We may have already seen peak music festival. The future of music festivals as they currently are isn’t trending in a good direction. For a while now, festivals have been seeing increases in costs and decreases in attendance. Music festivals are also increasingly becoming corporatized and homogenized, which is to the detriment of all but a handful of artists.
Nevertheless, the growth in demand for music experiences is still far outpacing demand for recorded music. If that’s the case, then can we fix music festivals? What can we change about them? Will they even be music festivals by the time we’re done with them?
Let’s examine some potential solutions to the challenges facing music festivals.
How we fix music festivals
Festivals have been seeing declining attendance for a couple of years now. This is a problem that is especially acute for festivals that take place in locations that could otherwise be considered “the middle of nowhere.” These sorts of festivals necessitate people travel to them. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that people are less willing to spend the money to book an entire trip around a festival and travel. Particularly with the increased supply of festivals that are easier to reach and the increasing homogeneity of the music itself, which makes it less necessary to travel.
The solution is to make festivals more local. There are so many great places in and within cities that making everybody travel to the nearest city and then bus out to the festival location is becoming excessive. Just hold it in the city. Take NXNE for example. They tried to make the festival happen in the Port Lands, which isn’t even that far and people complained and didn’t show up. Why did they ever bother leaving downtown?
If you’re not Coachella, people are increasingly less willing to travel for your festival. You have to bring it close to people.
Use existing venues
One of the biggest issues with Fyre Festival was that they simply didn’t have the infrastructure they needed on at their site to support all the people they had at the festival. When you’re basically building a city for a weekend, things like water, power, and other basic utilities become an expense. What a waste, too, because then it’s all abandoned a few days later. Consider this the “Olympics problem.” Much like the Olympics coming in and causing a ton of construction that is later abandoned and disused, festivals that build on otherwise unoccupied sites experience a similar problem at a smaller scale.
This expense isn’t necessary with a type of festival that is becoming more popular. Instead of building a whole site, a festival will enlist local venues to host its the festival’s performances. Not only does it showcase the local music scene, the venues are already there and can handle the capacity. Some good examples of these are Northside Festival and Brooklyn Comes Alive.
Work with cities
Government is full of bureaucracy, but you’d be surprised how quickly governments will help you out if your interests are aligned. Think about it this way. Uber started off small trying to disrupt the taxi industry, which they did successfully by skirting local laws. But now that they are sizable and integral parts of cities’ transportation infrastructures, cities are flexing and trying to force them to play by the rules. In some cases, like London, it means forcing them out. Government is the one business that you can’t force out of the market. They’ll always be there.
Music festivals would be better served working with them, as opposed to just tolerating them. They may have their own interests you might have to bend towards more, but it’s probably better to just agree. Don’t let your own personal vision of what music festivals are supposed to look like get in the way. After all, they also have something to contribute. Like looking out for citizen safety, which governments have proven to be more adept at than festival organizers. Calling off festivals for weather-related reasons when possible. Free Press Summer Fest made the right call there this year. TomorrowWorld didn’t two years ago. Festivals still suffer from that poor decision making. Just one slip up…
Not just music
This one hurts, I know. But is the whole selling point of music festivals the music? Or is it also the experience?
It’s time to rethink why people go to music festivals. What makes a music festival different than a regular concert and why are people increasingly choosing not to go to them? The festival experience might be about more than just the music. Perhaps one might find it gimmicky to sell your music festival on something other than the purity of the musical lineup, but clearly something isn’t working.
The seeds of what “something else” is are already there. Often, festivals play lip service to things like art, food, and tech. But they’re not yet integral parts of respective festivals. Take technology for example, clearly many festivals tack on tech to their festivals in an attempt to be like South By Southwest. Why not actually take that commitment all the way like the actual SXSW? Clearly they’re popular for a reason and their full-throated commitment to the music and tech experience is better than any pale imitation of music with tech tacked on.
Think beyond the weekend music festival
Part of the risk associated with music festivals is the compressed time frame, which increases the chances something will go wrong exponentially. It might be time to stretch out the experience of a music festival across a wider calendar frame. Of course, putting on an event that’s closer to something like AdWeek is expensive and some festivals organizers don’t have that kind of money. But that means you might have to sacrifice the singular event and build something a bit more like the Philadelphia Opera Festival. That festival is more of a series of events held over the course of a couple of weeks.
Whatever form music festivals take in the future, they will need to fundamentally change in order to survive. Regardless of what they become in the future, in the short term the industry does need to contract. There are simply too many music festivals out there.
But for the festivals that inevitably drop off, don’t despair. You now have the opportunity to create the festival of the future. Perhaps it will follow some of the guidelines above. Perhaps it will be such a radically new idea, we can’t possibly even conceive of it yet. I followed some of the economic trends and tried to patch up problems using what we already have on hand. Technology is always advancing and perhaps a new breakthrough will point us in the direction of the future of music festivals.
Which we’ll be exploring next in the series. Stay tuned!
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