Every Bubble Has to Burst – The Limits of a Booming Festival Culture

Over the past decade, music festivals have become the summer thing to do, and not just for live music junkies, but for anyone looking to spend a weekend immersed in what often feels like a whole other temporary world, where rules are different, the party never ends and there is always something new to experience. This isn’t a bad thing. But sometimes there can be too much of a good thing, and every bubble does have to burst, and maybe the festival bubble has begun to push its limits.

In recent years, even the already massive festivals have grown in big ways; we’ve seen Coachella selling out one weekend, to expanding to two weekends and selling out just as easily. Sasquatch, Lollapalooza and Governor’s Ball, all sell out often before full lineups are even announced. People are excited to get in on the experience, and while that isn’t a bad thing, if a festival is selling out before a lineup is announced, perhaps that says something about the reasons many people attend. Maybe now it is often more about the experience, than the bands playing a certain event. A decade ago the headliners at the major U.S. festivals were drastically varied and it seemed they not dare book the same headliners as their counterparts across the country. People from the east coast would travel west to Coachella to see a lineup they couldn’t see anywhere else. Bonnaroo’s lineup would be so unique that it was hard to pass up for people all around the nation.

Now there are dozens of options and large scale events popping up in every corner of the country, making travel easier for fans, while lineups are sometimes starting to look eerily similar. It’s more common to see one, if not several of the same headliners on many festivals. Promoters can meet fan desires to see certain acts, but the lineups are beginning to look more and more similar. The number of festival-ready big name bands is not a never ending list, and those bands, like fans, only have a finite amount of weekends per summer. It’s not a bad thing, for now, but a change will have to come and already slowly is. Trends change, genres rise and fall out of popularity, and in recent years we’ve seen major festivals that used to be alternative rock leaning will have more and more major electronic acts at the top of their bills. It’s what the youth buying the tickets want, so it’s what they get. While it makes sense to promoters and the bottom line, aside from these electronic acts that have been on the rise in recent years, there has not been as many headliner level acts in specifically the rock/alternative world, climbing the ranks to headliner status. This is not the festival world’s fault, but more a reflection on how the music industry overall has changed. Acts like Jack White, The Black Keys, Florence and the Machine and The Killers are all top notch headlining acts, but we have reached a point when you see their names at the top of lineup after lineup and you find yourself staring to say “Oh, cool, makes sense” instead of “Wow, I HAVE to be there”. You don’t HAVE to be there, at the one across the country, because there’s a good chance you’ll see all the same acts at the top of a lineup in your region.

Promoters see the festival trend skyrocketing and there are dozens of new festivals created each year that want to catch the wave. Markets are now beginning to become saturated and toes are being stepped on. Governor’s Ball, held every June since 2011 on Randall’s Island in New York City, is an independent company that in the last month is dealing with a serious threat. AEG Live, creators of Coachella, Firefly and Hangout, have their sights set on Meadows Corona Park in Queens as the site of a new festival, Panorama. Panorama would take place only weeks after Governor’s Ball, and while it’s been reported they don’t yet have all permits in place, booking has started. It was recently announced that the organizers of Governor’s Ball have created a petition, asking Mayor de Blasio to reject AEG Live’s permits, saying it would potentially be pushing them, a smaller local business, out of the picture. They ask that the event be held at a different time, so both festivals can succeed.

However, even if Governor’s Ball gets its way and AEG is forced to apply for permits for a different weekend, it might be that having two large scale events, presumably targeting the same audience, would still have a similar effect. There is after all, a limit on the disposable income the typical festival goer has to spend per year. With it being common that a major weekend festival has a ticket price of over $200, and factoring in any time off from work, travel, accommodations, supplies, food and drink for the weekend that one unavoidably has to spend, realistically the amount of festivals one fan can attend is very likely a smaller number than the ones they would desire to. Eventually it must start to happen that there is simply too much of a festival fan’s favorite thing. Too many “must see” events to choose from in one region will eventually become a bad thing, when fans have to pick and choose between a variety of great options but cutting some out in the process. At some point the amount of major festivals will grow to a point where more people are needed to purchase tickets to let them all successfully continue on as they are than exist in any given market. Increased sponsorship money will be needed to cover costs for all of them. There are only so many companies willing to shell out thousands for festival sponsorship, and competition will rise to claim them.

The largest festivals nationwide is one aspect of the growing festival bubble, but on a smaller scale, the scene of indie rock and jam band oriented festivals is also exploding. In the Northeast alone there are a handful of festivals to choose from each weekend in the warmer months. These are often far more affordable than the larger festivals, but again, there are only so many weekends in the summer. It’s always been hard enough to get a festival off the ground and then able to turn a profit, but now the competition is coming from a growing number of places. There are also smaller, one day events popping up at every turn. A more inexpensive option with lighted commitment can be an attractive option for many possible attendees, but for now, promoters want to get in on the game and ride the wave of festival hype as long as possible. Ask anyone who has been involved in organizing a large scale event, and it is never easy, no matter how many years you do it. Permits, competitive booking, staffing, weather, and now the threat of competition from five guys in your neighborhood trying to do the same thing as you, thanks to perceived success of the overall festival culture.

The greater number of festivals being created with still the same amount of festival ready bands, and weekends available, makes for tough competition. The same bands are desired from festivals not just nationwide but worldwide, every weekend, and when demand goes up, so does price. Bands can ask for more money and festivals have to pay if they want an impressive lineup, and with that, ticket prices increase. The issue becomes how large an act can a festival book before it becomes cost-prohibitive and fans find somewhere else to spend their money; at some point a festival goer will tire of so many lineups looking so similar. Or perhaps festival culture and the experience can become more important than the music itself. Maybe for a growing number of young people, the drugs, the people and the party are the appeal more so than discovering a new favorite band or hearing your favorite songs. Blogs writing about festival fashion looks for the year make many cringe, but they also attract a new audience, looking to jump into a hip trendy new world of partying, where there’s also good music playing in the background.

Is this boom in festival popularity just a fad, and will attending a festival still be the “it” thing to do for young people a decade from now? There were few major festivals throughout the 60’s and 70’s, and then the rise of touring festivals like Lollapalooza and H.O.R.D.E. in the 90’s, but it was not until the last decade or so when we begin to see an incredible boom of weekend long festivals. Young people wanting to get involved in an environment that consists of a weekend long party where new people, new music, and a wide array of ways to enjoy yourself at every turn seems logical. It almost seems strange that it took so long for a festival resurgence, when young people would always have been interested in a large festival scene if one was presented to them.

Perhaps once the bubble begins to reach its true limit, a festival won’t be able to get away with booking similar lineups and having a similar overall feel as its counterparts. Maybe as competition rises it will force organizers to think outside the box and ensure that the experience a fan can have at their event is unlike any other of its competitors. We see so many festivals pop up then fade away in a couple years, and some that don’t even make it out of their inaugural year with their hopes being dashed for a comeback.

Maybe the bubble isn’t ready to burst just yet, with major festivals still selling out in minutes nationwide and some smaller ones getting off the ground each year, but waves of popularity this big don’t always last forever. It will come down to the limits that money and time put on organizers, but equally importantly, the fans. Nobody can accurately predict the future but every bubble has to burst and when it does, inevitably not all will survive. Maybe new, innovative types of events will arise. Promoters just entering this exciting world likely see opportunity, but the point of too much of a good thing may be just around the corner. For now, these are is exciting times for fans to experience live music. Organizers want audiences at their events, and they’ll do all they can to keep fans coming back, a balance of keeping supporters happy and keeping themselves not just exciting, but surviving for one more year.