Oh festival season. To go out in some big beautiful field, do a bunch of drugs, drink a bunch of awful beer, and see a bunch of bands you probably enjoy. This is what rock and roll should be about right? Well yeah. In 2016 we are seeing more festivals than ever before and their role in the industry is expanding at a previously unprecedented pace. This year more than ever we are seeing festivals with massive lineups sprouting up like mushrooms and making a lot of money. So why is it that in an industry that is largely in decline, festivals are exploding, and seem to be bigger and better than ever?
A large part of this is due to the simple fact that festivals aren’t just selling the music. Hell, they aren’t even just selling the lifestyle (Though that is definitely a huge part of any festival) They, unlike other music venues, become the arbiters of what their attendees eat and drink for days at a time and they get to charge whatever they want. This is just one way that festivals are able to use secondary sources of income in order to grow their revenue streams. The rabbit hole goes much, much deeper and concessions only scratch the surface. Sponsorships are perhaps the biggest part of what makes festivals so profitable. More young people than ever are attending festivals which makes them an ever more attractive target for companies that want to appeal to a younger hipper demographic.
Ultimately that’s what this boils down to on a variety of levels. Billboard tells us that over 14 million American millenials went to a music festival last year, and they travelled an average of 903 miles to do it. Clearly festivals are turned onto something special. After all, they have become something of a rite of passage for youth. An endurance test of sorts combining, sex, drugs and art into one decadent weekend. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, this was really the goal all along because now it means that these festivals can market themselves to death to advertisers. After all – if you’ve got a thing going that caters explicitly to cool young people and has proven that associated companies will be able to get cool young people interested in their product… well it makes a lot of sense that a whole fleet of advertisers will want to hop on board and become a part of the brand, and perhaps more importantly, the narrative that these festivals have been able to curate.
Of course, I’m sure that some of you are going to start whining about how corporate sponsorship is against the revolution and isn’t very punk rock. Well, my response to you there is two fold. First of all – if a marijuana company wanted to give your band a couple thousand dollars, I can almost guarantee you wouldn’t say no. From there it’s only a matter of blurred lines until you’re accepting sponsorships from someone actually evil, like Nestle. If you’re creating revolutionary music and are able to use corporate music to fund your message then why not just go for it? I mean – you need to make sure your sponsors politics make sense with your message, but that shouldn’t be an issue. Furthermore – with festivals you probably aren’t collecting directly from a corporation, even if one is funding the festival. If you can get a much bigger payday and audience than ever before just because the fest you’re playing happens to be sponsored by Coke you would be shooting yourself in the foot if you didn’t immediately jump on that opportunity – it could be your big break.
There are no real downsides to true music festivals or what they mean for you as a musician. Unless your ties to your politics are that strong (And trust me, they aren’t, even the Gods themselves, Napalm Death play festivals with corporate backing) they are going to be an opportunity for you to expand your brand and narrative. You simply need to realize that by participating in one of these you are helping the narrative of whatever festival you are at. It helps to establish who you are as a musician, but as far as finances are concerned it really grows the festivals into something special. They are the ones really directing massive payouts and seeing the most money in the industry.
I hope you noticed how I mentioned ‘true’ music festivals there. That’s one of the key differences we’ve got to keep in mind. Asides from various community festivals billed as music festivals that really only cater to high school bands or dads hobby bands. That’s all well and good, but you need to be aware of what they are whilst applying to perform at them. Don’t expect ever festival to have thousands of screaming fans, or even to pay that well. The vast majority don’t but if you are smart about who you work with and how you present yourself than you can become a part of a future where we all benefit from festivals – the good ones certainly have the margins for it.
Don’t take this article as an admonishment to set up your own festival though. To get that sweet, sweet corporate cash you are going to need to do a LOT of legwork. You need insurance out the ass, a huge staff and thousands of volunteers. What I’m trying to say with this article is that in a world where corporate sponsorship in music is okay, we need to take advantage of that and expand into greater things. Festivals are going to be your ticket to funding your band. It’s not unusual for groups to get 5 times their normal guarantee at a massive festival though – so buy in, give it your best shot and realize that this might be the way forward for live music.