Has The Festival Bubble Popped?

Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival
– Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival
The 15th edition takes place Aug. 2-4 in Inverness-Shire, Scotland
Music festivals have played a key role in the recent boom of the worldwide music industry, and the question of if and when a festival bubble will burst has been debated for a number of years. The recent announcement of four cancellations, including Bravalla Festival in Sweden and the hiatus of Sasquatch! Music Festival in Washington, brings the question back to the fore.
When we look at the data on the number of festivals, it is clear there has been substantial growth in the North American and global festival markets since 2000. Festivals reached their peak presence on Pollstar’s charts in 2014, when 22 festivals came in on the Top 200 North American Concert Grosses chart, and 16 more came in the Top 100 International chart, and there was still a separate Top 20 Festival Grosses, meaning there was a whopping total of 58 charting festivals that year, a spike of more than 100 percent from the previous year. 
With that in mind, the announcement that the well-established 17-year-old Sasquatch! would not return in 2019 came June 28, along with the news that founder Adam Zacks was stepping down. According to reports submitted to Pollstar, Sasquatch!, part of Live Nation’s festival portfolio, reported 36,015 tickets moved over the three days it was held in 2017, a decline from the 56,456 tickets reported over four days in 2016. The grosses for those years were similar, at $3.4 million in 2017 and $3.8 million in 2016, but they both pale next to the $9.1 million reported in 2013, thanks to ticket prices ranging from $300 to $330. 
Pollstar reached out to Live Nation for comment on Sasquatch!, but never received a response.
A week before Sasquatch! announced its hiatus FKP Scorpio pulled the plug on Bravalla Festival, Sweden’s largest and most popular confab, for good after a year of hiatus in 2018, because of numerous sexual assaults of fans reported at the 2016 and 2017 iterations.
These follow cancellations in 2018 of the FYF Fest in Los Angeles and Lost Lake Festival in Phoenix, giving wings to the theory that the North American market is over-saturated and self-correcting. 
 “There’s a lot of festivals out there. Perhaps too many festivals out there and a lot of times they end up having the same lineup as one or the other,” Summerfest VP of entertainment Bob Babisch recently told Pollstar. “I think you’re starting to see a few of the festivals drop out.”
Pollstar reported in 2016 that there were numerous cancellations of country music festivals after tickets had already been sold, including Big Barrel, Farmborough, Dega Jam and the Space Coast Country festivals.
Some speculated then that this might be due to oversaturation. In total, by late March that year we counted 23 major festival cancellations, including Squamish Valley Music Festival, Counterpoint, TomorrowWorld, Gathering of the Vibes, Big Day Out, and Groovefest.
Last year saw a few festival cancellations and major flops (Rockavaria, Pemberton, Fyre, Hope & Glory), but the call-offs didn’t seem to be nearly at the same scale as 2016.
After the announcement of the cancellation of FYF, many began whispering, once again, about a “festival glut,” that had arisen in the music industry’s time of plenty. 
“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things,” Kevin Lyman, the longtime promoter of the Vans Warped Tour told Pollstar about Los Angeles’ FYF pulling the plug. “High ticket prices, the headliners not being what the traditional FYF audience was looking for and a huge plethora of festivals and other options for things to do in the area all culminated in not many people buying tickets.”
Lyman’s own traveling music festival is making its final cross-country run in 2018 after serving up punk, pop and rock for 24 years. He said changing purchase habits among young people, the economics of touring and his love for the brand factored into the decision to put Vans to bed.
FYF was promoted by Goldenvoice/AEG, Lost Lake by Superfly and Sasquatch! was co-promoted by Live Nation, meaning 2018’s flops and/or bow-outs have come from established names. 
The struggle of smaller promoters was summed up by Newport Folk Festival’s Jay Sweet at Pollstar Live! this February when he said: “The story of music festivals in 2017 can pretty much be summed up with one word: ‘consolidation.’ The big machines are buying festivals at an astonishing rate … and so for us little, aka independent festivals, the question becomes, what are the options? It’s a daunting question because there are really only two options: last long enough to be bought out – or you ignore the game all together, put your head down and just do your thing and do what you do better than anyone else.“
Bravalla Festival
FKP Scorpio
– Bravalla Festival
Scene from the 2016 edition
Jill Wheeler of Red Mountain Entertainment said before this year’s Pollstar Live!: “I think the festival market is bloated and we’ll continue to see a few festivals suffer and go away in 2018. Most established festivals will be strong and profitable. I would be surprised if a lot of new festivals pop up in 2018 or 2019.” 
Still, announcements of cancellations have always come in tandem with announcements of new festivals, such as the 5,000-capacity Holler On The Hill in Indianapolis this year. We have also recently seen the successful completion of new events like Arroyo Seco in Pasadena, Calif., which looked better than ever in its second year, and the new All Points East in London by Goldenvoice. Superfly also just announced the new Grandoozy festival with major headliners at Denver’s Overland Park Golf Course Sept. 14-16 and AEG, co-produced with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, announced the new InCuya Festival for Aug. 25-26.
Also, more and more artist-driven festivals are popping up, from J. Cole’s Dreamville in Raleigh, N.C., to Post Malone’s Posty Fest in Dallas, to Dua Lipa’s Sunny Hill Festival in her family’s native Kosovo.
The two major promoting behemoths appear fully committed to large-scale festivals, with Live Nation recently acquiring the Rock in Rio festival brand (to become a majority stake in the coming years), Austin-based ScoreMore Shows that produces the JMBLYA and Mala Luna hip-hop festivals, and Alabama-based Red Mountain Entertainment, which books the Beale Street Music Festival that just moved 91,933 tickets and grossed $4.5 million May 4-6 in Memphis.
Big events like Coachella can provide a launching pad for legends like Guns N’ Roses to reunite in 2016, or give artists like Beyoncé the platform for the set of a lifetime. The Goldenvoice/AEG Live-promoted event has held the No. 1 spot since Pollstar began releasing a festival grosses chart in 2012 as part of our Year End special features – with the exception of 2016, when the festival fell to second place behind Goldenvoice President Paul Tollett’s very own Desert Trip.
Meanwhile, the PromoWest-produced Bunbury Music Festival in Cincinnati, even after losing headliners Blink-182, reported selling out June 1-3, with 60,000 tickets and $4.2 million grossed. 
Other indie festivals are expanding, with Prime Social Group’s network of Prime and Breakaway festival brands adding markets, days and even creating new events for 2018, suggesting that while some festivals might fail to catch on or not have a clear purpose, others are always ready to take their place. 
At what point one can say there are “too many” festivals seems subjective. Certainly no one would deny now that the market is competitive and that the festivals surviving are the ones that have a strong enough identity to distinguish the experience not only from competing festivals but the multitude of tours crisscrossing the globe. 
 “I think we need to nurture and create unique [events]. It’s just not throwing a bunch of bands on stage,” Lyman previously said of the current festival market. “We’re seeing more and more that it’s about the culture. The culture of the festival is as important as the lineup.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Tom Windish of Paradigm who previously told Pollstar. “The identity, the brand, the cultural identity is really important. … And people will go to it regardless of who’s playing, because they love that brand.”
The KAABOO brand is a prime example, expanding in its fourth year at its flagship Del Mar location near San Diego, to with a new KAABOO Cayman destination event and the announcement of KAABOO Texas at AT&T Stadium in collaboration with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, although details are scarce.
KAABOO talent buyer Roger LeBlanc told Pollstar it’s important for destination events like KAABOO Cayman to have a clear mission and demographic.
“We’re very particular about not booking the flavor du jour acts that are doing every festival across the country,” LeBlanc added. “The festivals that succeed have a reason and a purpose. Even though our lineups tend to be very diverse as far as era and genre, we still have a connectivity.”
The fact that festivals now occupy such a huge place in the North American live event business means people may always ask when the bubble will “pop,” but unless demand dramatically reduces, it seems unlikely for numbers to return to pre-2013 levels. No doubt things will remain competitive, but it may not be correct to refer to the North American festival market as a “bubble” anytime soon.