By Mark Guarino
Until recently, outdoor rock festivals have been associated with mud: muddied bodies, muddied sound systems and muddied minds, soft from baking under a blazing sun for four days in a row.
That was then. Today, destination festivals define the summer concert season, catering to both savvy music enthusiasts and casual tourists seeking short getaways. Camping remains an option for travelers on the cheap, but most festivals are now designed on the high end, incorporating local culture with mainstream stars in upscale settings that often include VIP sections, fine dining and hotel packages for weary, yes muddy, feet.
Major and mid-size cities compete for music tourists to impact local economies as they once did conventioneers, resulting in weekend festivals taking place in city parks, racetracks or outlying farmland in every major market. For bands, having to play a few festival dates instead of touring all summer is an obvious choice as it reduces road fatigue and allows their music to reach the widest audience with the least effort.
“That’s the whole point of playing festivals. That’s what I think festivals are good for, exposure,” said guitarist-singer Jack White of the Raconteurs, a band playing four North American festivals this summer including Lollapalooza in August. “I don’t think electricity and daylight really mix very well. But as far as getting in front of people who would not normally see you, you can’t beat a festival.”
Destination festivals are injecting new life into a concert industry that in the last decade struggled to connect with ticket buyers due to skyrocketing prices and a diminishing pool of arena-worthy stars. Major players like AEG Live and Live Nation are now getting into the market, creating alliances with municipalities and smaller producers to create blockbuster festivals with individual admission prices ranging from $95 up through $600. According to Pollstar, the concert industry trade publication, U.S. concert ticket sales totaled $3.9 billion, an 8 percent increase from the year prior.
The success of Coachella in Indio, Ca., and Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tenn. in the early part of this decade and the 2005 resurrection of Lollapalooza on Chicago’s lakefront have together paved the way for a continuing list of new festivals announced each year. This summer they include the Rothbury Music Festival (July 4-6) in Rothbury, Mich., All Points West (Aug. 8-10) in Jersey City, N.J., Outside Lands (Aug. 22-24) in San Francisco and the Jackson Hole Music & Arts Festival (Aug. 16-17) in Jackson Hole, Wy.
“Certainly there are more of them now that you almost have to differentiate between the two kinds of destination festivals: ones like the Montreal (International) Jazz Festival where people go there and stay at hotels, and the campout variety like Bonnaroo,” said Pollstar Editor-in-Chief Gary Bongiovanni. “From an economic standpoint, it’s a good value for the dollar. But you have to be someone who is willing to, or enjoys, multiple hours being outdoors listening to music.”
While three or four days of music is certainly the chief appeal, some festival tourists use the event as a chance to see a part of the country they would normally had not explored.
“Each (festival) represents a city,” said Tim Shevlin, 49, of Arlington Heights who vacations in Austin (Austin City Limits Festival), Seattle (Bumbershoot) and New Orleans (New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival). “You go to Bumbershoot and it has a lot of the local bands. And then at night, you get to take in other parts of the city.” Shevlin remembers arriving early in Seattle for Bumbershoot a few days early to visit friends and staying several days afterwards to drive up the coast to Vancouver. “(Bumbershoot) was the impetus and you build around it,” he said.
The flood of new festivals in North America is crowding a market that was previously populated by a handful of venerated music festivals that have been around for decades and played a part in historic shifts in musical evolution.
The Newport Folk Festival launched the career of Bob Dylan among others, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival introduced the music of second line piano icon Professor Longhair to the masses and the Montreal International Jazz Festival hosted historic appearances by Miles Davis, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, among others. These days all three have branched from their original mission to feature crossover artists with wider appeal, from Jimmy Buffett to the Dave Matthews Band.
The Montreal festival (June 26-July 6) “is not programmed the same way” as it was in the early days, said festival co-founder André Menard, because it now has “access to acts that (they) never had before,” since more artists are seeking lucrative festival bookings, instead of embarking on conventional tours. “In the last three years we were offered Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Van Morrison — not jazz artists per se, but their flirtation with arranged music and great sound makes them belong to jazz,” he said.
The 29th year features populists including Steely Dan and James Taylor but also sets by jazz notables like Charlie Haden, Dee Dee Bridgewater and the Glenn Miller Orchestra. “If you added up just the pure jazz content, it still makes for a big, big jazz festival,” he said.
The Montreal festival stands apart from its U.S. counterparts as it is spread throughout the city on a mix of indoor and outdoor stages, for a total of 500 concerts in 11 days, some free, and some requiring a ticket. The festival’s international flavor and unique backdrop is what keeps two million people from attending each year. Newer festivals must find ways to distinguish themselves similarly, especially in a climate where intense competition and rising gas prices are forcing music vacationers to attend only one or two a year.
“I think the festival market is gong to be saturated. It’s already hitting that point,” said Charles Attal, the co-owner of C3 Presents, the Austin-based company that produces Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits. “The good ones will survive. The ones with a weaker site and weaker talent, those will have a tougher time.”
Already it’s gotten to a point now where some festivals are starting to resemble one another, with the same bands rotating through the circuit. Among the most frequent crossovers: Phil Lesh and Friends (six festivals), Jack Johnson (four) and Death Cab for Cutie, the Flaming Lips, M.I.A. and Radiohead all appearing at three.
Attal said copycat bills weaken a festival’s place in marketplace and he is hesitant to book those that are playing more than three competitors. There is one exception.
“If Radiohead is playing three, I’m okay with it,” he said. “Radiohead playing a festival for us is a dream.”