Sponsors are Key to Surviving the Shifting Music Festival Landscape

“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark — that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.”

When he wrote these words, Hunter S. Thompson was referring to the middle 1960’s in San Francisco and the prevalent feeling that anything and everything was possible.

When thinking about the current state of music festivals, this quote immediately came to mind (followed quickly by how irritated Thompson would be by that). A number of major music festivals are closing up shop after their 2018 event, including the Pacific Northwest-based music festival Sasquatch (after 17 years) and traveling festival the Vans Warped Tour (after 24 years, although there may be an event to commemorate a 25th year).

The music festival space is rapidly changing. It is no longer enough to have a great lineup or a cool location. To survive, music festivals need to provide amazing experiences for their attendees. However, creating those experiences can be prohibitively expensive, especially for smaller and mid-tier fests. That’s where sponsors become important. Most already have budgets geared toward and have created successful experiential marketing campaigns. Finding sponsors who can produce memorable, can’t miss experiences for festival attendees is the key to lasting success.

If there is a high water mark for the current state of the music festival industry, a place where if you look hard enough you can spot the moment when the water started rolling back, it’s likely the unmitigated disaster known as the (ironically, appropriately, wonderfully named) Fyre Festival.

Photo Credit: Teen Vogue

This music festival, scheduled to take place in April 2017 on an exclusive Bahamian island (“once owned by Pablo Escobar,” according to a promo video [also, it turns out Pablo Escobar never owned an island in the Bahamas]) was heavily promoted on Instagram as an opportunity to mingle with models and influencers, including Kendall Jenner, Emily Ratajkowski, and Bella Hadid. These “Fyre Starters” all took part in a coordinated campaign where they simultaneously posted an orange square that played the promo video when clicked. They were also featured in the pitch deck and marketing materials.

However, the Fyre Festival did not go off without a hitch. In fact, it did not go off at all. None of the musical acts showed up, the promised luxury lodging was hastily-assembled disaster relief tents and piles of mattresses, and the gourmet cuisine promised to be catered by award-winning restaurateur Steven Starr was American cheese slices on dry bread. People flew hundreds of miles to an island, spent thousands of dollars on tickets and travel, and received nothing in return.

Recently, two attendees were awarded $2.5 million each in what was the first but surely not the last lawsuit against beleaguered organizer Billy McFarland. Co-organizer Ja Rule was initially named in the lawsuit but was removed after reaching an unspecified agreement.

Now, the Fyre Festival isn’t the cause of the entire music festival industry’s woes. It’s more a parable about the dangers of getting in over your head when organizing an event – albeit, one that actually happened.

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Photo Credit: Daily Marketing Hub

Still, in the past few years, there have been a number of think pieces questioning if there are too many music festivals. An interesting one from the Washington Post speculates that one of the reasons for dwindling ticket sales is “overcommercialization.” Yet, the author then succeeds in taking apart that argument. 

From the article:

As I walked around festival sites during my research, logos and brands were omnipresent, whether it was a massive Doritos vending machine-themed stage at Austin’s South by Southwest Music Festival or the Bud Light stage at Nashville’s Country Music Association CMA Fest.

In a way, a growing corporate presence indicates how festivals have thrived. Corporations are targeting popular festivals because they’re excellent sites for what’s called “brand activation” — a way to directly engage potential consumers with corporate logos and products. In that effort, North American corporations spent $1.3 billion sponsoring music venues, festivals, and tours in 2014. Anheuser-Busch led the charge, sponsoring almost one-third of music-based properties. Toyota marketed at Stagecoach, Sasquatch!, Life Is Beautiful, and at least a half dozen other events. (Forbes notes that the big winner at this year’s SXSW wasn’t a hot up-and-coming act, but Mazda, for successfully hosting a series of top-name performances.)

Despite such heavy commercialization, musicians and audiences expressed minimal concern in my interviews.

“I don’t mind,” said one festivalgoer, “since I know it helps keep ticket prices reasonably low.” The onstage talent felt similarly ambivalent. One headlining musician told me he appreciates that it’s the festival producers who have to cultivate brand relationships, not him. When he’s on stage, he says, “I’m not representing Heineken; I’m just playing my songs.”

Photo Credit: Sponsorships

Attendees are not opposed to brand sponsorships. In fact, they are more likely to feel positive about a brand if it supports something that they feel is important (that’s why co-branding with a non-profit can be so successful).

Another article, this one from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, focuses on the dwindling music festival seen in the Great Lakes area and nails the true issue in a quote from a festival promoter.

In the case of Summer Set — whose past headliners included heavy hitters like Skrillex and Chance the Rapper — organizers didn't learn that lesson soon enough. [The festival, held in Somerset, Wisconsin, ended a six-year run in 2017. -ED]

“We ended up with the same problem that everybody who produces a festival that's not in the upper tier ends up with,” said Scott Leslie, Co-President of Madison-based promoter FPC Live. Leslie helped oversee Summer Set’s booking as Co-President of Majestic Live, which merged with Frank Productions this year.

“We were having to pay for talent as if we were an upper-tier festival and pay for security as if we were an upper-tier festival," Leslie said. “If you're only doing 15,000 people, you can see what the problem was. … If you're not willing to invest just as much, if not more, in the experience for the fans, they are going to go and find a different festival to attend.”

Photo Credit: La Croix

The attendee experience is vital to success. The answer is not less corporate sponsorship, it’s more. However, that doesn’t mean just banners and branded stages (the WaPo article had a point that we’ve probably reached a saturation point on those). These sponsorships have to offer something vital for the fans.

But, in order to earn those valuable sponsorships, music festivals are going to have to justify the high costs that sponsors will shell out for experiential activations. The real trick is proving ROI to brands, especially non-endemic brands. Non-endemics are always going to be the hardest sell but are also essential to the survival of music festivals.

The entire model of a music festival will rapidly shift once promoters begin to court sponsors in this manner. Since smaller and mid-tier festivals are going to have to work harder to attract these valuable partnerships, the time to get to work is now. Brands, especially those with the deep pocketbooks that can fund truly groundbreaking experiences, will always be attracted to the larger fests. The rest need to start proving their worth now, so they don’t find themselves at the back of the pack.

We can help you position your festival for success. Give Event Architecture a call at 972-323-9433.

sofia krsmanovic