Since the 1970s until the turn of the millennium, music festivals attracted a very specific kind of customer: the die-hard. These festivals were messy, no-holds-barred affairs (think: Woodstock) that held little appeal to fans averse to sleeping outside and being covered in mud for days on end.
Then came the rise of Coachella, Bonnaroo, Governors Ball, and similar brands. They democratized the festival experience, making it accessible, relatively comfortable, and even luxe — for VIP customers, that is.
Fans responded in droves, buying increasingly pricy tickets en masse. According to Pollstar, the festival market truly exploded in 2014. That year, 58 out of the top 300 grossing live music events around the globe were music festivals, an increase of more than 100 percent over 2013.
Fast forward to today, just six short years later, and cracks in the mega-festival façade have begun to show. How did we get here — and what’s coming next?
Then: The rise (and fall) of the mega-festival
Although Coachella is the pinnacle of the modern music mega-festival, it didn’t start out that way. In fact, it launched as a friendly, easy-going alternative to the mega-festivals of yore (primarily Woodstock and Lollapalooza: the aforementioned messy, muddy, anarchic free-for-alls).
As the New York Times wrote in 2003, “A turning point for rock festivals was the Coachella [festival] … Unlike Woodstock 1999, Coachella has taken pride in making concertgoers comfortable.”
The number of daily attendees started small but grew steadily: 35,000 by the 2nd edition; 60,000 by the 7th; 75,000 by the 12th; and over 100,000 by the 18th in 2017. And as Coachella’s success grew, so did its copycats.
2018 marked a tipping point, however, as a number of high-profile disasters befell the festival industry. Goldenvoice shuttered FYF Fest, a beloved mid-size festival in Los Angeles, due to poor ticket sales and sexual assault accusations against founder Sean Carlson. The Bay Area was set to host XO Festival, touted as “the first large-scale event of its kind in the city of Antioch,” until venue staff preemptively cancelled the entire festival days before kick-off, citing disastrous planning. And 2019 began with not one but two documentaries produced by Hulu and Netflix charting the unprecedented debacle that was Fyre Festival.
Although these large-scale festivals aren’t quite the industry darlings they once were, a new type of gathering has already begun to pick up steam.
Now: The tightly curated mini-festival
In 2019, new, nimbler, and savvier festivals have taken center stage.
Take Sol Blume, an intimate soul and R&B festival that launched spring 2018 in downtown Sacramento, CA.
“We wanted to create a music festival that felt like your favorite playlists come to life — with all your closest friends showing up to join the party,” says Justin Nordan, Sol Blume’s co-founder and a Venue Success Team Lead at Eventbrite. “Our goal was to introduce attendees to ideas, people, and experiences that might not be exactly what they’re used to, but make it all feel like home.”
What makes these small festivals shine?
“We have a niche crowd, and we know them well,” Nordan says, primarily because Fornati Kumeh, his partner in Sol Blume, promotes shows in Sacramento year-round. “We knew exactly which fans would dig this experience we were building, and we targeted them specifically.”
Because they knew their audience inside and out, they knew what their fans did (and didn’t) want. As a result, they sold 30% of their ticket inventory in their first 24 hours on sale. “That data told us we struck a chord with our fans, and they approved of our concept,” he says.
It’s important to remember: For music festivals in 2019 and beyond, bigger does not always mean better.
Interested in learning what insiders believe you need to succeed in the live music industry in 2019? Read 2019 Music Trends: The Top Predictions From Industry Pros.