Originally published in Forbes.
Back in the 1950 and 1960, Elvis Presley or Beatles fans probably didn’t care about the people screaming next to them at the show. It was all about the performers.
In the late 1960s, however, rock & roll festivals such as the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock transformed live music into community-building events. People came for the music, but also for the vibe, the experience, for the like-minded people. They came to forge a common identity.
Almost fifty years later, festivals—and their accompanying emphasis on community and experience—are at the epicenter of live music.
Then and now, music festivals are opportunities for people to express themselves and experience a sense of belonging and acceptance. A recent study found that music festivals enhance people’s wellbeing by giving them a special uplifting experience separate from the routine of their daily lives. “You go to a festival and you think the world’s going to be okay afterwards,” said one respondent.
Festivals are often the highlights of people’s summer. According to a recent poll, 32 million people attend music festivals each year.
How have music festivals evolved in these decades, and where are they headed?
High-End Production. Festivals are becoming more comfortable for the people who attend them. As I’ve written before, festival production companies such as Red Frog, which produces the Firefly festival, are bringing in a service mentality that treats music fans as customers.
Summerfest, an 11-day music festival in Milwaukee that has been going on since 1968, prides itself on its infrastructure. “This is a 75-acre parcel right on the shores of Lake Michigan,” told me John Boler, Chief Marketing Officer for Summerfest. “It’s a world class infrastructure with real restrooms, real restaurant buildings, paved walkways, permanent stages, and eleven different live music areas on the property.” Rock in Rio, which recently ended its first American festival in Las Vegas, likewise distinguishes itself based on its comfortable accommodations suitable to older patrons, with ample Vegas-worthy VIP offerings.
High-end production means that people expect to see a spectacular show. This can be tricky to accomplish. The proliferation of festivals has made it challenging to find live event professionals with the expertise to deliver high-end production. With so much emphasis on experience, festivals need to deliver on the lights, staging, pyrotechnics, video and other production elements that festival-goers expect. “It’s difficult right now to find people who actually know how to produce those events, because there is a small community of folks who have real production experience at major events and those people are spread quite thin now,” told me Dhruv Prasad, Executive Vice President for Live Events at Townsquare Media, which will be producing the new hard rock festival Loudwire near Grand Junction, Colorado. Loudwire has dealt with this issue by purchasing the production company All Phases and integrating it into Townsquare.
Live Streaming. Those of us who can’t make it to festivals are increasingly going to have the option to stream them at home. Live streaming by services such as Live Media Group enable people to view up to four stages simultaneously on high-definition channels either during the show itself or afterward.
Summerfest Nowlive Player. Courtesy of Live Media Group.
Live Media Group will be streaming live performances from Summerfest this year. The interactive broadcast offers backstage footage, intimate acoustic sessions and exclusive artist interviews. “Technology has come to a place now where viewers are completely in control of what they want to view and when they want to view it, so it’s a very exciting time,” told me Brad Sexton, President and CEO of Live Media Group.
Live streaming might allow people to finally put those cell phones down and enjoy the show because they know they can watch it later. “People want to remember it,” said Sexton. “Half the fans in the audience are sitting there recording pieces of the performance because they want to take that with them. They want to take those memories away from the venue after on the performance.” With professional live streaming, fans can get television-quality recordings of the performances without having to record it themselves.
Conversely, streaming might make it harder for fans to put their phones down. “You might be torn between two or three artists that you want to see live because they’re all performing at the same time,” said Sexton. “Now with live webcasts over mobile you can actually watch another concert while you’re watching another concert.”
Whether live streaming will enhance people’s experience of festivals by freeing them to enjoy the moment or distract them further by having them split their attention between the show they are watching and the shows they are missing remains to be seen. Either way, people are going to be on their cell phones during shows. A recent study found that 31% of 18-34 year olds use their phones during half of an event or longer. So they might as well get some added values from it.
A Shakeout. There are too many music festivals this summer, and too many of them have the same headliners. The market is close to saturation.
“My sense is that there will be a shakeout in the festival space,” said Loudwire’s Dhruv Prasad. “In an increasingly crowded landscape, unless you own marketing like we do or you have a ton of scale I think it is going to be harder and harder to get the word about your festival.” Townsquare Media owns Loudwire.com and 311 radio stations.
“The biggest challenge in the festival business today is clearly the escalating cost of talent, which is driven by scarcity value and the proliferation of music festivals,” added Prasad. As big players with deep pockets like AEG and Live Nation enter the festival market, they can drive out smaller production companies by jacking up artist fees.
Until then, music fans can enjoy one of the biggest summers for festivals in the history of the music business.