Music festivals unswayed by slack economy

Despite Langerado's cancellation last week, festival organizers remain bullish.

mike brown/AP
BARGAIN: Music festivals, like this one in Memphis, offer fans dozens of live bands and a carnival vibe.

IN YET ANOTHER hard knock to the hobbled music industry, organizers last week announced they would cancel Langerado, the popular multistage Florida festival. Ethan Schwartz, the founder of Langerado, issued a statement to the media blaming "sluggish" ticket sales and the slumping economy, although critics faulted Mr. Schwartz's decision to move the event from a sprawling reservation in the Everglades to Miami, where parking and lodging are at a premium.

Long a staple in Europe, the music festival has gradually become a vital part of the concert culture here. Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, and Coachella, among the most profitable festivals, now draw tens of thousands of fans, each paying upwards of $200 for a three-day pass. In recent years, younger and scrappier events such as All Points West in New Jersey, the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago, and the Mile High Festival in Colorado, have also attracted capacity crowds.

But the cancellation of Langerado, which was created in 2002, is being viewed by some as evidence that the festival bubble could be close to collapse. (Schwartz has said that he hopes to return Langerado to the Everglades in 2010.) "Some of these events are hugely expensive propositions," says Dade Hayes, the assistant managing editor at the New York bureau of Variety Magazine.

"The entertainment industry, whether it's film or music, is based on the coasts. In the boom times, it might be a good idea for bands to ramp up and take their entourages on the road or across the world," says Mr. Hayes. "It starts to look a little different – a little more expendable – in times of economic crisis."

Still, in interviews this week with the Monitor, organizers and industry insiders called Langerado an anomaly, and forecasted another strong season for American festivals. "I think other parts of the music industry will suffer before the majority of festivals are affected," says Jeremy Stein, the event producer for Michigan's Rothbury festival, now entering its second year. "People may not go to their local club for 30 bucks. But I think in terms of the 'destination' weekend experiences, we're still in a good place."

His reasoning – and that of many other festival promoters – is twofold. First, although the ticket price is relatively high, many fans see festivals as a bargain – one ticket, dozens of bands, and a bustling carnival atmosphere. As Jonathan Cohen, a senior editor at Billboard Magazine, points out, "These events offer a lot of bang for the buck." They also offer high-traffic branding opportunities for outside corporations, which continue to infuse the marquee festivals with cash. (Consider the "AT&T" and "Bud Light" stages at last year's Lollapalooza.)

"Look, I'm as depressed and as worried as anyone else, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that our business will hold up," says Chuck Morris, the president and chief executive of AEG Live Rocky Mountain Region, a major concert promoter and the producer of Mile High Festival. "But when we're giving people about 46 bands for about $80, and when we're giving them artwork, and shopping, and good food, and a really fun day, it's hard to think about it as anything but a bargain," Mr. Morris says.

According to Reuters, last year's inaugural Mile High Festival, headlined by the Dave Matthews Band and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, attracted a crowd of 90,234 fans over two days, and grossed a little more than $7 million. Tickets were staggered at three price points, starting at $85 for a single-day pass.

This year's Mile High Festival is scheduled for July 18 and 19, and is again expected to draw large crowds. "I think that as the economy gets worse, people will find [festivals] an even better deal," says Morris. "I do feel pretty confident that the future of festivals is nothing but up."

There is also a demographic factor at play, says Ashley Capps, a Knoxville, Tenn., promoter and the cofounder of Bonnaroo. "We get a lot of passionate music fans of all ages," says Mr. Capps, "but the majority of the crowd at Bonnaroo is made up of young people. People with the time on their hands to spend a weekend in a field, listening to music all day long." Younger fans typically have more disposable income, and are more likely to put up with the long lines and inclement weather that have become trademarks of the festival scene.

"I'm pretty bullish about this year," Capps says. "The economic situation is a concern, but festivals are still a tremendous opportunity for both fans and bands. It offers bands a chance to expand their audiences, and fans a chance to learn about new music. You might find this stuff on a website, maybe, but in the end, there's no substitute for that live experience."

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