Join our newsletter to stay current on all your favorite artists!

Inside The Rapidly-Rising, Bubble-Bursting Culture Of Music Festivals

There are few experiences that can top a music festival weekend.

Something that was once a counterculture, hippie escape from the lulls of the rat race is now a key cog in mainstream society and almost a rite of passage for young people. And make no mistake, the exponential growth of the scene has been nothing short of extraordinary.

According to Nielsen Music, in 2014, 32 million people attended at least one music festival, and nearly half of them were millennials.

That statistic is particularly telling, because it explains the heavy amount of sponsorship dollars that flow into these events, seeking the approval of the most desirable demographic on the market. An AEG, LLC report said that North American-based companies spent $1.34 billion sponsoring music venues, festivals and tours in 2014, and that number has increased like clockwork over the past five years. Anheuser-Busch was responsible for a third of it.

These days we have over 800 festivals to choose from, and that number is constantly changing. Still visible in the rear-view mirror are the years when regionally-based offerings like Bonnaroo, High Sierra, Sasquatch! and Austin City Limits (ACL) were all that we had.

While each festival had its own unique aesthetic, at the core, they were all the same. They provided a rare opportunity to separate from society and submerge in another world, where you could explore the simplest pleasures in life without judgment or consequence.

A decade ago, there were no smart phones or selfie sticks in the air — just hands and gravity-friendly fans seeking a better view. Social media hadn’t been invented yet. Silent disco was the only way you could describe the 3 a.m., music-less dance party at your neighbor’s campsite.

Festivalgoers had nothing but good vibes, memories and stories to take home. They fostered communal relationships and created festival families through shared experiences that brought them back each year. Thankfully, those elements have not and will not change.

But it’s not all sunshine and smiles. Behind the scenes, the economics of this boom have created a hierarchy that’s replaced grassroots events with corporate ones, as entities like AEG and Live Nation have become major players. We’ve seen many familiar and beloved staples fall by the wayside at a much higher rate since.

So, how did all this happen? What factors sparked this exponential boom? And beyond that, what are the effects — both good and bad — of this seemingly oversaturated space?

In an attempt to answer these questions, we spoke with industry members on different sides of the phenomenon to gain some perspective on the fascinating and rapid evolution of music festivals in the 21st century.

FROM LAST LINE TO HEADLINE

As Umphrey’s McGee was picking up steam in South Bend, Indiana in the late-1990s, getting to play music festivals was a priority.

It’s a strategy many bands employ early in their career, and UM was no different, hoping to put their progressive rock jams in front of larger audiences in new markets. After UM built a respectable network, the doors were opened to Quincy, California’s High Sierra Music Fest in 2001.

“That was our first glimpse into what the festival world was and, of course, a year later Bonnaroo happened,” said UM keyboardist Joel Cummins. “At least — for our scene — that felt like it really changed everything.”

The inaugural Bonnaroo was a much different animal than its present-day form. In 2002, Widespread Panic, Trey Anastasio, Ben Harper, The String Cheese Incident and Phil Lesh stood atop the lineup. Its supporting cast resembled something more akin to Mountain Jam or Summer Camp.

The first Bonnaroo SuperJam consisted of Michael Kang from SCI, Béla Fleck, and Robert Randolph. To put that in perspective, last year’s ensemble featured over a dozen artists including Pretty Lights, Run DMC, Rob Trujillo (Metallica), and Chance the Rapper. Cummins was actually part of the SuperJam madness in 2014.

With 70,000 people attending the ‘02 Bonnaroo, that afternoon set provided one of the largest crowds UM had ever played in front of. What made it even better was that it was at a festival with a cohesive, complementary lineup that reeled in an audience that embraced their sound.

“The difference between a festival, which we call a soft-ticket play, versus an ‘Evening with Umphrey’s McGee’, is somebody’s buying a ticket just to come see you at a club or theater,” said UM manager Kevin Browning. “At a festival, that’s part of the experience. You pay one price and you go and you’re excited about the bands that you’re excited about, but it’s also an opportunity to discover. For us, that was huge because it’s hard to get the word out. It was hard then and it’s hard now. If you’re good enough and you’re entertaining enough, when you go play these places and there’s new ears and eyes — we gained a lot of fans over the years from those festivals.”

The rise of UM has been on a parallel path beside American music festivals, as the infrastructure beyond the gates flung them from their beaten path onto the paved one. They went from a last-line Bonnaroo artist to a festival headliner and a band that could sell out arenas and fill amphitheaters.

FROM COUNTERCULTURE TO SUBCULTURE

There’s no correct or, for that matter, simple answer as to what caused the music festival boom. What is clear is that there are a number of factors that created this live music super cell.

The most glaring of them is money. As ticket prices have soared, so have the profits.

Complex Magazine reported that in 2014, in terms of gross revenue, Electric Daisy Carnival generated $322 million and Coachella raised $254 million. Ultra, which had nearly 200 less artists than its West Coast peers, was able to bring in $200 million.

“You see the opportunity that promoters saw in large-scale events like this. They’re high-risk but they’re very high reward,” Browning explained. “From a promoter’s standpoint, if they’re doing hundreds of shows a year at bars and clubs and whatnot, the margins on a festival are a lot better than the margins on a club show. Everybody wants to throw cool events and everyone wants to throw parties, and at the end of the day, it became clear that people want to go to live music festivals and there was a demand that wasn’t being met based on the amount of traffic that they could support.”

Advancements in mobile technology and the rise of social media have also played a massive role in filling out these events . Following artists and the entire music scene has never been easier, thanks to blogs (like this one) and social media platforms.

Listening to music and expanding one’s palate has become an instantaneous exercise with a few swipes and thumb punches on a smart phone standing in the way. As the artist impressions stack up, so does our desire to see them beyond the screen.

Since our networks are accessible within our pocket, the subconscious fear of missing out has become a potent undercurrent within the culture. Festivals like Coachella, New Orleans Jazz Fest, and Hangout began putting on live broadcasts and, since then, it’s become an integral part of extending their reach. Recap videos have become a trademarked part of the experience, helping relive the scenes and moments in a different perspective days and weeks after they’re over.

Festivals offer a perfectly-packaged, sharable experience that can be linked to a hashtag and sent out into the world in a matter of seconds, creating a conversation without borders. The first weekend of Coachella 2015 garnered 3.5 million tweets. #WarpedTour was used more than 1.2 million times on Instagram last year.

This technological revolution isn’t limited to our end, either. Production capabilities have bolstered performance standards, creating countless ways to deliver music that touches on all our senses.

Producers and DJs have become so talented and so undeniable that electronic dance music has come out of the warehouses and into the daylight, transforming the festival culture.

The IMS Business Report 2015 stated that the EDM market had reached an eye-popping $6.9 billion, and 26 percent of all nightlife events around the world were EDM related.

So it’s no coincidence that some of the largest and most lucrative festivals on the planet are centered around EDM and, as it’s evolved, the drug movement that followed is simply a natural progression of it.

Like LSD was to the 1960s and ‘70s, MDMA is to the right now.

“This is basically the mass commercialization of an underground culture that was already alive and well,” Browning said. “There’s no doubt (the EDM) scene has been responsible for a ton of the growth, because you’re talking about a captive audience that has a relatively large disposable amount of income and they like to come together and do drugs and that was apparent to (many successful promoters out there).”

For UM, climbing lineups required some sonic evolution as society’s preferences began to change. They never made a conscious effort to change their sound, but there was some natural selection involved. The desire to experiment and incorporate different equipment opened the doors to untapped electronic potential with the band’s improvisation.

Many of those elements gave way to originals like “Cemetery Walk II” or “Day Nurse,” and helped UM feel comfortable in festivals like Counterpoint and Electric Forest.

“I love the fact that we can cross-pollinate here and do events like Summer Camp in Illinois that are still very rooted in the live music thing … or we can be just as much as home in a more electronic environment,” Cummins said. “For that matter, I can say that we’d be just as comfortable doing an acoustic set at Telluride Bluegrass Festival. I think our versatility is something that’s really helped us continue to prosper in the festival game.”

UM is just one small piece of the overall scale that began tipping toward that world.

Purple Hat Production’s Paul Levine, one of the biggest forces behind Florida’s Spirit of Suwannee Music Park (SOSMP), who’s been putting on shows for more than two decades, has had a front-row seat to this shift.

Levine’s view of the EDM takeover echoes Cummins’ analogy of it being a “gateway drug to more of the live performances.”

“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but people just want to dance, and that music appeals to them. Some EDM appeals to really young people, but when we were all young, we had to be introduced to music in a certain way. Some of it is more sophisticated (than others),” said Levine. “Whatever gets people out to music festivals, hopefully they have an opportunity to be exposed to lots of new things. As people grow up, their tastes evolve. Some will be EDM fans for life and some may move on from that and start loving folk music or afrobeat — who knows. What I’m seeing is a lot of music fans that like all sorts of music so I think it’s important that, as time goes on, everybody is more open-minded to new music, new mediums, and new forms of creativity.”

And that might be the most important place to look — at the communal mindset of people who go to festivals.

“It’s generally good-willed people,” Cummins said. “I think it starts with the notion of the band, a group of musicians who are trying to create something together that is bigger than the sum of the parts … there’s some sort of interaction between the band and the audience that can be this really magical, powerful thing.”

Beyond the social media or opportunities to eat drugs or chase experiences, it’s the unique chance to bond through live music with other like-minded people that’s bringing festival fans back for more.

“There really is a special love that’s there that’s not the same for a big Metallica festival (for example). There’s a little more aggression and a little more angst and a little more frustration that people are taking out, and our music seems to be based on more of the ‘love your brothers and sisters’ model,” Cummins said. “In today’s times it’s become even more important and relevant. There’s just so much hate and awful bigotry out there in the world, and music is really something that brings people of all different beliefs and ethnicities and all this together. They can come together and embrace something and enjoy something without having to judge. I wish that more people were able to experience that and be able to feel that and be a part of something. The world would definitely a better place.”

EFFECTS OF AN OVERSATURATED FESTIVAL SCENE

Obviously, there’s a cost associated with everything and, like every space that sees exponential growth, there are positive and negatives that follow.

As the number of festivals continued to rise in the late-2000s, the competition and pricing market amongst them became more intense.

That’s not just on tickets, either. Booking artists became increasingly difficult as the country became more densely populated with music fests. A contract’s radius clause, which limit shows an artist can play within a certain time and distance of an event, made the selection process a delicate balancing act.

Naturally, the deeper the pockets a production company has, the more likely they are to win the battle.

“Everyone wants to have a festival. The reason there’s so many and — particularly the big ones — there’s a lot of corporate money and sponsorship dollars (invested),” Levine said. “Businesses are putting up large amounts of money to do certain things and perhaps overpaying artists, which inflates the price structure. It’s become harder and harder for smaller, grassroots promoters to get fairer deals on headliners because they don’t have as much buying power as the bigger interests.”

That’s diminished the complementary nature the festival circuit once had, and the hierarchy that’s followed has affected the sustainability of smaller, boutique events.

The last year alone we’ve seen many longtime staples and household names in their respective corners of the country shut down.

On June 24, 2015, one of the most beloved festivals in the Southeast, Bear Creek, had to cancel its ninth installment at SOSMP. Specifics weren’t provided with the announcement, but it’s not far-fetched to imagine the potency of Suwannee Hulaween, which drew in 20,000 people last fall, played a role. BC even tried to change its date to the first weekend in October, but it wasn’t enough to keep it afloat.

Phases of the Moon moved from the headache that was Danville, Illinois to Mulberry Mountain in Ozark, Arkansas for its second year, but went down in flames in September, citing “a significant number of unforeseen obstacles, including the continued closure of the only road leading into the festival site.”

In the aftermath, Pipeline Productions failed to refund tickets within the 90-day window it promised, which indicated financial woes were likely to blame. According to the ongoing discussion on the Phases Facebook page, many ticket buyers have still not received refunds.

That situation has even affected Pipeline’s most successful event, Wakarusa, which, after 12 years, recently announced that it will not take place in 2016. The December announcement stated that the company “was significantly damaged by partners claiming to share our vision. Sadly, they lied. They are being dealt with appropriately through the legal system.”

After nearly two decades, All Good Festival announced its retirement and that it would be devolving into a two-day event at Merriweather Post Pavilion in July.

“You hate to see something that’s established go, but there’s only room for so many players,” Browning said. “It’s a cutthroat world out there.”

But even some of the biggest events in the country aren’t immune to the unsympathetic ways of the festival market.

TomorrowWorld — one of the largest EDM festivals in the country that reeled in more than $85 million in revenue in 2014 — is not happening this year, stating last week that “unfortunately in the current environment, it is not possible to give you the best and unique experience you deserve.”

TomorrowWorld came under fire on its swing day last year, after thousands of single-day festivalgoers were stranded without food, water and shelter overnight because weather conditions made roads into the festival grounds unsafe. In fear of a repeat, the festival closed the third day off to commuters, which led to refunds of 150,000 tickets for Sunday.

No matter how big or how small, any festival can go under in this climate. Whether it is competition, poor money management, a disjointed lineup, a failed location change, or a haphazard planning — as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

As ugly as the economics and the corporatization of music fests might be, their existence still transcends all of the negative things that might be happening at the top.

Sure, smaller festivals are becoming obsolete, but Browning doesn’t believe the oversaturation of the scene is detracting from the end-goal that inspired it.

“I’m not overly-cynical about it because ultimately the experience that one person has or a group of friends has is no less powerful if it’s at an event with 1,000 people in rural Arkansas or with 100,000 people at Lollapalooza in downtown Chicago,” he said. “You’re creating moments and memories with your crew. I don’t value the experiential elements of the bigger, wealthier festivals as better than the small, more intimate, less-funded ones. It’s entirely up to the music fan. It’s what gets them off and that’s all that matters.”

The festival landscape is constantly changing, and we’ll be saying goodbye to sacred grounds where countless memories were forged each and every year.

For a day or maybe a week after the news breaks, we’ll reconnect with those who were with us that weekend and mourn the loss, but eventually we’ll move on because the beautiful thing about this explosion is that there’s another festival we’ve considered going to and a new lineup announcement to gush over next week.

It might not be as intimate as Bear Creek or as inviting as All Good, but with your festival crew nearby, cold drink in-hand and good music on-stage, it’s still going to be one hell of a weekend.

[Photos reprinted, by Dave Vann, Phierce Photo, and Patrick Hughes]