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The Festival Bubble

April 11, 2013

Like a barometer always reading a temperature of awesome, the traditional kickoff to the summer festival season is dominated by Coachella. With a ridiculously close proximity to Los Angeles, Coachella is the one festival littered with visitors from abroad seeking out their first US festival experience. Think of Coachella as our official Ambassador of Music Festivals.

That “kickoff” is this weekend, when thousands of people will attend Coachella in the desert of Indio, California, for three days and nights of music headlined by Blur, the Stone Roses, Phoenix and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  For the second year in a row, Coachella will actually happen twice – each of the next two weekends – with identical lineups, “in an effort to try and accommodate everyone who wants to experience the festival.”  Once again, in case you think you misread that last sentence, the exact same festival will be held identically over each of the next two weekends.  As they proudly state on their website, that means same lineup, same art, same place, different people.

Is there really that much customer demand for a music festival?  The short answer is yes.  I said above that “thousands of people will attend Coachella” – in reality, hundreds of thousands will be there.  In 2011, the 3-day festival was held one weekend only and 75,000 people attended per day (225,000 in total) yielding approximately $23 million in revenue.  What happened when the festival multiplied itself in 2012?  All six days sold out and the festival made over $47 million in revenue.  In 2011 it took 6 days for the three days of Coachella to sell out; in 2013 (actually in 2012, since tickets now go on sale 11 months in advance), it took less than one day for the six days of Coachella to sell out.  Whether we’re talking music festivals or widget sales, this would be considered some pretty staggering growth.

Coachella is arguably the biggest brand in music festivals, but its growth is not coming at the expense of its competition.  I can recall a time when the occurrence of a single music festival, Woodstock ’94 (aka, Mudstock) led the national news.  It was also around this time that the original incarnation of Lollapalooza was annually anticipated as the summer’s music festival.  Today, in addition to Coachella and Lollapalooza, there are several other major festivals that will each pull in many thousands of people and millions of dollars, such as Bonnaroo and South by Southwest.  All told, by one count there will be 176 different music festivals between now and the end of 2013! What in the name of Perry Farrell is going on here?

It can’t be about the music.  Before the Coachella lineups were announced many were rumored, as people claimed to find out about leaked lineups and even created mock posters with their own supposed 3-day lineups.  One site posted six such fake posters before the real lineup was announced.  Here are the six groups of rumored headliners:

Friday Saturday Sunday
Rumor 1 Yeah Yeah Yeahs Daft Punk / Phoenix Rolling Stones
Rumor 2 Smashing Pumpkins Rolling Stones Jay-Z & Kanye West
Rumor 3 Phoenix Daft Punk / Blur Nine Inch Nails
Rumor 4 Atoms for Peace Nine Inch Nails Daft Punk
Rumor 5 Depeche Mode Yeah Yeah Yeahs Neil Young & Pearl Jam
Rumor 6 Jack White Beyonce Daft Punk
Actual headliner Blur / Stone Roses Phoenix Red Hot Chili Peppers

All of these lineups were meant to be realistically conceivable. Rumor 2 is probably the most far-reaching, but still not at all beyond the realm of imagination.  And all six lineups are pretty emphatically superior to the actual proposed lineups. (It’s worth checking them out by clicking on each festival poster here, if only just to see what might have been.)  Judging only by the music, it is easy for me to imagine flying to California and spending a fair amount of money to see any of the six lineups posted at that site. I can’t see doing the same for the actual lineup.  The author who posted those proposed lineups editorialized by saying, “Take a look at everyone listed, even the small names are big.  Could make for an epic Coachella 2013.” The poor guy had no idea that we were about to be served what is generally considered to be the worst lineup in years. We have come to a point where people are paying to attend the festival, not to see the bands. The festival promoters know this, which is why the lineups each year get progressively worse even while the number of attendees increase.

Six years ago we were at the tail end of what everyone now realizes was a massive housing bubble, as irrational exuberance led everyone to speculate on home ownership, driving prices up regardless of the true value of what was being purchased.  As we all know, the bubble burst and the market has still not recovered.  At about that same time we appear to have been entering into the early stages of what I’m calling the Festival Bubble.  It was at that time that Coachella first expanded, from two days to three.  The following year featured an incredible lineup that may never be topped – headliners were Paul McCartney, the Killers (arguably the most popular indie pop/rock band at the time) and the Cure, while secondary acts included Morrissey, the Black Keys, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Arcade Fire, My Bloody Valentine, and the late Amy Winehouse.  By 2011, articles like this one in the Wall Street Journal were touting the festival industry, though you could already see the cracks in the foundation – crowds were too far from the performers, the best artists were beginning to stay away, and the biggest festivals were becoming more “corporate.”  That last complaint should be a scary one for festival promoters, as the dollars they bring in today through corporate sponsorship and advertising may the very thing that is ultimately the industry’s undoing.  At the end of the day, what Coachella and its brethren have going for it – more than the music, more than the locations – is the atmosphere. Festivals are cool. They are the place to be. Once that is lost, the bubble will inevitably burst.

In 2013 there are more festivals and more attendees spending more money than ever before.  Though there is no official record, I would bet my entire concert budget for 2013that sponsorship and other revenue is also at an all-time high.  But the market is oversaturated, the product has inherent flaws, and the creators are milking the events for all they’re worth rather than striving to make the product better.  These are all classic signs that we are in a Festival Bubble.  Whether it will pop in 2014, 2015 or in a few more years I can’t say for sure.  But I am sure that the best days of the music festivals are behind us, and the pop that is sure to come will be louder than anything you’ll hear this year at Coachella.

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