Ticket sales, lineup anticipation, execution, the people still going to these things — they've all been ass this year …
It was bound to happen.
Nothing lasts forever, and when you’re an industry levied on hype and the element of surprise, it’s easy to succumb to your own personally created dilemmas. Ticket sales, lineup anticipation, execution, the people still going to these things — every facet of what used to make a music festival great has been lacking as of late.
At least that’s how I saw it this year.
The past decade watched an incredible surge in the way fans experience music. What used to be a few major festivals peppering about the nation has blown into a full-on money-grab, making a small batch of people (and even fewer artists) exceptionally rich in the process, while leaving younger generations and their sparse incomes with no other option but to choose which festival to go to and how much they can actually spend on their favorites.
Because with close to 1,000 festivals running throughout America in a given year, not everyone can afford to go to them all.
“No, there’s no way I can even afford two this year,” says 24-year-old Katie Rawlson. She and her close group of friends would often go to half a dozen festivals throughout the nation when they were all in college. But now that she’s older, Rawlson says she’s nowhere near financially stable enough to attend the festivals she wants to, which were admittedly funded in part by taking out extra school loans.
“I mean, yeah, most people are using loans for that kind of thing,” she admits. “I wouldn’t change the experiences, but I’m pretty screwed with money now.”
Yet, even with the help of students squandering their finances, festivals everywhere are feeling the squeeze of simply too many events and not enough people.
Earlier this summer, it was reported Bonnaroo in Tennessee had the worst ticket sales in its 15-year history — down some 46 percent from its 2011 record.
TomorrowWorld, the massive coastal event that once hosted over 190,000 attendees through the course of a weekend, announced early on that it wouldn’t be happening in 2016 — the result of a disastrous 2015 and its parent company SFX declaring bankruptcy.
Myself, I’ve noticed that other festivals are in a rut as well, with noticeably thin crowds and shitty execution, a sure sign of possible future cancelations or extreme scaling back of operations. Many I attended this year didn’t have the same energy and forward momentum as there has been in years past.
The Big Bang is beginning to retract.
Looking at it on this side of 2016, however, it’s easy to see why it’s happening. For the first few experiences, a festival is exciting, new, raw. Lineup announcements are treated with the same voracity as holiday weekends. Sick days and the covering of shifts are planned around entire extended weekends. Hotels booked months in advance. Countdowns after countdowns are closely watched.
But how long can that actually last? As years cycle, go-ers feel a certain fatigue. Nothing is really new to them anymore. It all starts to become unattractive. The fresh and thrilling is the new status quo. That’s bad for business.
"People get sick of it eventually," says one anonymous festival staffer. "It can't last, there's no fuckin' way all of these in this state are going to last. Where does it even go from here?"
Which is where I’m probably at right now, for the most part. I’ve been to a hundred festivals in my lifetime, with probably a thousand live shows surrounding them. The biggest thing I personally see is the lack of innovation in festival delivery, the second being an ability to adapt.
Simply put, they’re just boring now.
Artists, venues and festivals aren’t doing anything to push boundaries. They’re very formulaic. To top it off, artists hardly ever give their best performances when they’re one of a hundred others on the poster. Time after time, I increasingly find disappointment with what performers offer. It isn’t entertainment. Most of them seem to be wasting time, merely fulfilling contractual obligations before going back home. I’ve lost a lot of respect for a lot of acts I once looked up to.
Most lineups need a serious boost moving forward. Half a decade ago, music lovers barely knew what was coming. Now, everyone’s pretty certain of who’s going where before Coachella even announces, then when it does, we’re sure of it.
It stems from logistical issues and routing concerns, of course, but it also seems to be a bit lazy looking from the outside in. There are tens of thousands of bands to choose from, a little creativity might go a long way for some of these struggling events. Ticket buyers, from what I gather, are looking for an untouchable variety. Something you can’t get from normal touring shows.
Then again, I could just be getting old. Standing around in a dusty parking lot drinking expensive, tasteless beers in the sun is hardly where I like to spend my free time anymore. Not to mention somehow footing the $300 tag just to enter. When festivals separated themselves from one another, there was enough justification for enduring those types of hardships like poverty or a little discomfort.
But they don’t anymore. And probably won’t, considering behemoths continue to buy out the successful brands and a streamlined protocol is in place to see that the operations move more smoothly. New events are going to have a bitch of a time competing with that. The death of the independent festival is on its way.
Count on it.
So what do festivals do? It’s not as easy as signing the trendiest bands or having things like Sin City and drugs close to your doors. Many festivals are doing just fine, toppling tens of millions of dollars in profits each year. It’s because those events created a brand, a culture for people to latch onto.
Coachella, EDC, SXSW — these are all going to do fine.
But the smaller festivals, as I see it, aren’t going to be around much in 2020. And plenty of investors late to the party are going to lose a lot of money figuring out why. The bubble has popped; the industry is finding its equilibrium.
Say that I’m wrong all you want, but while you’re out in a distant field somewhere drinking a $4 bottle of water, or $12 beer, listening to the same band you’ve seen 10 times before like it's Groundhog Day, I’ll be at home keeping tabs with the livestream and Snapchats from the comfort of my own home — the one I can finally afford now that I’m not willingly handing over my paychecks for an experience that topped out long ago.