What Is The Future Of Music Festivals?

For many music fans, the first sign that something was going to be drastically different about 2020 came when Coachella was postponed. Initially, the massive, Southern California event — which serves as a bellwether for festivals globally — announced on March 10 that they would be postponing until October of this year. A few days earlier, on March 6, the annual Austin, Texas conglomeration of music, technology, and film, SXSW had similarly canceled its entire lineup for this year. SXSW has always been much more industry-focused than other festivals that cater to casual and serious fans alike, but Coachella? If the nation’s biggest, most influential festival was halting their programming, things were serious.

“We started thinking really early on in the process that there’s a real chance our festival couldn’t happen in August,” said Allen Scott, who is the co-producer of San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival and head of concerts and festivals at Another Planet Entertainment. “Like everyone else, we were consumed with the news cycle toward the end of March and beginning of April, trying to understand what could happen and what may or may not be allowed. We looked at holding backup dates in October and had given ourselves a deadline, that if it was allowed to happen this year, we felt like we could sell the festival in two months. But by the middle of May we realized for certain that Outside Lands wasn’t going to happen this year.”

And even though it’s almost comical to think back to those initial shockwaves in March, now that it’s September and partial lockdown and shelter-in-place ordinances have been rolling in waves for close to six months, March is exactly when most music festivals began to take a hard look at what the future might hold for their business model. Because of Coachella’s initial decision to postpone their event until the fall, other festivals were definitely hoping for a similar possibility. The first two initially canceled events were slated for early spring, would gatherings planned for summer and fall of this year need to be scrapped as well?

“It was really scary, from a promoter point of view,” remembered Zale Schoenborn the founder and director of Portland, Oregon’s Pickathon festival. “There’s not a lot of margin for error for arts organizations like ours, private or public. It felt really uncertain if we were going to survive, and if a lot of the different events and promoters we work with could actually survive, too. In the best of times, we have a very small break-even profit margin. How in the world are we going to possibly come out on the other end?”

By early June, Coachella finally canceled their October rescheduling as well. Festivals, for 2020 at least, weren’t going to be happening like normal. So came a series of pivots and shifts, hopeful reschedules and plans for 2021 that have varied drastically from event to event. What is the future of music festivals during a global pandemic? Without a vaccine or any sweeping, federal legislation that might make quarantine measures truly effective, trying to predict when festivals might be able come back is nearly impossible. And what’s worse, even when it is safe to gather in groups again, it’s still hard to say if the old model will survive.

“There’s no predictive measure here,” explained Seth Fein, the founder and creative director of Pygmalion Festival in Illinois. “Because it’s not just enough to say ‘we can do a festival again!’ The economy that surrounds it is still an actuarially and predictive measurement. You put down an offer for an artist predicated on what you believe you can sell in tickets. And there’s not going to be a way to do that for 2020. How do you know how many people are going to come to a show? There’s no possible scenario.”

Before we get any further, a brief recap on the health crisis that has halted live events completely: Coronavirus aka SARS-CoV-2 is a respiratory illness that is spread by respiratory droplets. Staying six feet away from other people is among the best ways to keep the droplets from making contact and cause infection. Wearing masks also helps prevent the spread of the virus. In an outdoor setting, it is far less likely the virus will be spread, particularly if masks are used, but the quickest way for the virus to spread is in enormous groups of people, where droplets can potentially transfer to hundreds of people at once, and then continue to transfer to whoever those infected people come in contact with.

This means that music festivals and other large concerts fall into the category of events that are most dangerous during a pandemic. Correspondingly, festivals and music venues were the first businesses to shut down, and they will be among the last to reopen. Coronavirus can be deadly, and is particularly harmful for older people and those with preexisting conditions. The safest, most effective way to prevent it from spreading is by staying home and only coming into close contact with members of your own household. If you’re willing to take the risk of leaving the house, which, frankly, many people have been after six months of quarantine, then preventive measures of social distancing more than six feet away from others, only gathering outdoors, and wearing a mask at all times are the recommended safest practices.

And while there have been a few attempts at socially distanced live shows in the UK — more on that in a second — for most festival settings, those kinds of drastic measures are either too difficult to enforce. Smaller crowd sizes also make events not worth it financially, or even with measures in place, promoters are simply not willing to risk anyone’s life. Fein, for one, said he knew there was no chance that his local festival Pygmalion, which normally takes place in Champaign, Illinois, would move forward this year.

“It’s really devastating to see the effects of this, and there’s no way of negotiating,” Fein said. “You can’t rationalize and be like, ‘well, we could do X, Y or Z’ when it’s literally impossible to gather without putting people in danger. And we can’t can’t put anyone in danger. I’ve enjoyed watching the pivot some people have made, and I think the drive-in concept is pretty cool. It’s not something that I’d do as a promoter, but I’m happy that it’s making people happy. As long as people are outside, and thoroughly distance from each other, I think we now know COVID-19 isn’t a ballistic missile. But if you gather in spaces with close quarters, it is going to spread.”

For artists, the tension between a responsibility to keep themselves and their fans safe, and the desire to be out on stage performing and providing work for their bands and crew is a tricky dilemma. Ingrid Andress, a rising country star who released her debut album, Lady Like, to critical acclaim in early March and was scheduled to perform at Stagecoach this year, said she personally doesn’t want to perform until there’s a structured, federal guideline that lays out what we can safely do.

“I think no live shows until we have a solid strategy, because every state is doing something different, which I think is what’s causing it to still be here,” she said. “Because we’re not really being a United States Of America, if you will. So, to me, I’m just waiting for there to be like actual guidelines that everybody can follow so that it’s not this confusing, scary thing to want to go to a concert. I won’t feel comfortable putting other people in situations like that until there’s some kind of guideline.”

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Speaking of federal action, another way the nation is being called on to support the music industry is through the organization of NIVA — the National Independent Venues Association, which also supports independent festivals — and the Save Our Stages Act and Restart Act that are currently before congress. These bills point out that other forms of government aid aren’t robust enough to preserve the operational model for independent venues and festivals. Without government aid, so many of these buildings and events will not be financially solvent for the rest of the year, and probably longer.

Jeri Gennaro, who has been a tour manager for Lee Ann Womack since 2019, and also worked venue-side at Nashville’s iconic Exit In, said she’s frustrated with the lack of support for smaller companies, while larger corporations qualify for government bailouts. “Companies like Live Nation can stay afloat because they get huge bailouts from the government, but there’s nothing for independent venues,” Gennaro said. “It’s so heartbreaking, because I love Exit In. Anyone you can think of has played there. Music is something that everyone enjoys, and live shows are the lifeblood of the music business. These independent venues build up the small bands that turn into huge arena bands, and those venues are closing because the government doesn’t want to give them support. Everyone in the government listens to music, right? But they don’t care at all.”

In other countries, there have been more clearly stated rules about what can and can’t happen, which has led to more experimentation. For example, UK indie rocker Sam Fender attempted what was one of the first socially-distanced concerts this summer in Newcastle, England. He said that performing the show was a “no-brainer,” and that for him and the band, and that it felt almost back to normal to be onstage. “I was obviously skeptical at first, and I thought yes, it’s probably going to be a bit weird,” he admitted. “But it was fantastic. It was a gig. There’s two and a half thousand people there, they were screaming all the songs back to us. We were playing and we were having fun. It didn’t feel much different than the real thing, or shows we played last year.”

Fender is in a position that many young artists are — just on the cusp of making his dreams of making it as a musician become a reality. After a great reception for his debut album, Hypersonic Missiles in September of last year, he and his band had recently booked their first big arena show to 90,000 fans. The show had sold out very quickly and Fender had quite a bit of buzz based off those numbers. But now, that whole tour has been canceled, and it’s hard not to feel that his career momentum might be impacted as well.

“It’s been miserable, we’ve all been miserable,” Fender said. “For my band, we were at the pinnacle of our career so far. We were supposed to play our first arena show to 90,000 people and it sold out quickly, so there was a ton of buzz. That got canceled. It’s bizarre and it’s sad and somber, and I think it was quite hard for us to remain focused on creating when the setting wasn’t what we expected. There’s no live music at all, and there’s where our income comes from, for a live band and anyone on the alternative/indie spectrum. We don’t make much money from streaming and record sales, our revenue comes from playing. So we were financially stumped as well, as is my forty man crew that are now out of work.”

Though the socially-distanced show was a positive experience for Sam from the artist side of things, he doesn’t think the model would hold up for the festival market. For one thing, the makeshift, pop-up venue, Virgin Money Unity Arena, covered the losses that were incurred on the night of his show since it was sold at only about 10% capacity. For another, the sheer volume of people that the biggest festivals in the world require to execute everything means the numbers of possible attendees is so small that ticket prices would skyrocket.

“I‘m not sure if festivals work, because festivals have to sell a certain number of tickets to even break even,” Fender said. “If a festival only sold 10% of its tickets, I’m not sure it would work. But maybe there’s a way it could work in a weekend capacity, with just one stage or something. But I don’t think Glastonbury or something could work. I couldn’t see Coachella or Glasto or any of the big festivals around the world surviving with a reduced capacity, because it would be about 10% of what they normally get, unless they charged ten times what they normally get.”

But most of the major festivals haven’t looked into socially-distanced shows as an option as of yet. Instead, the vast majority of them have created some kind of virtual or digital option that can happen in lieu of in-person live performance, at least for 2020. And even if those kinds of elite, overpriced events develop, industry lifers like Fein are certain that the sense of rebellion and punk ethos that has always driven DIY scenes in music will rise back up, too.

“One of the things that comes out of that type of economic disparity is that punk ethos that happens inside a basement that grows out into the world,” said Fein. “And that’s where you get that exciting new energy from. The last thing the music industry needs right now are aging promoters to fuck it up. I think there’s going to be a pretty serious economic disparity as far as what’s being presented and who can go. Out of that, there’s going to be a bunch of kids and young people who are going to be hungry in different ways, and we’ll make it happen.”

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And a new initiative in that realm is already happening with Club House Global, a streaming platform that prioritizes social impact and democratic compensation to provide support for musicians, DJs, and other live events and hospitality workers who have lost the bulk of their income and ability to work due to COVID-19. “Our primary goal was to provide opportunity and income to our fellow DJs and live musicians in a safe, sustainable, tech-forward and democratic way (equal payment for all participants),” explained Anjali Ramasunder, the executive producer and head of development for the platform. “Our weekly programming offers our audience a slate of talent to watch and a community to belong to. Through a pandemic and civil unrest, our programming and curation has allowed us to offer a place for BIPOC artists and allies to activate and advocate through the one universal commonality: Music.”

From a virtual dancefloor hosted on Zoom, to weekly Saturday streams at 2 PM, monthly subscription tiers — ranging from $4.99, $9.99 and $24.99 — and a robust chat community, Club House Global has been able to create a hub for music obsessives to remain safely in isolation while connecting with each other digitally, and supporting musicians, DJs, and the many charities that the organization encourages donations for. Additionally, CHG has partnered with the Theatre at the Ace Hotel as a homebase for streaming, modeling how physical venues can help support new virtual ventures. Could a partnership like this work for festivals in the future?

“There will certainly be short and long term adapting tactics that will need to be implemented,” Ramasunder said. “What we do know is that the actualization of the merging of digital and IRL will definitely be at the forefront of the experience. Once we do go back to IRL, we believe that those events will be able to be experienced in a far more sophisticated and engaging way, just based on what people (like us) are developing right now. And when faced with a moment that required hotels to pivot and function differently in order to maintain strong bonds with their guests, Ace Hotel DTLA turned to the arts to help.”

Like the Ace, other venues have reimagined their space to make way for drive-in concerts, a take on drive-in movies that allows all guests to remain safely in their cars, or masked and distanced from other fans, while the band performs on stage quite a ways from the audience. Of course, this concept relies on a venue that’s already outfitted for that kind of vehicle capacity, and then further adapted to keep cars much further away from each other than was necessary in the past. And again, this event style can’t really function on a scale similar to a festival, or even that of a regular concert.

Which has led so many people to continue shifting programming to the digital space. For instance, just a few weekends ago Outside Lands debuted their virtual concept — cheekily titled Inside Lands — with the streaming partner Twitch. A mix of iconic festival sets from acts who played the fest in the past, like the Gorillaz and Jack White, ran alongside new livestreamed performances from smaller, emerging artists like Madeline Kenney and Mxmtoon. Inside Lands happened over the course of two days with a set schedule that mimicked the festival’s normal layout, but other festivals have also expanded into much larger livestream projects.

Pygmalion’s answer to the new conditions was to create a free, virtual festival with entertainment programming of all kinds — none of which is musical. Instead of shifting to a livestream model for older sets or at-home concerts from musicians, their new lineup features names like comedian Ilana Glazer, NPR’s Ari Shapiro, and podcasters Tawny Newsome and Andrew Ti of Yo! Is This Racist? “We wish to interact, to play games, to create space, to listen — and listen well — to people who know more than us, or who have some perspective, some idea, about the past, the present, and if we are lucky, the future,” the festival wrote in their statement about the programming shift. “We want to feel human with you.”

Most festivals are hanging onto the musical element in some way, though. Pickathon, for instance, embarked on a Concert A Day series for over 120 days to support the MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund. As pioneers in the field of live streaming and recording their festival, the event was able to open up their vault and share daily footage of past shows, all of which were shot in multi-camera HD.

“We ended up connecting with the Recording Academy — The Grammys — and other industry players like Amazon Music and Spotify who were major sponsors of our effort,” explained Schoenborn. “We were able to put together a pretty herculean concert from our previous catalogue with over 800 shows recorded in full definition. We did a concert a day for five months — 120 concerts in 120 days — all the way up to our final weekend when Pickathon actually happened, we called it Pickathon At Home. And we raised over $300,000 for MusiCares.”

Since the festival’s inception, Pickathon has been one of the only festivals in the country who has been building their own content production team. Starting in 2010, the event has been employing hundreds of people on their film team alone, learning how to create stages that doubled as film sets, so the viewer at home was getting as high-quality experience as the live audience. “Most festivals bring in a team to do content for them, they don’t really spend or do anything special,” Schoenborn said. “If you’ve been to Pickathon, you know it’s kind of like Fantasy Island, but it’s also a movie set. Content is something we’ve also known has been really valuable for the festival industry, it’s what we had going into COVID that helped us pivot.”

Working with their robust catalogue of extremely high-quality concert videos, Pickathon has slowly but surely been putting together a plan for a virtual pivot that can help them survive if programming for next year is still halted. “I think the chances of a normal festival season next summer are really low,” Schoenborn said. “So there’s this idea of what else can we do? How can we reinvent ourselves and be ready for when we can do events again? The sad reality is that most festivals really don’t make sense at half capacity, or quarter capacity. It’s really expensive to do events, and they just don’t make sense at that size.”

Instead of focusing on live event plans for 2021, the founders of Pickathon have shifted to create a brand new company that focuses exclusively on live streaming music, and attempting to solve the two problems Schoenborn sees with how it’s currently happening: One, quality for actual live events that are happening in the moment, not edited and streamed later. And two, the experience, which Schoenborn envisions needs to be more aligned with how attending a real live event feels.

“We’re creating our own live streaming company called FRQNCY.Live that leverages our expertise in quality and from a production point of view,” Schoenborn said. “It’s a separate company, but the people from Pickathon are the founders. There has to be other ways to make money, and we have to make better live streaming experiences to make that happen. We have a strong ethos to make streaming additive for elements like venues — we think local communities and venues are such an important piece.”

On the even more optimistic side of things, Baja Beach Fest has done what seemed unthinkable to some promoters — sold out their 2021 dates while the pandemic is still raging on. Instead of looking for a way to pivot their programming digitally during 2020, this newer Rosarito, Mexico-based event, which hadn’t announced their lineup for this year yet, simply shifted their focus to the future. Baja Beach Fest is a reggaeton and Latin music festival that Den Uijl and his partner Aaron Ampudia created in 2018 as an inclusive event for Mexican-Americans. After a two-day lineup for the first two years, the festival had shifted to a full three-days for 2020, and will move forward at that capacity for 2021 with headliners Ozuna, Anuel AA, and J. Balvin.

“We really quickly pivoted internally, and the Latin community really spoke,” said Baja Beach Festival co-founder Chris Den Uijl. “The core essence of what we do is bringing people together and breaking down social barriers, and wondering if that was going to be impeded and taken away from us. Are people not going to feel the same way about it? This was a big validation moment that was really fun to share with other promoters: 30,000 people bought tickets in the last 21 days. That’s a powerful thing. And I think a lot of us weren’t sure if that was going to happen.”

The festival also announced just today that they will also be producing a second weekend in 2021 with the same lineup. “We felt like there’s just way too many people that want to go who won’t be able to attend,” Den Uijl said. “So we’re trying to provide an opportunity that’s safe, and the fact that we were able to sell that many tickets over a year away from the festival has just provided a lot of confidence for us. The fans have genuinely spoken about how big this genre has become.”

Another event that has completely announced their lineup for 2021 is Outside Lands, who will feature a huge slate of headliners like Tame Impala, Lizzo, Vampire Weekend, Young Thug, The 1975, Kehlani, and more. Scott said his hopes for next year are that things are able to operate normally for the event, just as they did before the pandemic — and that the government does take action to help keep independent music companies and venues alive in the meantime.

“My hopes are that we have a normal, pre-Covid style festival,” he said. “I think when we get the OK that it’s safe to go out to live events, people are going to be so excited and ready to go. In the meantime, Outside Lands is an independent music festival, and Another Planet and Superfly Presents are independent companies. For us, and the 2,600+ independent live music venues in this country that are part of NIVA, it’s imperative that we get support from the federal government right now. Because you need that ecosystem nurturing talent so that they can one day headline an event like Outside Lands.”

Across the board, the desire for the government to support independent music venues and festivals — so that they can survive while it’s unsafe for people to gather in large group — is the strongest sentiment expressed by anyone who is or has been working in festivals and live music space. For someone like Fein, who was formerly a musician, then a promoter, and now the founder of a festival, looking at the way the industry has quickly shifted away from business-focused and returned to our connection with other humans, is a promising aspect of the current moment.

“It’s been an interesting but also very human-centered moment for a lot of people inside the music industry,” Fein said. “Over fifteen years we’ve built a network of unbelievable community support for Pygmalion that has grown and sustained as a result of actual human relationships. And I think that despite the fact that everyone is scared and desperate for Congress to act, there’s a lot of love being shared. The optimistic side of me that I still retain can celebrate that.”