Phenomena: The Downward Spiral of Festivals

The idea of leaving for a weekend and escaping to a music festival can be a tantalizing one and one that many people take advantage of each and every year (as I have discussed in a previous column of Phenomena). Every year it seems that more music festivals and similarly styled events pop up around the country as entertainment industries compete for attendees and high-profile acts. However, even as festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Burning Man become household names, they are still struggling more than they ever have to find people to attend.

The recent cancelation of Pemberton Music Festival, usually called PMF, highlights the growing concerns over the industry. PMF was slated to run for the fourth straight year in mid-July, but became bankrupt and are now unable to pay back money to any of the attendees or people in the community who helped to set up the event. The main issue with the Pemberton Music Festival was that the people running the event elected to use American services, even though the festival takes place in Canada, and paid much higher prices than they ever would have if they had used Canadian services. While that isn’t the point here, it shows how these festivals continue to fall down with regard to establishment costs. With so much competition around the world now for music, festivals have to do all they can to stay in the green money-wise and sometimes that comes down to where you hire from.

Another well known festival, Bonnaroo, experienced its least attended year in its history in 2016 and saw a 45% drop in attendance from 2011. The festival, going into its 16th year, is fighting just as Pemberton Music Festival and others, to stay relevant in a highly competitive industry.

Because music acts are able to play as many festivals as they want depending on how high-profile they are, the festival market is prone to saturation as there are more and more ways to see one’s favorite acts. Bonnaroo experienced this, as lackluster lead acts like LCD Sound System and Pearl Jam failed to increase the attendance to numbers like years past. While both those acts are well known, they do not represent what many of the attendees of these festivals are looking for in music. That factor, alongside the industry itself refusing to take risks for upcoming talent while promoting the already popular, contributes in stagnating the festival scene 

Another possible reason for the decline in attendance could be that Live Nation Entertainment purchased Bonnaroo right before the 2015 festival and own part of Lollapalooza. As these festivals continue to go mainstream - being owned by large corporations, bringing in older, more stable and known acts, they will continue to lose attendance.

A counterpoint to to be acknowledged however is that at music festivals the music has changed, from the rock-and-roll and folksy acts that defined early festivals, to more hip-hop and EDM centered music. While this kind of music is extremely popular at the moment, with Kendrick Lamar and Deadmau5 as two of the most popular performances in the country, EDM and hip-hop music can be found at almost any festival these days. Acts like Paul McCartney, Outkast or Florence and the Machine can serve a different and more effective purpose than these other types of musical acts. These performances, by not only incredibly well known but still extremely talented and original musicians can change the way these festivals are looked at. By focusing on quality music that appeals to a much broader audience, these events could see their attendances rising again. Less EDM acts and other performances that can be found at almost any festival could contribute to more unique and interesting musicians being announced to perform.

Another festival that has seen its attendance numbers dropping over recent years is Sasquatch Music Festival in Washington State. In 2016, Sasquatch saw its numbers drop to 11,000 in attendance, over 50% less than the year before. This can be attributed to acts dropping out and other issues, but is yet another example of a festival losing attendees to other festivals. Sasquatch Music Festival may continue to struggle as well, as Frank Ocean, the biggest headliner of this years event, dropped out. While Frank Ocean is notorious for dropping out of festivals at the last moment, this is yet another problem for a festival that has more problems than it needs right now.

Festivals began as an escape for attendees; they could get away from society and all that worries them for brief periods and listen to the most entertaining in music while spending time with friends. While this escape is still there for the taking, with festivals popping up around the country seemingly every day, the idea of festivals and what they stand for has changed drastically over the last couple years. Festivals have been becoming bigger and having a much more corporate, business atmosphere around them than they did when they were simply grassroots events, put on for pure entertainment.

As more festivals see their numbers drop, it could be interesting to see how they adapt both financially and talent wise - how the acts they tap to perform change. People running these events will have to evaluate what their attendees want and how they can differentiate what they are offering from all the other festivals offering similar performances, acts and services.