Music festivals are more dominant than ever in the concert business, and they're still growing – from Coachella, which brought in a record-breaking $47.3 million gross over two weekends in April, to this weekend's Starry Nights, where fans will be able to enjoy a pancake breakfast and capture-the-flag (along with acts including Cage the Elephant) on a farm in Bowling Green, Kentucky. "All the major ones that have been established for awhile sold out faster than they've ever sold out," says Charles Attal, a partner with C3 Presents, producer of Lollapalooza, which brought 270,000 fans to Chicago in August. "If 10 more festivals popped up in great markets, with great parks and great concepts, I think they'd work."
With a few poorly organized exceptions, festivals were able to expand and sell out faster than usual throughout 2012. The Electric Daisy Carnival, a dance-music fixture in Las Vegas, drew more than 300,000 fans over three days in June; its May spin-off in East Rutherford, New Jersey, sold 100,000 tickets and grossed $7.2 million, according to concert-industry magazine Pollstar. The Stagecoach country festival, held at the same Southern California site as Coachella, grossed $13 million in April. Both Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo hit their capacities, the latter selling 85,000 tickets. Jay-Z's Made in America festival in Philadelphia this month sold 80,000 tickets in its first year, and smaller fests including San Francisco's Outside Lands, New Jersey's Bamboozle and New York's Governors Ball had strong sales, too.
"We've transferred to that European festival culture, almost," says Kevin Lyman, producer of the Warped Tour, one of the few holdovers from the late-Nineties days of massive traveling festivals such as Ozzfest, the original Lollapalooza and Lilith Fair. "These stand-alone festivals – we're a full generation into them now. It's become a rite of passage."
A decade ago, festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo had to aggressively present themselves to the public, convincing music fans to lay off expensive amphitheatre shows and fly to fields in the middle of nowhere in order to see dozens of bands. They had to define themselves narrowly at first – Coachella was known as the alternative-rock festival, Bonnaroo was for jam-bands – or book sure-thing headliners such as the Dave Matthews Band or Radiohead in order to fill their venues. But today, the biggest festivals are able to sell out even before they've announced their lineups. "For a lot of people in their twenties and thirties, festivals are the summer concert season," says Rick Farman, co-founder of Superfly Presents, which books Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennessee.
Of course, big festivals are hugely expensive to create and maintain, and not all of them can succeed. "It can get to a point where there's over-saturation in the festival market," says Jordan Wolowitz, a partner with Founders Entertainment, promoter of the Governors Ball, which added a second day on New York's Randalls Island and sold 20,000 tickets with acts including Beck and Fiona Apple. "If too many festivals spring up in the same market, it's a problem."
Last year, Denver's Mile High Music Festival folded after three years. This summer, Catalpa – a new festival that brought the Black Keys, Snoop Dogg and TV on the Radio to Randalls Island in New York – suffered from poor attendance and bad weather. "The risks were too great," says Bill Brandmeyer, co-founder of Kanrocksas, a Kansas City festival that plans to return in 2013 after taking a break this year due to renovations at the local speedway. "We're prepared to withstand the trials of building a business. Our outlook is long-term. We don't expect to have a return on our investments early on."
Pensacola, Florida's DeLuna Fest took a big hit when headliners Linkin Park canceled due to injury last year. This month, they came back stronger with acts including Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters. "Locally, the hotels were full, the flights were full, you couldn't get a rental car, the restaurants were packed," says Gus Brandt, the Foo Fighters' tour manager, who booked the festival for free because he lives in the region and wanted to show his support. "That was the whole point of the concert – to jump-start our post-BP-oil-spill economy. It was a huge success."
After a decade of festival growth, many local markets are ripe for development. "Fans are waiting for something in their hometown," says Bob Roux, co-chairman of North America concerts for promoter Live Nation, which produced 18 festivals this year – including Philadelphia's Made in America, Seattle's Sasquatch and Atlanta's expanded Music Midtown, all of which sold out. "You're basically in the very beginning stages of what this is going to look like here in America for the next decade."