Festival sales could save the failing live music industry


It seems like the live music industry gets a little worse every year.

At least, that’s the way prominent music publications make it seem.

During its end-of-the-year report, Business Wire reported “2010 was a volatile year for the music industry, which saw many tours canceled and a decline in overall concert ticket sales.”

Popular artists like Jay-Z, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga did well, but many others did not.

Some blame Ticketmaster and Live Nation for dominating the market and charging exorbitant service fees. Others condemn scalpers for scooping up massive amounts of tickets and inflating prices. There’s also the recession.

Yet, despite all these negative factors working against concert ticket sales, festivals seem to be doing just fine. For instance, Coachella announced its lineup online a month or so ago, released tickets less than a week later and had completely sold out less than a week after that.

Some dismissed this quick sale as a mere marketing ploy, believing promoters will release more tickets as the festival date approaches. That smart plan isn’t out of the question, but it’s unlikely.

Much to the dismay of those who failed to acquire tickets quickly enough, the festival’s verified Twitter account cockily announced, “no we don’t have any passes left to release, kthxbye.”

The more likely reason for the quick festival ticket sales is, simply, people are buying tickets.

Fans unwilling to shell out $60 for one night of Christina Aguilera’s bland singing are more than eager to pay hundreds of dollars to see dozens of popular bands during the course of a weekend.

Almost every festival is a great deal, and even tickets nearing the $300 range, like those for Coachella and Bonnaroo, are steals, since single tickets to shows by most of the headliners are relatively expensive. Lady Gaga tickets, for instance, can be up to $181.

Festivals are also a fitting testament to the iPod shuffle mode and overall ADD music generation, since at festivals, music fans get a lot of variety.

Still, it is surprising just how much the festival business has exploded in popularity during the last few years.

Last week, for instance, Pitchfork announced a small portion of the lineup for its Pitchfork Music Festival, held annually in Chicago. It released three-day passes for the festival a couple of days later, and sold out completely in less than 24 hours. Single day passes are still available, but that’s an incredibly quick sell-out for a festival that has yet to announce its full lineup.

In 2006, tickets were still available for the festival a week before it happened. In that inaugural year, the terrifyingly horrific Yoko Ono was the headliner, so that’s not too much of a surprise. But the point is that in just a few short years, the festival has exponentially increased in popularity.

In fact, most festivals have experienced significantly greater success in the last few years.

In 2004, Perry Ferrel’s Lollapalooza tour was canceled after being started in 1991 because of poor ticket sales. After re-establishing itself as a stagnant festival held annually in Chicago the following year, Lollapalooza has grown to become one of the country’s three major festivals.

Other festivals have enjoyed similar popularity, and there now seems to be a prominent and well attended music festival in almost every major U.S. city at some point throughout the year.

Yet, from year to year, festivals seem to feature incredibly similar headliners. All of Coachella’s headliners have played the festival at least once before, and many of the acts cross over among the prominent fests.

Only time will tell whether or not these recurring acts will cause the festival business to grow stale and decline in the same way the single ticket concert industry appears to be doing.

For the most part, though, there’s enough variety from year to year that things stay interesting, and, at least for a while, festivals will continue to sell tickets.

This year we’ve already seen Bonnaroo, Sasquatch, Coachella, Ultra and Pitchfork three-day passes sell out extremely quickly. Right now, festivals seem to be a saving grace in an otherwise dying industry.

Will Hagle is a sophomore majoring in narrative studies. His column, “Feedback,” runs Wednesdays.

  • Unfortunately, many of those mid-size and smaller festivals do not pay talent. If their overall festival budgets are cut, entertainment is the first thing to go. Or they blow their budget on one national act and any other acts they secure play for free. Many festivals no longer exist due to the state of the economy. There are some larger festivals with side stages that actually charge the bands/musicians to perform on them. It really is tough out there right now, even with festivals if you are not a national act.

  • Interesting article that touches upon a lot of truths (and some wild rumours) in the music business today.

    Another trend is that instead of paying huge prices for tickets people are turning to alternative venues and styles of music where tickets are reasonable and they can still enjoy a good evening of live music.

    Although the larger festivals in my genre of music tend to top-load with national acts, many successful mid-size and small festivals are doing just fine by bringing in regional talent and keeping their costs (and tickets prices) at a reasonable level. I have seen more than one poll lately where people attend festivals more for the overall experience than to see specific bands.

    Live music is not dying, it’s simply changing to match the economy and the times.