This weekend, California’s CoachellaMusic and Arts Festival kicks off the summer music festival season with some of the biggest names in the business—and they’re all heading to a polo field southeast of Palm Springs. In the 1990s, rock shows such as Ozzfest and Lilith Fair hopped between every metro amphitheater in the country, but some of today’s most popular music festivals are multiday concert events held in deserts, gorges and big-city parks. With their kooky names and sometimes eclectic rosters, these extravaganzas are big business: Coachella’s 50,000 daily visitors, at an average of $90 per ticket, can bring in a cool $4.5 million, and that’s not counting merchandise, food and campsite fees. Yet, in a year where spare cash and affordable travel options are scarce, are music fans willing to ante up hundreds of dollars for a weekend under the stars with their favorite bands? Even before the stock market crashed last fall, many of 2008’s festivals experienced growing pains and slow sales as the result of new competition and talent overlap, and with the economy tanking, this year isn’t looking all that much better.
till, Gary Bongiovanni, president and editor in chief of concert trade publication Pollstar, says, “I think most of the festivals are going to do just fine. As a value to fans, it’s hard to beat a multiday ticket to something like Coachella, compared to your normal two- or three-act arena show.” And in an effort to boost summer 2009’s bottom line, layaway ticket plans, work exchange programs, free seminars and a rare appearance by a Beatle are just a few of the clever tricks promoters are pulling out of their hats to combat the gloomy economy.
The Destination Festivals
With flushable toilets and filtered drinking water, this new breed of music fest has little in common with your parents’ Summer of Love gatherings—even if reigning hotspots Coachella, Bonnaroo and Sasquatch make noble attempts to channel Woodstock’s juju. Each is miles away from the nearest city, and the experience of being there is as important as the music itself (which makes it easier for fans to justify a $249 four-day pass to Bonnaroo, camping and parking included). The Langerado Music Festival was an early casualty this February because of sluggish ticket sales and a change in venue from an Indian reservation in the middle of the Everglades to Miami’s Bicentennial Park.
But Paul Tollett, founder of Coachella, says his event is on target to match last year’s numbers, thanks in part to 19 percent of the fest’s tickets being purchased through a layaway plan instituted by promotion company Goldenvoice. “We had a good portion of people use it,” Tollett says, “so we’re offering it on all the festivals that we’re doing this year [including Stagecoach and All Points West].” The plan, which allowed concertgoers to buy tickets with either 50 percent or 10 percent down and the remainder in installments, took a little of the bite out of Coachella’s $269 three-day pass for music fans.
Tennessee’s Bonnaroo and Michigan’s Rothbury are offering similar payment plans, but although their lineups boast Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, respectively, only Coachella scored Paul McCartney. “It seemed like a great idea,” Sir Paul wrote in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK. “I like that it’s in the desert, I like that it’s the first festival of the year, and everyone I talk[ed] to told me it was the coolest festival.” As for cachet, Tollett reckons it can’t hurt to have a Beatle on the bill: “I’m sure [it affected ticket sales], because he’s never played a festival in America before.”
The Big Five
Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival
Dates: April 17–19
Location:Indio, Calif. (146 miles east of Los Angeles)
Cost: $269 (plus Ticketmaster fees) for a three-day pass; $55 for onsite camping (three days); $99 single-day pass; layaway plan ended April 1
Headliners: Paul McCartney, the Killers, the Cure, Morrissey, Paul Weller, Leonard Cohen
Crowd vibe: Music critics, 30-something hipsters and their cool, younger siblings; college kids; some young families
Hippie-meter: 5 out of 10
Rule: No stuffed animals
Differentiators: Its own iPhone app: a self-updating “Coachooser” for automatic stage times, an interactive venue map, a GPS “friendfinder,” photo folders and more; a filtered water program: buy a $10 container and receive free cold, filtered water for three days
Stagecoach Country Music Festival
Dates: April 25–26
Location: Indio, Calif.
Cost: $129 (plus Ticketmaster fees) for a two-day pass; $50 for onsite camping (two days); $79 single-day Saturday pass; layaway plan ended April 1
Headliners:Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker, Reba McEntire, Kid Rock, Kevin Costner
Crowd vibe: Big hats and boots, kids, readers of alt-country site NoDepression.com, Kid Rock’s fan club
Hippie-meter: 3 out of 10
Rule: No musical instruments
Differentiators: Kids 14 and under can get into the general-admission area free; VIP tickets for assigned seating in front of the “Mane” stage can run upwards of $799 per person
Sasquatch Music Festival at the Gorge
Dates: May 23–25
Location: George, Wash. (150 miles southeast of Seattle)
Cost: $66.50 per day if you purchase before May 18, otherwise $76.50 per day; $95 weekend camping pass (includes vehicles)
Headliners:Kings of Leon, Jane’s Addiction, TV on the Radio, Nine Inch Nails, Ben Harper
Crowd vibe: Indie insiders, ex-punks, bearded boys, college kids
Hippie-meter: 7 out of 10
Rule: No binge-drinking devices
Differentiators: Beautifully designed Web site and Facebook page with discussion groups; venue is a gorgeous amphitheater along Washington state’s Columbia River
Will be continued…