Saturday, April 12, 2008

Festival Summer: Value Added to music in a slumping economy

From the New York Times, an interesting story.

Concert Industry Is Banking on a Festive Summer

Published: April 11, 2008

LOS ANGELES — Rock fans across the country who can brave the heat will have ample opportunities to see acts like Jack Johnson, Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and the Raconteurs take the stage in an array of unconventional settings as part of the concert industry’s increasing wager on summer music festivals.

Faced with an audience that has been atomized by the dizzying music choices available online, concert promoters are straining to book diverse shows in whatever open space is available, be it a ranch in Michigan, a soccer field in Colorado or a racetrack in Maryland.

In a slumping music business such events pack a box office punch: the top five American festivals generated a combined $60 million in ticket sales last year, according to Billboard magazine’s estimates.

At least four new festivals will make their debuts this summer, raising the total to more than a dozen. Various concert promoters are already warning of the dangers of oversaturation, and point to the clutch of stars headlining multiple festivals.

The most extreme case: Jack Johnson, the laid-back singer-songwriter who has released the top-selling album of the year so far, is booked for at least five festivals, including two on the second weekend in August: the inaugural All Points West event in Jersey City and the Virgin Mobile Festival in Baltimore.

The risk of overlapping talent lineups means that each promoter must try to suffuse his event with a distinct flair. In Michigan, where organizers of the first Rothbury festival (July 3 to 6) have booked the Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer and Snoop Dogg, fans can attend yoga sessions or sit in on a discussion of energy independence with a Stanford professor.

But there is no guarantee that all the events will survive. Promoters of a planned festival in Vineland, N.J., canceled it to avoid direct competition with All Points West. Sales at some of the new events have been uneven, promoters say. The Mile High Music Festival in Denver (July 19 and 20), featuring the Dave Matthews Band and John Mayer, is regarded as a breakout hit; the outlook for All Points West, featuring Radiohead for two nights and Mr. Johnson on the third, is more uncertain, based on early ticket sales.

The established festivals do not appear to be suffering much. Lollapalooza, which was reimagined as a two-day festival in the lakeside Grant Park in Chicago in 2005 after sputtering as a touring attraction, is seen as an especially strong draw this year (Aug. 1 to 3), with Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine and Kanye West among the acts.

Charlie Walker, a partner in C3 Presents, Lollapalooza’s promoter, said sales were roughly 15 percent ahead of last year, with three-day tickets selling for $175 to $205.

“It’s a big marketplace,” he said. “We’ve got a little ways to go before we see any saturation.”

The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which began in 1999 at a polo field in the desert two hours from Los Angeles, stunned fans this week by adding Prince to a lineup that had been branded as underwhelming. (The event’s previously announced headliners included Roger Waters, Portishead and Mr. Johnson). Organizers of the festival, which runs from April 25 to 27 and customarily draws as many as 60,000 people a day, said before the Prince announcement that they were not concerned that it had not yet sold out. Last year’s edition sold out in February, mainly because of its booking of a reunited Rage Against the Machine, an event that Coachella’s promoter, Paul Tollett, called “an anomaly.”

All the festivals, however, are coping with another X factor: whether the faltering economy will dampen ticket sales. That has not stopped organizers from trying to woo well-heeled fans and corporate clients. Lollapalooza offers private cabanas, with an all-day buffet, for $25,000 and up for parties of 20 or more. Bonnaroo, held on several hundred acres of Tennessee farmland, where fans camp for the weekend (June 12 to 15), is marketing V.I.P. passes, which include access to a private prefestival party and special restroom and shower facilities, for $1,169.50 per pair. (Scheduled bands include Pearl Jam and Metallica.)

In general, rock festivals have built their reputations by offering fans the chance to pack months of club crawling into one weekend and discover new favorites. But some talent managers caution against the idea that emerging acts can build their names through playing the full complement of festivals, where artist sets are sometimes abbreviated, and fans can be distracted.

Mike Martinovich, who manages the rock group My Morning Jacket, said the band had agreed to play the two most established festivals, Coachella and Bonnaroo, and turned down other offers to keep from seeming like too much of a commodity. “Doing a whole tour of festivals would be disastrous,” he said.

And some promoters worry that similar talent lineups will limit the festivals’ collective appeal. Mr. Tollett said the fear was “that it could become homogenized, and everyone have the same bill and the same sort of feel at the festival.”

“If every one of them is just a McFranchise,” he added, “there’s a specialness that’ll be lost.”

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