In a year when headline tours by the likes of Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen and Coldplay flexed their box office muscle, and the touring industry at large continued apace, it was a year of change and, for the most part, continued growth for the North American festivals sector.
Whether through inspired booking (think reuniting Guns N’ Roses for Coachella, Indio, Calif.) or innovative concepts, creativity won the day for North American festivals. Conversely, those festivals that relied solely on the strength of their brand, or even the relative health of a specific genre, found the going tougher.
Against this backdrop of a more competitive, mature market, the world’s two biggest festival players in Live Nation and AEG Live continued to jockey for position and build their respective portfolios by either launching (or attempting to launch) new festivals, or partnering in or acquiring new ones.
In the “inspired booking” department, no individual tops Goldenvoice president Paul Tollett. In reuniting original GNR members Axl Rose, Slash, and Duff McKagan for the first time in 16 years at Coachella, Tollett pulled off a feat no other promoter had been able to accomplish—or was willing to risk. A well-received performance in the desert, and the blockbuster Live Nation-produced stadium tour that followed, silenced the skeptics.
But Tollett didn’t stop there and, instead, managed perhaps an even more unlikely feat: reeling in the older demographic that had largely resisted the festival boom to see a dream lineup, recasting the all-day, multistage festival model in the process.
Mining the assets of parent company AEG Live, Tollett was armed with a massive budget (estimated at $90 million) and rich relationship resources in putting together a “bill of the century” in The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Roger Waters, The Who, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. With Desert Trip, Tollett cracked the code for attracting a well-heeled audience that had largely been less than enamored of the endurance-test schedules and Spartan accommodations that defined today’s millennial-focused festival experience. Estimated gross: $130 million from two weekends in October.
HEAD BANGER BONANZA
Another success story for 2016 was the continued explosion of hard rock and metal as a viable force on the festival landscape. OzzFest Meets KnotFest, a Live Nation-promoted merger of Ozzy Osbourne’s Ozzfest and Slipknot’s KnotFest, drew over 75,000 head bangers Sept. 24-25 to San Manuel Amphitheater, San Bernardino, Calif., to see Black Sabbath, Slipknot, Disturbed, Slayer, and other heroes of the genre. Beyond that, multiple hard rock fests have cropped up around the country, many of them produced solely or in partnerships by Danny Wimmer Presents under such titles as Welcome to Rockville, Metropolitan Park, Jacksonville, Fla.; Carolina Rebellion, Charlotte (N.C.) Speedway; Rock on the Range, Mapfre Stadium, Columbus, Ohio; Rocklahoma, Pryor, Okla., Aftershock, Discovery Park, Sacramento, and Rock Allegiance, Talen Energy Stadium, Chester, Pa. Combined, these fests move hundreds of thousands of tickets and attract major sponsors, and more will surely come.
Artist-curated festivals, created as a medium for fans to experience an engaging manifestation of a specific artist’s vision, came into their own in 2016 as an alternative to the massive destination megafests that have been the backbone of the U.S. festival scene. The most prominent among this new breed came from the urban genre, with the launch of Magnificent Coloring Day by Chance The Rapper and the growth of Camp Flog Gnaw from Odd Future’s Tyler, The Creator.
With headliners Lil Wayne, Skrillex, and Chance himself, Magnificent Coloring Day was that artist’s homage to his Southside Chicago roots, and its message of positivity and social awareness (along with the in-demand artists on the bill) helped notch record attendance (reported as 45,754) to U.S. Cellular Field (home of MLB’s White Sox) on Sept. 24. Madison House Presents promoted.
A similar template was previously employed by Tyler, The Creator in Camp Flog Gnaw. Now in its fifth year, Flog Gnaw, held at L.A.’s Exposition Park, moved a record 70,000 tickets for its Nov. 12-13 run. With its carnival atmosphere and Tyler-centric lineup of headliners Lil Wayne, Chance, and A$AP Rocky, Flog Gnaw is an example of how a motivated, creative artist partnered with a risk-tolerant promoter (Goldenvoice, in this case) can build an event with legs—and imitators.
But all the news on the festival scene in 2016 was not good, and less-than-compelling talent buying is often the reason why fans fail to respond. After several “gold rush” years that saw the launch of more than a dozen new festivals in the country music genre, the bubble burst in 2016, with at least a half-dozen festivals pulling the plug or never launching at all. The scarcity of headliners, along with the ubiquity of the 20 or so acts that can do arena-level business, was certainly one of the main reasons why country stumbled on the fest front this year.
Country is just a microcosm of what is happening in the North American festival world at large. The first 16 years of this millennium have seen unprecedented growth for the domestic festival business, as groundbreaking destination events like Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, once outliers in a shed-dominated summer, find themselves in an increasingly crowded market. Only a few years ago, established festivals at breathtaking sites could count on their brand identity and fan equity to generate huge revenues from their three main streams: ticket sales, sponsors and concessions.
But when festivals double and triple in number, headliner scarcity becomes evident, the quest for exclusivity becomes more challenging, and establishing or maintaining brand affinity becomes a much more elusive goal. As the de facto kickoff of the festival season, Coachella (and its sister country fest, Stagecoach) has the luxury of both savvy talent buying and being the first major music event of the season. Not only did Coachella book GNR in 2016, but also surprised many by naming LCD Soundsystem, in its first live performance in five years, another headliner, a role LCD had never played in its first run.
Coachella is one of a handful of festivals that sells out before it announces its headliners, with fans counting on Tollett to deliver the goods, and the “experience” arguably being the biggest headliner of all. Other festivals, as was proven in 2016, very much rely on their headliners to sell tickets, and as spring turned to summer, LCD did not create near the buzz in, say, Manchester, Tenn., home of Bonnaroo, as it did in SoCal. Add Dead & Company and Pearl Jam (in its second Bonnaroo appearance) to that headliner mix and Bonnaroo’s lineup failed to ignite the passion of fans at the level of past years. Bonnaroo, now part of the Live Nation portfolio, experienced the lowest attendance in its history in 2016, reported at 45,537 tickets, 38% lower than 2015, according to the Tennessean. Live Nation took notice, and early buzz on the 2017 lineup points to the inspired Bonnaroo bills of yore.
Once a summer afterthought in America, the stateside festival market has not only caught up with the network in the U.K. and Europe (where festivals have long dominated the warm season), but has in many ways surpassed it in terms of gross revenue, attendance, sponsor involvement, and relevance on the cultural landscape. Given that dynamic, consolidation was to be expected, and over the past few years, Live Nation and AEG Live have set out on parallel paths to build their respective festival portfolios.
With established brands like JazzFest, Coachella, Stagecoach, Firefly, Hangout, and Electric Forest (among many others) in its portfolio, AEG enjoyed a significant head start on Live Nation, which dominated the U.K./Euro scene festivals (where AEG has little significance) but was a little late to the party in this country. AEG and Goldenvoice were early believers in the power of festivals and jumpstarted growth in the space as the privately-held firm sought to add assets with longevity beyond the length of a tour or one-off concert.
But, in recent years, Live Nation doubled down on its American festival portfolio, launching several country fests and acquiring majority stakes in EDM powerhouse Insomniac (Electric Daisy Carnival), C3 Presents (ACL Music Fest and the global Lollapalooza brand) and Bonnaroo, as well as, recently, Bonnaroo co-founder AC Entertainment.
The battle for American fest supremacy continued in 2016; much of it played out in the New York market. AEG Live’s Goldenvoice launched Panorama in New York on Randalls Island, the same site as the existing (and successful) Governors Ball festival. In March, Live Nation acquired GovBall producer Founders Entertainment, which promptly announced a third New York festival at the city’s Citi Field in Flushing Meadows, ironically where Goldenvoice had initially sought to stage Panorama.
Without doubt, this festival expansion/ acquisition mode for both firms will continue into 2017 and beyond as the “destination festival” product category marches inevitably toward saturation. In fact, the geographic reach of true destination status for most festivals of this stature has already diminished from national or international to regional. As the calendar fills up across America, with major festivals every warm-weather weekend, expect growth in the niche and artist-curated festival category and continued talent challenges for existing majors. Arenas and stadiums will continue to vie for their piece of the festival pie by staging their own “mini-fests” with local appeal and smaller budgets. However it plays out, festivals have been embraced by American concert-goers, particularly millennials seeking “experiences” over “stuff,” and will remain a critical factor in the overall live music business for the foreseeable future.