Getting Your Fest Fix On

As hard as it is to believe, the longer evenings and the grass in my yard tell me that spring is once again here, and summer is right around the corner. For music lovers, this is a most welcome sign. Festival season is almost here. For many this will be a chance to see many of your favorite artists at a single venue, discover new performers, pick tunes in the parking lot and become reacquainted with old friends.

For many fans and industry insiders, festivals are seen as an increasingly attractive alternative to traditional concerts. Fans enjoy the opportunity to see dozens of performers and the sense of community a festival can provide. Vendors are also eager to participate as they have an opportunity to sell their products to a somewhat captive audience.

Performers have also jumped on the festival bandwagon. Not too long ago, many major artists viewed performing as simply a means to promote CD sales. All of this has changed in the digital age. With plummeting CD sales and rampant piracy, established artists are seeing festivals as a way to generate income. Other smaller, independent performers also rely on local festivals to make a living and increase their fan base.

Billion Dollar Industry
The numbers are impressive. The North American concert market is a 6 billion dollar industry and festivals are becoming an increasingly larger part of that segment. According to Billboard, 32 million people attend music festivals in the US each year, traveling on average an astonishing 903 miles. Larger rock festivals such as Coachella and Bonnaroo can generate millions of dollars in revenue while welcoming staggering numbers of attendees. Even the Bluegrass/Americana community is well represented in this category. Perhaps the biggest festival of its kind in the US, Merlefest, boasted attendance of approximately 78,000 in 2015.

However many of us will attend smaller festivals closer to home. The economy, geography and disposable income are important factors in determining which festivals most of us will fit into our summer schedules. This presents both opportunities and obstacles for the small and mid-sized festival.

Although festival goers are a loyal fan base, many in the industry feel that the smaller market is saturated. This is due at least in part to the success and unprecedented growth of festivals over the last decade or so. All of this competition has taken a bite out of the bottom line for many festivals; 59% of all festivals with 2,000-10,000 attendees have difficulty making a profit, and 68% of promoters say that turning a profit is the single most pressing issue. Booking performers can also become problematic as many of them are hoping for gigs at the larger festivals.

Outside Help
Attracting sponsors is another necessity for festival organizers. Although businesses spent $1.34 billion in festival sponsorships last year, they are asking for more than a prominently displayed logo. The most coveted market demographic, Millennials, accounted for 14.7 million of all festival goers in 2014. Tapping into this tech savvy demographic requires a unique approach and sponsors are increasingly requiring festivals to modify their methods in order to count on their corporate support.

In the Mid-Atlantic region, we are fortunate to have many moderately sized festivals representing a broad range of music. World class blues, jazz, Americana, bluegrass and rock are all available within a comfortable distance. In the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, the Red Wing Music Festival continues to grow while bringing in a wide range of top tier talent. Although not a music festival in the traditional sense, Eastern Mennonite University’s (Just outside of Harrisonburg VA) Bach Festival presents a series of summer concerts and continues to draw large audiences by bringing in internationally recognized classical performers. And of course there are other regional festivals such as Graves Mountain, Dinwiddie, Floyd Fest, and Galax Fiddle and String which have been popular for some time.

Alive And Well
On the surface, despite the inherent economic challenges, festival season appears to be one of the few bright spots in the current music industry. The big labels have seen steady and significantly declining sales and this often dominates the tech news. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that at the grassroots level, CD sales have been strong, and live music revenues have increased significantly. Undoubtedly this is due in part to the popularity of festivals, flexible business models, and technological innovation in areas such as recording and distribution. Remember that being a performing artist is like any other job; you’ve got to make a living the rest of the year too.

Many of us make an effort to support local businesses. I still prefer a brick and mortar store over an online retailer any day. Let’s try applying the same approach to music. Continue to fill those concert seats the rest of the year and purchase the new releases by your favorite independent artists. Hopefully they’ll be able to make a living until the next festival season.

Mark Whetzel

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