Why the Downfall of a Couple of Festivals Does NOT Mean Catastrophe is on the Way.
I work for a music festival, and sit on the board of directors of a couple of others, so I tend to be a festival industry newshound. Even as the “death to the music industry” indie kids cheer on the downfall of the big labels and Bruce Springsteen apologizes to his fans for that Wal-Mart scenario, and even Bob Lefsetz thinks that the Live Nation/Ticketmaster merger may as well go through, because the whole industry’s shot to shit anyway, no one wants to see the downfall of the music festival. Well, maybe a few uptight people who unwisely purchased houses next door to outdoor festival venues, but other than them, no one.
Everyone likes music festivals, at least in theory. Most people have a favorite, whether it be the little one-day music and food festival in their local park, or the giant, bacchanalian powerhouses like Bonnaroo and Coachella. They’re good for the business, and good for the fans. And by the numbers, they’re the most solid force in the music business. Venues are always struggling, labels come and go, but festivals tend to do well, despite everything.
So when two major festivals (and several smaller ones) announced their cancellations recently, multiple minor freak-outs occurred behind the scenes. Is this the end of the festival industry? Has the economy finally sunk us? The answer is, of course, no. Most festivals are as strong as ever, but there are still lessons to be learned from those who are closing their gates.
First, Langerado cancelled. Citing “sluggish ticket sales,” the general word from the Langerado office was that the festival was just cancelled for ’09, and would be returning at some point in the future, but that’s the same thing I said when I dropped out of college (and I know I’m not the only one). So the economy got blamed, and now we’re in the “poor little producer” pity phase. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m sad when people lose their jobs, and I can’t imagine losing mine right now (I have exactly one set of skills). But it was, indeed, a series of very poor decisions that left the Langerado organization in the place they’re in.
First of all, they changed the location of the festival. It was formerly held on an Indian reservation in Central Florida, where camping and nature were part of the whole deal. They moved it, and not just to another outdoorsy rural site down the road, but to downtown Miami. Did anyone possibly think that was a good idea? It’s not even the same festival, and it was poor branding to even try to keep the name the same. Had they just dropped Langerado in the first place and made a brand-new festival in Miami, they might’ve been able to pull it off, but you can’t take Woodstock to New York City and still call it Woodstock, it just doesn’t make any sense.
Mistake #2 was to all-but-abandon jambands in the 2009 lineup. Slightly Stoopid was the big representative (compared to 2008’s Phil Lesh & Friends, G. Love and Special Sauce, Gov’t Mule, Umphrey’s McGee, and several others). Now, I’m no fan of most jambands, but I am, perhaps surprisingly, a fan of jamband fans. I’m not afraid of patchwork or patchouli (though I generally avoid having either of those things actually on me), but more importantly, I respect people who take their live music very seriously, who are willing to genuinely and unabashedly interact with music, and (hey, I’m a businessperson, after all) who spend a hefty portion of their discretionary income on music, both live and recorded. I do hate the term “festies,” though (used in jamband jargon in place of “festivals”) – it sounds like “festers” and makes me kind of sick. But I digress. Perhaps the lack of jambands on the lineup was an attempt to court new fans, considering that many of their old fans were going to be at the Phish reunion tour that weekend (do I need to even go into mistake #3?).
So, by completely abandoning their fanbase (both musically and in terms of the way that jamband fans prefer to interact with music, namely, in an outdoor setting), they took the two major risks that I’d never advise anyone to take. But (and here’s where the economy does come in) doing it in a year where people are broke and making tighter choices about expenditures. People can still afford stuff, but they’re not going to give you their money unless they trust you.
And now, onto the second big festival that shut down, the San Francisco Blues Festival called it quits after 36 years. Ouch. If only there was a genre of music that could express our feelings about this…
The SF Blues Festival shut down for the opposite reason that Langerado shut down. Langerado changed too much, but the SF Blues Festival kept things too much the same. The truth is, people just aren’t as into the blues as they used to be. A lot of people like the blues in theory, but not a lot are willing to pay $45 per day for the privilege. How many blues headliners can command that high of a ticket price anyway? Add in a few blues-related artists, and you’re going to do all right, but let’s be realistic: if you’re celebrating an older music form, you’re going to draw an older crowd, and the problem with older crowds is that they die. Seriously. So you’ve got to get some youth, excitement, verve, and vigor happening. The 2008 lineup of Johnny Winter, Hot Tuna, and Buckwheat Zydeco (along with several others) is fine and dandy, but it lacks wow-factor pretty significantly. It’s a perfectly acceptable lineup if you’re trying to sell 4,000 tickets, but if you need to sell three times that many to stay afloat, you need some artists who have name recognition for people under the age of 55. Sad, but true.
And because the revenue stream was based on ticket sales, with (I’m educated-guessing here) a secondary revenue stream coming from white t-shirts with bulky, screen-printed logos and giant pictures (box-cut only, no doubt – and available by mail-order or at the festival only, no web ordering), with a fall-back being corporate sponsorship (which is drying up all over the place – here’s where the economy comes in again), there was really no chance, other than to run on a deficit budget for a couple of years, which is yucky and terrible.
I’m actually really, really sad to see the SF Blues Festival go – it’s a legend. I’m sort of sad for Langerado, because I’m a bleeding heart, but I think they made their own bed. But what did we learn here today so this doesn’t have to happen again?
1. Keep your fan base happy, but find ways to grow it as well. Alienating everyone will do you no good, nor will unabashed pandering.
2. Don’t change your festival too much at once.
3. Don’t keep your festival exactly the same all the time.
And who do we think is out next?
My money would be on the Dunkin’ Donuts Newport Folk Festival, because the corporate sponsorship has reached repulsive levels and Festival Network, who runs DDNFF and many others, is a sort of heinous, money-grubbing organization who will dissolve the minute they stop raking in $10 billion per event.
What’s your bet?