SXSW and the Future of Music Festivals

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It’s been one of the most dramatic changes in the concert landscape in the past 10 years: the spawning of hundreds of new music festivals worldwide. There are of course many reasons for this: the need for musicians to augment shrinking revenues from CD and streaming with live performance fees, the popularity of festivals as a way the fan can see 10–20 bands over 2–3 days, and the benefit to promoters from both the scale and quantity of performances. With– according to SXSW– more than 32 million people attending at least one music festival a year, they have become “a mainstream pastime of our culture.”

This phenomenon was the subject of a special panel session, The Future of Music Festivals, Friday March 17th, at the SXSW Music festival and conference that just wrapped last Sunday in Austin.

Behind the festivals trend as it played out in recent years in the U.S. is the phenomenon that music concerts are no longer just “concerts.” They are shows with high production values, demanding big ticket prices. Concert ticket prices are up significantly and there are more outdoor events (because most music festivals are outdoor events). Many are major events with massive video technology that goes beyond IMAG to create elaborate visual experiences for all attendees, even in huge outdoor venues. Big production values are the norm. Stages now hold much more equipment, including massive LED screens (often 40 feet high or more).

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(Left to right) Moderator Doug Freeman of the Austin Chronicle, Jeff Vetting of Vulcan Inc, who is launching the new Upstream festival in Seattle; Robin McNicol, one of the managers of the huge Bonnaroo festival; and Christian Morin, a top festival promoter in Germany– at the Future of Music Festivals session at SXSW Music conference track in Austin.

But as much as readers of this publication love big production values and the latest line array and high lumen IMAG technology, what is the future of music festivals? Will the rise of niche festivals take away from the bigger festivals? Not likely. Big production value festivals will continue, but it behooves anyone involved in outdoor concerts and festivals in particular to listen to what’s discussed at SXSW– the conference track is known for shining a light on strong new trends the rest of the country doesn’t immediately see.

As befits SXSW, the discussion prompted attendees to think outside the box. The starting premise for the discussion at the panel at Sx (“southby”) was that despite the advancements in technology, sound engineering, and digital media, large festivals are perceived by some fans and artists as having “become generic, boasting similar lineups and experiences.”

“So how can we reshape the future of music festivals?” was the question the session explored. The panel assembled some top festival players helping to redefine the music festival experience–cultivating and supporting local music scenes, sourcing unique performances, and creating new economic opportunities for musicians, while fostering new visions for what a music festival can be for fans and artists. With moderator Doug Freeman of the Austin Chronicle moderating, the panel consisted of Jeff Vetting of Vulcan Inc, who is launching the new Upstream festival in Seattle; Robin McNicol, one of the managers of the huge Bonnaroo festival; and Christian Morin, a top festival promoter in Germany.

All of the panelists coalesced around one theme: big festival lineups are more similar than they used to be– one reason being that a few big festival promotion companies are buying up others. But even as the festival models morph, there is through it all, for the past 5- 10 years the constant that festivals have been ‘propping up” the music economy. In other words: yes, the decline of revenue for artists and promoters from recorded or streamed music has everyone on the road and the festival is the most date- and artist-packed platform there is.

The panel delved into ways that festival business models are evolving to meet new challenges on both the provider and artist side.

Jeff Vetting–whose new Upstream festival in Seattle (first one May 2017) is an “indoor” festival i.e. with performances scattered around clubs and other indoor venues (similar to SXSW in Austin)– sees a new role for festivals helping artists “make money after they play, to continue to make money… we want to help the emerging artists, not just have them play our stages.”

Christian Morin echoed all the panelists in reminding that “you can’t finance the festival from just the ticket sales, so, you need either public money, or corporate sponsors.” That public money he referred to is an EU, or German, phenomenon. Freeman joked that “we don’t know anything about corporate sponsorship…” referring of course to the fact that at SXSW in Austin corporate sponsorship money is everywhere.

“People tolerate the corporate sponsorship much more now,” said Robin McNicol. And Vetting said that the goal now is to “turn that into a positive experience–the model does not work without it.”

On the technology front, don’t think this was a back-to-basics only discussion. Live video streaming from the festival is one tool that all the panelists– at least all the American ones–said was an increasing trend for festivals. And all agreed that live video streaming does not cannibalize live attendance.

“Video streaming is a sponsorship thing,” said McNicol, “and it does not stop people buying tickets.”

Vetting said that he is now putting together streaming deals for the Upstream festival.

In addition to more live streaming of festivals, other tech tools that came under discussion were wayfinding (digital signage) for fans on site, RFID ticketing (to combat counterfeiting), and an increase in apps that tell fans on site who’s playing where and when and can even be set up for digital “tip jars” for the artists.


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