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Published: 2003/04/26
by Phil Simon

Featured Department:Jambands Business School: Festival Fall-Out 2003

[We offer this up as the festival season begins in earnest…]

Seeing as Festival season is upon us again, I thought it would be a good time to re-visit the concept of festival promotion, and the dangers of handling such a large piece of business. Already this year, we have seen some pretty crazy festivals, and have learned about the dangers of promoting them.

Festival seasons travel on a biorhythmic system it would seem. Every few years new festivals pop up and proliferate. As they grow in number, the amount of attendees remains relatively static, and the strong festivals are separated from the week. The cycles of the economy and other factors contribute to the ability of a festival and its promoters to survive from year to year. The September 11th tragedy for instance killed many festivals that happened shortly after it, and festivals like the Woodward Music Festival became victim to the shortage of money and energy that resulted. Now only 2 years later, the festival schedule is crammed this summer with new festivals popping up across the country. How will these festivals fare? Will bands and promoters be rolling in dough or searching for tissues?

Over 4/20 weekend, the first ever Humboldt Music Festival was held in Eureka / Arcata, CA. Attendance was likely about 10% of what was projected, and bands were left wondering whether or not they would be paid. Preliminary reports indicate that the promoter is attempting to alleviate the debt burden created for many touring bands and checks are in the mail. But the dangers of a first ever event with a major budget are illustrated by this event alone. It takes years of planning to execute a festival properly, and a whole team must be assembled to handle all of the tasks necessary to attract thousands of people to a new event.

In the first days of Spring, Back Woods Productions created a whole new festival concept. Held at a quiet old fashioned resort in the Catskills called Friar Tuck’s, customers were able to buy a combo ticket that included both a music ticket and a portion of a hotel room. This seemed like a fantastic idea for a festival, but an unforeseen problem occurred.

Normally at a festival, attendees realize that they are in the public eye. Even within the confines of a van or car, they know that security can see and smell them and what they are doing. But when you invite hundreds of fun loving hipsters to a festival, than give each of them a private space in which to operate, you invite potentially harmful elements into the scene, and provide a sense of anonymity that no one could have anticipated.

Despite providing a great weekend of music, Back Woods Productions did not anticipate the needs for security that would arise from this unusual concept. So while I strolled with my two 9 month old babies from our hotel room around the resort, I did not feel or see the presence of security that should exist in this huge area in which people were partying. The result: 4 arrests, an overdose, and a well publicized runaway. I believe that the concept was sound, and the music was great, but a much larger security presence was needed at this event in order for it to be pulled off effectively. Despite all of this, most of the people seemed to have a really good time. I believe that the concept is a strong one, and that both Backwoods Productions and other festival promoters will try it at this resort and elsewhere.

Last year’s event at Bonnaroo really changed the national viewpoint of how festivals could be run and how to build immediate history. The major players in the national festival scene had previously been mostly the Terrapin and Gamelan folks in the East promoting the Gathering of the Vibes and the Summit music festival, and Berkfest- respectively. In the West High Sierra Music had their festival in California, and had begun to acquire festivals around the country including Salmonfest, Harvestfest in Atlanta, and a piece of Berkfest.

The usual scenario in these cases was that a festival would start small, and over a period of years customers and promoters could help to create a history and culture to the festival. Over time the festival could grow to be over 10,000 customers, and national acts would be drawn to these events. Then along came Bonnaroo.

The folks at AC Entertainment and Superfly Productions joined forces, perhaps with some behind-the-scenes backing. Their thoughts seemed to be that they could skip the multiple years that it would take to build this history by investing in the best talent available in the country. Why wait when you may have the financial power to attract the heavy hitters including Trey Anastasio, Phil Lesh, Widespread Panic, etc. The amazing power of the collective draw of these huge national bands allowed them to skip decades of building and create an event that by their estimates had 75,000 paying customers. Other people estimate that the reality may have been much larger.

So now promoters across the country are attempting to jump into this concept by promoting huge festivals in their first years. HOBstock in Mississippi, Higher Ground Music Festival in West Virginia, The 10,000 Lakes Festival in Minnesota and others around the country seem to be drawing on the Bonnaroo concept. Build it and they will come. By hiring mostly huge nationals, at what one can imagine to be a huge cost, these promoters seem to be hoping for the Bonnaroo effect- large numbers of customers straight out of the gate. One can only hope that they either succeed or have! the financial backing to cover themselves until their festivals gain the necessary history to pack the customers in.

What does this do to the more minor players in the festival scene? How will events like the Endless Mountain Music Festival in Pennsylvania or other festivals that have been growing in size and popularity over the years be effected by the Bonnaroo-ization of the festival scene nationally?

It seems from the start that the more regionally focused bands are going to suffer as festivals are competing for the same national bands. String Cheese, Widespread, Phish, the Dead, Government Mule, and others all seem to be very busy this summer. If you are Monterey Peninsula Artists or another large booking agencies you are likely to do well. But if you represent regional bands that used to do 20+ festivals a summer, you are likely to be more challenged to find festival slots. Two years ago the Gathering of the Vibes featured a second stage in which great regional bands were featured including ulu, Uncle Sammy, Lake Trout, Jiggle and others. Now the GOTV schedule features almost exclusively major nationals like the Allman Brothers and James Brown. This will certainly be a treat for festival attendees, but represents a challenge for bands and agents that are trying to climb the ranks.

What will happen to these developing festivals as the summer tour schedule now has the Dead and Phish on the road? For the last few years, these major drawing acts have either been in side project phase or off the road entirely. The whole scene developed as these monoliths of our culture stepped aside and we saw the explosion of the second tier of bands. Widespread Panic, String Cheese, Derek Trucks, the Disco Biscuits, and others saw a meteoric rise in the last few years that may largely be attributable to the vacancies left in the scene by these huge bands’ breaks. What can bands from Tea Leaf Green to Psychedelic Breakfast expect from their summers now that many fans and customers are being drawn to summer tours by the tens of thousands?

Most of us probably saw the footage of Woodstock 99 with out of control attendees, vending booths pirated, and a general lack of control. Thankfully for our scene, this is not the trademark of the behavior that most jamband fans exhibit. While it seems that most jamband fans enjoy a bit of nefarious personal activity, the days of fences being torn down and violence at festivals seems to not be a problem for our scene.

Please keep in mind that all of the opinions above expressed are only opinions based on anecdotal observation of the scene. No extensive interviews or research were conducted, only open eyed travel. No offense was intended toward anyone, and no malice was directed toward any particular business.

Phil Simon owns Simon Says Booking and has been a contributing columnist at Jambands.com for over three years. More information can be found out about Simon Says and his roster of bands at www.simonsaysbooking.com.

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