Coachella: Rocked by recession, music festivals are rolling over
The shaky economy is rattling the summer music festival.
In the months leading up to the Southland's premier concert event, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival -- which kicks off its 10th edition in Indio Friday with performances by such pop luminaries as Paul McCartney and Leonard Cohen -- recession-era fiscal realities have led to a string of cancellations by respected festivals.
Florida's Langerado Music Festival was canceled because of poor ticket sales. The San Francisco Blues Festival took a year off (with doubt cast on its return in 2010) because of a drop-off in corporate sponsorships. And because of anticipated cuts in state arts funding, the Appel Farm Arts and Music Festival in New Jersey went on hiatus, with plans to instead stage a benefit concert in a year that would have been its 20th anniversary.
Scotland's Hydro Connect Festival and Red List Live in Britain also fell victim to the economic climate. And after undergoing changes to stay afloat in recent years -- making general admission free in 2007 and scaling down to become a one-day festival last year -- Ozzfest '09 was canceled because of headliner Ozzy Osbourne's decision to spend time in the recording studio.
"The economy was the thing that finalized our decision," said Sean Timmons, artistic director of the Appel Farm Arts & Music Center. "It's an expensive event to put on, and therefore could be an expensive loss. It made sense to take a year off and reposition the event."
Festival organizers across the continent are voicing concerns that tough times could soften ticket sales in an era when corporate sponsorships -- a critical source of revenue -- are increasingly difficult to secure and competition to book performers with proven box-office drawing power has never been more fierce.
Although some sectors of the concert industry are showing surprisingly healthy returns, as the dollar strengthens against the Euro and the British pound, event organizers worry about a decline in European attendees. As a result, many festivals are slashing ticket prices and placing new emphasis on "value" to lure festival-goers.
"We're really conscious about keeping prices either the same or lower than last year with tickets, merchandise, beer and concessions," said Del Williams, executive producer of Columbus, Ohio's Rock on the Range Festival. "We want to be sensitive to what people are going through and not make it a hardship to go to the show."
For its part, Coachella -- which has been pulling in crowds of up to 140,000 in recent years -- began offering a layaway plan to pay for three-day tickets (which cost $269) and onsite camping tickets this year; Stagecoach, Coachella's country music counterpart, which will also be staged at the Empire Polo Field later this month, offers the same deal.
"We want to give people six to nine months to make payments," said Coachella founder Paul Tollett. "If we can make it easier on this concert crowd, we'll take steps to make that happen."
Producers for the Voodoo Experience Music Festival in New Orleans dropped all ticketing and handling fees. And Pasquale Rotella, chief executive of Insomniac, the firm behind the Electric Daisy Carnival, an electronica festival in Los Angeles that drew 65,000 people last year, said the event plans to increase the number of performers and slash ticket prices from $130 to $99 for a two-day pass this year.
"People are feeling tapped," Rotella said. "But we are going a lot bigger, spending a lot more money while still keeping the price down. We are trying to help people by being conscious of our ticket prices."
In recent years, outdoor music festivals have proliferated across North America, many attempting to replicate the financial success and cultural sweep of Coachella.
"Large footprint" multi-genre music festivals such as the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Tennessee, Michigan's Rothbury Festival, Lollapalooza in Chicago and New Jersey's All Points West Music & Arts Festival have become a rite of summer. They offer all-star rosters of rock, electronica, country or jazz acts -- sometimes all the above -- performing on multiple stages over the course of a day or long weekend, often in far-flung "destination" locales (like the dramatic low desert setting of Indio in Coachella's case).
But Chang Weisberg, owner of Guerilla Union, said the event and marketing firm behind the successful touring hip-hop festival Rock the Bells, the market simply isn't big enough to support so many events. "There are so many festivals in the multi-genre format, there's a lot of fatigue in the market," Weisberg said. "Langerado -- that's scary to see a major festival can fail due to lack of ticket sales. But the competition is so stiff they are all chasing the same acts."
"How do you stand out from the other guys? That's the challenge of those long weekend festivals in special locations," said Kevin Lyman, creator of the Vans Warped Tour and the Mayhem Festival, a touring rock and heavy metal festival. "They're competing for the same talent. There's only about 20 bands at the independent level -- bands like the Killers or Kings of Leon -- that are proven ticket sellers."
Lyman also pointed out that the strong dollar might deter European festival-goers.
"People are looking at the exchange rate," he said. "In the past, kids would fly to Coachella, buy a tent and a nice ice chest, camp and leave because it was so cheap. Now maybe people are staying closer to home. Maybe they'll go to a festival in Europe this summer."
Despite the collective shudder festival cancellations have given event organizers, all is not doom and gloom in the industry. Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar magazine, said concert ticket sales were healthy last year and held strong in the first quarter of 2009. Pre-sales of tickets for the Vans Warped Tour are up nearly a third from where they were last year at this time.
General admission field passes for Rock on the Range in May are already sold out. Live Nation, the world's biggest festival producer, said its international ticket sales are up 21% over last year. And ticket sales for the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans are up 100% from 2008, its producer said.
"It's a very strange year," said Stephen Rehage, the festival's producer and founder of the Voodoo Experience Music Festival, also in New Orleans. "It's hard to explain being up that way in this economy."
Coachella's Tollett declined to provide the number of tickets sold but said this year's installment is on track to be the "third best-selling Coachella so far." He acknowledged that the festival market's saturation remains a concern.
But as the event producer who braved financial ruin to stage the first, money-losing edition of Coachella in 1999 en route to creating the boilerplate for summer music festival success, Tollett said he and Coachella's other organizers plan its line-up each year with an eye toward standing apart from the competition.
"Because we've been around for a while now, we have to go outside the normal festival talent," Tollett said. "Prince or Roger Waters or Paul McCartney -- artists who haven't done a million festivals -- it helps us give a unique outlook."
Photo credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times