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New Festivals Struggle to Distinguish Themselves in Crowded Market

'Glamping,' yoga and fashion added to music lineups

July 15, 2011 12:10 PM ET
Summer Festivals Arcade Fire
A view of the crowd as Arcade Fire performs at the 2011 Coachella Festival in Indio, California.
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

It's almost party time for British promoter Fred Fellowes, whose inaugural Escape To New York festival, featuring Of Montreal and Patti Smith, is set to hit Southampton, New York, the first weekend in August. But first, he has to find some props. "I'm seeing if there's anything we can cannibalize," he tells Rolling Stone, as he drives between scrap metal dealers in Southampton. "Turn school buses into sofas, things like that."

Fellowes is inspired by the carnivalesque communalism of Burning Man and the UK's rave culture, but he also plans "beauty and wellness experiences" and "glamping" (that's "glamorous camping," for those more familiar with S'mores and collapsible chairs) for Escape. After all, in a crowded market, smaller festivals have to go above and beyond.

Watch the Best of Bonnaroo 2011 in Video Highlights

While huge spring and summer destination festivals like Manchester, Tennessee's Bonnaroo and Indio, California's Coachella continue to thrive – Coachella recently announced it was expanding to two weekends in April starting next year – a crop of smaller events like E2NY with similar lineups have emerged in recent years, and their organizers are finding that catering to an upmarket crowd is one way to distinguish themselves. They're looking to those music fans who don't crave the "hitchhike somewhere and stay in a tent, hug and kiss all weekend, spend three dollars and go back home" experiences of Manchester and Indio. This is how promoter Saul Zislin pitches his two year-old Hangout Music Festival, based in Gulf Shores, Alabama – and it seems like he's on to something: In May, between sets by My Morning Jacket, the Foo Fighters, and Paul Simon, many of the 35,000 Hangout attendees (up from 15,000 in 2010) bunked in swanky condos and did morning yoga on the beach.

The success of a startup like Hangout would seem to contradict recent comments by Michael Eavis, founder of England's legendary Glastonbury Festival. Glastonbury drew 130,000 fans to see Beyoncé and U2 a few weeks ago, but Eavis still predicted that the U.K.'s famed festival summer will die out in three to four years, thanks to a sagging economy and a glutted festival market. Bonnaroo founder Jonathan Mayers disagrees that this holds true for the U.S.: "The festival scene, on different levels, is thriving in the U.S., and it's becoming the thing to do during the summer," he says.

Booking agent Adam Voith has a theory why a good festival is nearly immune to the ups and downs of the economy: "I don't think you're selling tons of tickets to people who are being heavily impacted by a recession," he says. "They're still taking vacations every year." Voith books festival favorites Mumford & Sons and Bon Iver, and in August his client Vampire Weekend will headline the first fashion-centric Music to Know Fest in Easthampton, New York. Mixing indie rock and haute couture with $110 day passes, the MtK aims directly for the coastal creative class, or those eager to spend their limited expendable income on hip weekend gatherings.

Photos: The Hottest Live Performances from Coachella 2011

On the other hand, starting a festival from scratch is a risky business, especially when a gloomy economic climate merges with bad weather. From 2007 to 2009, Josh Baker grew the Monolith festival steadily, drawing the Flaming Lips, TV on the Radio, Spoon and Band of Horses to Denver's Red Rocks Ampitheater. Monolith wasn't quite a destination event, meaning that roughly 65 percent of its audience were regional residents who bought tickets on the day of the festival. "It's a rain or shine event," Baker says. "But if you're getting ready to go and it's pouring cats and dogs and 45 degrees . . ." The last Sunday of Monolith 2009 was a financial and meterological wash, leaving Baker in the hole for $175,000 – and Monolith lingering as a festival without a home.

It cost Baker about $1 million to get Monolith off the ground. For perspective, that's about what Coachella paid its headliners last April (lower-rung bands can bring in a healthy $15,000 payday). Festival upstarts can't hope to compete with the rosters, attendance or paydays of the Big Four (along with Coachella and Bonnaroo, there's Lollapalooza in August and Austin City Limits in September), but on their own terms, they hope for the same sort of brand recognition. "I want people to know that May is Hangout, April is Coachella, and June is Bonnaroo," Zislin says optimistically. In the festival world, that's a loftier goal than selling 80,000 tickets.

These things take time to grow, and more will fail than succeed. Even the mighty Coachella, which started in 1999, took until 2004 to sell out its first event. Fellowes spent nearly a decade growing his Secret Garden Party from an initial crowd of 800 to this year's count of nearly 30,000 attendees, and he's hoping to break into the American upscale festival market by with $275 getaways. Glamping, of course, is extra.

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