Music festivals: Big biz or bubble?

September 25, 2016 11:00 AM
Music trade musings & new music reviews

Festival creator Perry Farrell and his band Jane’s Addiction brought a full-fledged rock show to Grant Park in Chicago to celebrate the festival’s 25th anniversary, which lived up to the hype. 

With guest spots from Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine) and Jimmy Chamberlain (Smashing Pumpkins), two women also danced for nearly an hour behind the band. For the final few songs those same women were hoisted and swung above the crowd by nothing but hooks in the skin of their backs. Yes, that’s right; it was Cirque d’Perry with more than 400,000 people packing Grant Park’s 319 acres during four days with music on eight stages for 10 hours a day. Public transportation and ample parking got people to and from the venues. Bud Light and Samsung sponsored stages at the north and south ends of the park, respectively. And when a band finished on one of those stages, it was only a matter of minutes before music began on another stage sharing that field. Side stages shuffled bands on and off throughout the day while Perry’s stage kept thousands of scantily clad (mostly) younger audience members bouncing to Electronic Dance Music. Fans kept track of the 190 different shows throughout the week on a dedicated app. 

For those who wanted the music to continue, and had the energy to keep standing and partying, a bevy of official sold-out after-shows took place in Chicago’s ample club scene. 

The event was ringed by 35 mid- to high-end food vendors that fueled us while CamelBak provided water filling stations, Pepsi and Budweiser sold pop and beer, respectively and Cupcake offered both red and white wines for sale. There was a dedicated mixed drinks area sponsored by Tito’s and Jack Daniels that mandated drinks be both bought and consumed within this area, with one positive side effect being the shortest lines for portable toilets, which were always in high demand. Chicago police officers as well as the FBI kept the festival safe, mostly turning a blind eye to the consumption of excess alcohol and marijuana, unless things got unsafe or dangerous, which did occur. All part of the experience -- and that is what Lollapalooza and other festivals are selling. The event offered an experience that mirrors its demographic -- streaming and sampling music, tie-ins with social media and the ability to interact with a wide variety of like-minded festival goers who are willing to help and share with one another.

Planners delivered commercially and artistically on the risk of expanding the festival from three to four days. Farrell stated that the festival is a very profitable enterprise for everyone involved. And with 400,000 tickets sold during the four-day event, including VIP packages, there are a lot of buyers who were there upwards of 10 hours per day; eating, drinking and paying for other experiences and merchandise. 

In fact, festivals are big business and during the past four years have attracted the attention of the biggest live entertainment companies. And with the U.S. festival business estimated at more than $6 billion, why wouldn’t big business step in? 

AEG Live and Live Nation, the nation’s two largest live entertainment firms, own the top 10 largest festivals in the country in both attendance and revenues. 

Live Nation purchased a controlling interest in Lollapalooza in 2014. The number of festivals worldwide, according to eFestivals, has grown from 496 in 2007 to 1,070 last year. Growth and interest is focused on EDM-focused festivals, but big businesses typically wait a few years to buy a festival to reduce risk as many festivals lose money in early years. While the biggest spoils go to the owners/promoters, artists are also commanding more money, enough that many artists plan their touring schedules around the festival circuit where they can make more money than several other shows while also reaching a wider and bigger audience that should pay dividends in future years. 

However, as the number of festivals increases year- over-year and each party negotiates more of their share, promoters need to spend more to sell the same number of tickets, and as fixed costs continue to rise, a plateau in growth is inevitable.

The biggest wild card in profitability year-to-year is weather, and it affects everyone. A rainy festival means lower revenues for everyone from food and beverage to merchandisers. This year everyone won. 

Looking forward to the next one!

The Pixies 
Head Carrier

From the opening guitar riffs of repeating 16th notes to the alto’s “Oooooh’s,” All I think About Now owes a lot to Where Is My Mind, which has to put a snarled smile on any long-time fan’s face. The one track sung by bassist, Paz Lenchantin, and written by Frank Black is an instant Pixies’ classic, written as a cryptic ‘thank you’ to long-time previous bassist, Kim Deal. Fierce guitars dominate throughout while a never-ending hook curls its way into your brain. A great hallmark of Doolittle was that Deal brought such a perfect foil for Black’s voice and because it was so thoughtfully placed, there is not one song where you wish there were less of it. That desire for just a little bit more of the female vocal, is replicated on Head Carrier. Fourth track, Might As Well – opens with an 18-second instrumental featuring heavy synthesizers and rolling drums before Black ambles into a melody that is the first verse over Paz’s slightly sinister yet bouncing bass. As the verse transitions into the hum-along chorus, Paz again highlights Black’s voice again and again at the right times. Belle Esprit tells the tale of a man who is anything but. The guitar driven song evolves into a jump up and down chorus on top of a wall of sound with everything turned way up. Um Chaggga Lagga is just straight ahead irreverent paranoid punk complete with drum rolls and a guitar solo that probably consists of no more than six notes. Overall the album has a really nice balance between guitar-driven songs and songs that lean heavily on melodic bass lines and plenty of choruses that make you want to stand up and bounce. This should be a fun one to see live.

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