2015 saw the birth of many new niche music festivals and the consolidation of some industry giants. Since 2012, four of the top five music festivals in America by attendance went from independent operators to acquired by Live Nation. And Live Nation is only one of the several companies rushing to buy up their own stock of festivals.
From Bonnaroo to Hangout, classic fan favorites are increasingly shifting hands to bigger players. But what does that mean for festival professionals today?
Nothing good — or at least that seems to be the consensus of the 139 music festival industry organizers, promoters, and production companies Eventbrite and IMFCON surveyed for “Music Festivals in 2015: Perspectives from Backstage.” Nearly a third of festival organizers lost sleep over market saturation in 2015, and that challenge isn’t expected to go away any time soon.
Who’s Losing Their Cool Over Increased Competition?
Surprisingly, it’s the biggest fish in the sea that are most scared of sharks. While no one was particularly enthusiastic about increasing competition, the organizers of the most festivals are the most stressed out. Half of festival holders who bring in more than 10K+ attendees or host more than six events a year expressed concern.
Think competition is healthy? Some beg to differ. A quarter (25%) say it’s become difficult to attract top talent. And more than a third (36%) think getting sponsors is a major challenge in a world with so many different festivals for brands to choose from.
Both these factors directly affect organizers’ bottom lines — and might affect their willingness to agree to an acquisition as well. But as the market has become more consolidated, producers have become more divided on what these changes mean for the music festival industry.
The Hot Topic: Festival Brand Acquisitions
When we asked organizers what they thought about festival acquisitions, they had a lot to say and little to agree on. In general, festivals were about 3x more likely to think consolidations are bad for the industry than good (41% vs 15%). But many organizers weren’t sure of the impact.
“There are good and bad elements to it. Only having one festival [puts] all your eggs in one basket, so a bad year is a bigger deal than if there were multiple festivals in the portfolio to make up for it. It’s bad because there is value in a festival that might not be as profitable. If you are looking at the festival only in terms of profitability, there are great festivals that could vanish, if they are acquired then discarded.” – The organizer of a festival in Vermont
Producers of 6+ festivals a year were split down the middle: 28% said acquisitions are great for the industry, and 28% said they’re bad news. But disapproval is nearly universal among organizers with fewer events. Those who hold 2-6 festivals a year are twice as likely to feel negatively than positively about consolidation. That jumps to six times as likely if a director manages just one festival a year.
But why is it that some organizers shun mergers while others think they lead to new possibilities? From the fiercely independent to the optimistic advocates, there were three main concerns from backstage:
1. Replacing local experiences with “generic” global experiences.
The argument: “I don’t want festivals to lose their authenticity or stray from what makes them a success because of needing to comply with a large corporation’s philosophy, goals, etc. Sometimes the fact that an event is unique and specific to a city is a great selling point and keeps it unique and special. It almost seems like there are now carbon copy festivals all over the country with a similar lineup.” – The organizer of a 6-day festival in Washington, D.C.
The rebuttal: “They create incredible global experiences.” – A PR professional at a production company that organizes 4-6 festivals each year
2. Making it impossible to compete.
The arguments: “[It’s] driving the price of talent up.” – The CEO of a 50K+ attendee festival in Wyoming
“[Acquisition] creates a monopoly and smaller festivals can’t compete.” – A manager of 2-3 festivals in Gulf Shores, Alabama
The rebuttal: “Having a true differentiator will continue to be what counts.” – A promoter of a 10-50K attendee festival in the San Francisco Bay Area
3. Creating a less diverse fan experience.
The argument: “It changes the perspective of the patron from feeling they are getting a fan-focused experience to instead getting a money-making experience. [That’s] making room for the smaller festivals to receive more praise from the fan looking for said fan-focused experience.” – The owner of 2-3 small bluegrass festivals outside of Chicago
The rebuttal: “[Consolidation] creates better value for the patrons.” – A promoter of 6+ festivals each year
Everyone’s concerned that corporations can’t preserve the authentic atmosphere that makes festivals so special.
Massive companies tend to focus on their bottom line, and that can aggravate those in it for the love of the art — especially when profit comes head-to-head with creativity. Small festivals with less than 10K attendees are first to call out authenticity, but the big guys with more than 50K attendees are concerned too.
The niche festivals: “Multi-national corps purely focused on shareholder returns are bad news.” – A New Zealand festival producer
“[They’re] making festival[s] more commercial, less intimate.” – A festival organizer in Laramie, Wyoming
The big players: “Large corporations become solely focused on money and the true soul of the festival is lost.” – A director of EDM festivals in Georgia
“Corporate involvement changes the spirit of the festival.” – The manager at a production company in Austin
“Festivals might lose [their] unique identity.” – A production director in Tennessee
Ultimately, no one wants to feel like a sell-out — whether or not they’ve been acquired. As the Assistant Director of a Bluegrass festival in New York summarized, “Uniqueness is important to us, not homogenization.”
Most fans would agree. After all, while the market is getting more competitive, demand is rising as well. Per capita spend on live music events including festivals grew from $29 per person in 2008 to $48 in 2014. The music festival industry may be changing, but with so many hooked fans, there’s no shortage of opportunities for organizers to make their mark.
Want to learn more about trends in live music? Check out 2017 Music Trends: 7 Eye-Opening Predictions from Industry Pros.