whole time (not for SXSW anyway--ACL is a different, less expensive, story).

Smaller events are more fun, more sane, and way cheaper. What's not to like?
posted by librarylis at 10:21 AM on August 5, 2014

So long as there are twenty-somethings, there will be music festivals. there will always be older folks with more cash willing to pay for vip experiences to see the band they've always wanted to see up close, just as there will always be half naked twirlers back behind the repeaters.
The real challenge, presented tangentially in this article, is to not let your perfectly positioned festival (like coachella) jump the shark and lose its cache as the place to be. Sasquatch on 4th of july was a terrible idea from the start. 4th of july means something entirely different to northwesterners than a weekend at the Gorge, but Paradiso draws bigger and bigger crowds every summer because it's the place to be, regardless of the headliner.
I agree that it's wonderful to know that bands actually have a way to make money these days. Their job then is to show up and blow the roof off of the place so that they end up being the band that everyone is sad they missed, and looks forward to at the next festival.
Sometimes I wish I were still young enough to enjoy the crowds, the dirt, the shitty acoustics, the port-o-lets, the heat, the traffic and the fun, but mostly i am happy to hear the stories my kids and their friends tell of an epic weekend that they can't even remember, and then remember all the things that i've forgotten about the 30 or so Dead shows i went to the in the eighties.
the festival is dead, long live the festival!
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:28 AM on August 5, 2014

I have very few of the "I knew something before it was hip," but I loved the first Coachella, besides the water shortage (free water was promised to all, but even for their inaugural year, they didn't plan for the crowd and the heat). Bands had their own merch booths/tables, instead of the Virgin pop-up store, and it wasn't crazy crowded. And even in later years, when things got more corporate, there were still a lot of fun bands, the festival still maintained a lot of the DIY artists (as in makers of physical installation art) and had a great variety of restaurants/food vendors at reasonable prices (for a festival). And skipping over acres of grass at night, with music playing and weird tesla coils sparking, is a LOT of fun, even without medicinal enhancements.

Of course, the biggest draw there were so many bands I wanted to see, in a variety of musical genres. I lived 4 hours from both San Francisco and Los Angeles, making both destinations close, but beyond casual reach, and greatly decreasing the chance of any major local shows, so Coachella was ideal, especially as a college student who could have a long weekend on a whim.

Every year, there were some really dumb decisions made. First, don't book stadium-scale bands for a festival, unless you have a stadium worth of space where their fans won't clog up the flow of traffic between tents/stages. Similarly, don't book any lesser major stars (like Beck) at any choke-point, because his crowd will block flow of people, too. Traffic was a nightmare, so it was a good idea to leave before the headliner finished (or even started) unless you wanted to sit in your car for two hours, or park half a mile to a mile away and avoid the bottlenecks.

Now that I'm in flyover/drive on by land, festivals make sense again. They are indeed most appealing for twenty-somethings and college folks, who have the flexibility to head out on a long weekend, staying up all night and sleeping in until the next day's shows start, but they're great ways to see a lot of fun bands in a dense amount of time. But I'm a tall guy who loves music and energized crowds, and I realize festivals are definitely not for everyone.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:39 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

But but!

Honestly, at this point I'm not convinced most of The Kids are actually going to these mega-fests to listen to the music. Music is #1 at MoogFest, definitely. It's 50-50 at something like SXSW. But certainly not Coachella or Bonnaroo. It seems like they're there mainly to wear neon headbands, glamp out as best as they can afford, get branded Converse swag, do drugs, mill around looking for celebrities, and gathering stories to prove they were there.

I mean, we even have a name for these kids. "Festies." Doesn't matter what festival, who's playing, or where it is. They. Are. There.

This isn't a "get off my lawn" thing, necessarily. In the early 2000s I went to (minorly played at, with various bands) Coachella, Bonnaroo, Hellfest, Cornerstone, FurnaceFest, SXSW, and a few others. So I get it. I was there.

It just... doesn't seem like the music matters as much anymore. Like you could throw EDM on a sound system, pay Chris Pratt or a Kardashian to wander around, set up a Levis tent, and just call it a rave. Or a mall. Seems much cheaper.
posted by functionequalsform at 10:45 AM on August 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

There are, in fact, large festival devoted to electronic music. They don't seem any less involved to put on.

There are also lots of small to medium ones, and generally that's where both the good music and Good At Partying people are.
posted by flaterik at 10:51 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

(Sorry, didn't mean to specifically call out EDM as "cheap" or anything. I like a lot of EDM and understand the complexity/musicality of it.)
posted by functionequalsform at 10:54 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I feel like a number of mid-sized midwestern festivals can be rated on success by the number of touring/up-and-coming bands they have versus number of jam bands. The jam bands will bring in guaranteed ticket sales. The interest I have in festivals is actually somewhat related to this ratio.
posted by mikeh at 10:57 AM on August 5, 2014

I also didn't mean to imply that what's happening at non-electronic-music festivals isn't "good music". I like me all sorts of tunes.... and of course there is some good stuff at the big electronic ones.
posted by flaterik at 10:57 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

It kind of seems like this article is only about one specific type of big giant festival.

This point is spectacularly apparent to me as I just got my first good night of sleep back home from producing a brand new Burning Man style festival out in eastern Washington. Unlike these big commercial festivals, it was an improvised, amateur, DIY, participatory sort of thing where everyone involved was simultaneously "staff" and ""attendee". It was surprising, a little bit slapdash, but it was homey, heartfelt, beautiful, and tons of fun. It's amazing how much infrastructure people can pull together for basically free, when they feel like they are a part of the crew and their contributions are meaningful.

We had DJs, too, and we certainly appreciated them, but it was... not like the scene described in this article: they were just there to be part of the festival, same as the rest of us were, and it so happened that playing music was the way they were able to contribute.

There's something deeply satisfying about this kind of egalitarian "let's all pull together to show each other a good time" festival that i would really miss at a big commercial festival. Even if the big commercial festival scene is as much of a bubble as the article claims, I doubt the people doing small, DIY, community-driven festivals like ours will even notice when the bubble pops.
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:59 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

The 9 guys you'll meet at Lollapalooza next year. (Courtesy of Chicago's Very Own)
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:09 PM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

For the most part I hate festivals. I'm too old for them. But for me, get the right bands and the right (older, less saturated with drugs and booze) crowd and not too many people, you might entice me. That's what Riot Fest did a few years ago, and I've gone every year since. I'm a little worried this year - I've heard there are more stages (and certainly the lineup seems so big there would have to be), and if that means there are thousands more people there, it might be the last one for me. But the past few years have been quite civilized for what it is. Plenty of space to wander around or relax, and small enough crowds that even if you want to just hang waaay in the back you can still hear and probably even see the band at any given stage. Oh, and the article mentions the Ferris wheel like it's some ridiculous over the top thing, but I really like the little carnival that they set up. It gives people something else to do and it's just your typical traveling carnival rides and midway, not like the Navy Pier Ferris wheel recreated or anything.

Also this year I went the total old person route and got VIP tix, which gives me access to less crowded bathrooms and free beer and places to sit down and relax. And I get re-entry privileges, so since my apartment is like 2 blocks from one end of the festival, I could even go home and use my own bathroom if I want to. $170 for three days of music AND free beer is a pretty sweet deal.

But from the horror stories I've heard coming out of Lollapalooza this year, I have to think that there might be a point where a festival just outgrows itself. Maybe it's fine to have a festival that is more about the mud pits and drugs out in a desert with no one else around, but in the middle of downtown Chicago? Lolla just seems like such a mess, and it sells out before the lineup is even announced.

On the other hand, all the little neighborhood festivals that happen every summer weekend in Chicago are booking great acts and I would be surprised if they went anywhere. And thanks to the trend of aftershows, if I really want to see a festival-booked band I can often just grab an aftershow ticket at a regular music venue.
posted by misskaz at 12:27 PM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was so glad to see Kraftwerk this year without having to shell out for traveling to a festival, because they're usually at Pinkpop or Miami or Rio, and I've just not got that kind of dosh.

I don't mind festivals (especially since I do want to go to SONAR next year), but as every person with a ticket to Electric Daisy this year will be required to watch a video about not ODing on drugs, I know I would have been upset if I had to go to a thing like that to see them. This show was perfect; no opening act, no lag, either. Started at 8 on the nose in a beautiful old movie palace in Washington Heights and ended at 10. No drugs, no drunks, comfy seats, great music and fantastic 3-D show. 10/10, would see again.
posted by droplet at 2:32 PM on August 5, 2014

In particular, the issues he cites.

1) There are so many of them that the the talent supply is strained. You have to book acts very early, and you have to book them as a fly-in*.

2) There is only so much sponsorship money available.

3) There are now so many of the damn things.

4) At some point, ticket price increases will hurt you.

If this was likely to happen, wouldn't we have seen it in Europe, which has many more festivals, and has had this festival culture for years?
posted by benbenson at 2:56 PM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

If this was likely to happen, wouldn't we have seen it in Europe, which has many more festivals, and has had this festival culture for years?

B-b-b-b-but American exceptionalism!
posted by Strass at 4:51 PM on August 5, 2014

One thing I'm not sure was mentioned: the lineups at these things are largely the same, and it's hard to get excited about an OutKast reunion when there are going to be a dozen more OutKast reunions in slightly different fields with slightly different overpriced food and slightly different permutations of kids who make you feel old.
posted by dekathelon at 4:56 PM on August 5, 2014

I feel like this is the exact moment that I reached middle age. I have literally heard of none of the bands in the article except for Outkast. Man...
posted by Literaryhero at 9:24 PM on August 5, 2014

Yeah, this is when I'm glad to be an older dude who hates crowds and doesn't give a shit about what the kids are listening to nowadays.

Looking forward to the Hot August Music Festival in a couple weeks, though -- inexpensive tickets, family-friendly, and featuring performances by Nickel Creek, Old Crow Medicine Show, Dr. Dog, and a bunch of fun-sounding acts who are new to me.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 9:49 AM on August 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

The one thing that surprises me in all media coverage of festivals is no one ever talks about drugs unless someone dies. Drugs are a major part of every festival, ever, yet the media acts as though this aspect of festival life doesn't exist. Perhaps it's protection - if we don't talk about it the coppers won't know! Of course they know, there's only been one time I was aware of cops at a festival and that was a lone plainclothes policewoman walking around checking people's tents. In the main festival arenas you have absolutely nothing to worry about unless you can't handle your drugs and need medical assistance, yet it is still never mentioned in the media.

I love festivals. I love the weekend of drug-taking and lots of bands for far less money than I would spend seeing them all individually. I don't love the weekend camping in the mud, but that is exclusively an English problem - summer festivals in Australia are about too much heat and dehydration instead of mud, and those are the only countries in which I've been to festivals to compare. I love the atmosphere and the camaredierie, the music and did I mention the drugs?

I've seen some great acts at festivals, and will go to many more once my daughter is old enough and I think she can handle it (three is the minimum age for most festivals). Here in the UK the family camping areas are much better than the general- closer to the main stages and with better toilets. If the next Download lineup is good I have every intention of hiring a Winnebago and parking in the family camping area with my kid. I'm way too old, and she's way too young, to camp in the mud just to hear Metallica, Suicidal Tendencies, Black Sabbath or Motorhead. I, er, may even limit the drugs if she's around.

Having said that, the one festival gig I'd bought tickets for but wasn't able to see because I was ill, was Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo performing Graceland in its entirety for the 25th anniversary at Hard Rock Calling in London's Hyde Park in 2012 (I think?). A gig of a lifetime, and I missed it because I couldn't stand for more than two minutes. If there'd been seating I so would've been there. It was hard to find someone who appreciated it to take my tickets, too, even for free.

I don't think festivals are going anywhere anytime soon. It's a lot of money, yes, but people realise it's cost effective considering the number of headlining acts you get. Plus, the drugs. It's a weekend camping with your mates, listening to major bands, taking lots of drugs. The mud is only an issue when you're old and somewhat decrepit like me.
posted by goo at 6:15 PM on August 6, 2014

Re: drugs, there's been enough moral panic over festival deaths that I could easily see the jaws of authority clamping down on that fun over the next few years. Hell, it's already starting to happen. I do wonder if part of the appeal of festivals for 20 year olds is indeed the uninhibited nature of them, so tons of police presence would really dampen the spirit for many.
posted by naju at 9:52 AM on August 7, 2014

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