‘A Beautiful Mess’: Live’s Revival Brings Fall Festival Firehose

Kevin Mazur / Getty Images / Live Nation
– Billie Booking
Billie Eilish performs during her 2020 arena tour’s opening night at Miami’s American Airlines Arena, March 9, 2020. She’s carrying the momentum into 2021 and will headline Las Vegas festival Life Is Beautiful.

As vaccination rates soar and coronavirus cases plummet, the live industry is restarting. Recent weeks have brought tour announcements at nearly every level, but live music’s biggest news has come in the festival sector, with Bonnaroo, Life Is Beautiful and Outside Lands, as well as a smattering of smaller events, revealing lineups. Several other fests, such as Delaware’s Firefly, New York’s Governors Ball and Texas’ Austin City Limits, have dates booked but have yet to share bills.

But the festival business can’t resume on a dime, and this fall’s crowded calendar – packed with events like Bonnaroo that typically take place earlier in the summer, along with ones that historically happen in September and October – has challenged promoters, agents, artists and fans alike.

“2021, from Labor Day to Halloween, will be a mess – a beautiful mess,” says Gary Spivack, executive senior vice president of talent and curation at Danny Wimmer Presents.

The promoter has been out in front, announcing the 2021 lineup for Aftershock, scheduled for Oct. 7-10 in Sacramento, Calif., in October 2020 – preserving 2020 headliners Metallica and My Chemical Romance, who sold out the event as its only two announced artists in spring 2020 – and sharing dates in February for Inkcarceration (Mansfield, Ohio; Sept. 10-12), Louder Than Life (Louisville, Ky., Sept. 23-26) and Welcome to Rockville (Daytona Beach, Fla.; Nov. 11-14).

“We don’t want to be left at the altar,” Spivack says. “We’re prepared. We aren’t like, ‘Oh, we can do shows? Let’s go get bands.’ We have been ahead of the game.”

For DWP, that meant renegotiating terms and conditions with agents quickly after the 2020 festival season was conclusively nixed, and collaborating with artists – including many who had been booked to play DWP festivals in 2020 – to make mutually beneficial decisions.

“We said from the get-go, we will honor your 2020 guarantees, not look to reduce,” Spivack says. “But we obviously modified and revised our terms and conditions, which will speak more to COVID, will speak more to cancellation.”

For Another Planet Entertainment, an independent promoter with major festival holdings like DWP, the story was similar. While the company never officially announced 2020 lineups for its two major festivals, San Francisco’s Outside Lands and Las Vegas’ Life Is Beautiful, it had mostly finalized the bills before the pandemic. The 2021 lineups for Outside Lands (Oct. 29-31) and Life Is Beautiful (Sept. 17-19) resemble what they would have been in 2020.

“We offered every artist the same amount of money that they had agreed to for our 2020 edition,” says Allen Scott, APE president of concerts and festivals.

While Life Is Beautiful traditionally takes place in mid-September, Outside Lands’ Halloween weekend dates diverge from its typical early August calendar slot. APE put a hold on the October weekend in Golden Gate Park back in 2020, and it ultimately opted for the later date to maximize normalcy – relatively speaking – at the festival.

Sergione Infuso / Corbis / Getty Images
– Reload
, including lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, look to make up some of their high-profile 2020 festival appearances this fall.

“You want to stake your claim if you’re moving a festival as early as possible,” Scott says. “That’s not necessarily just for the audience. That’s for the industry. Another festival could conflict with you, not only in ticket sales, but in allowing artists to play your festival.”

Scott adds that “the fact that we’re independent may have allowed us to be more nimble in getting up and announced.”

This fall, Tame Impala will headline both APE festivals, as well as Bonnaroo. At Outside Lands, the band shares headlining status with 10 other artists, including The Strokes and Vampire Weekend, while at Life Is Beautiful, it occupies a top tier that also includes Billie Eilish and Green Day. Tame Impala and Green Day were booked for Life Is Beautiful 2020, but Eilish was an eleventh-hour addition, and the third artist to hold the festival’s third headlining slot. The artist initially booked for 2020 couldn’t appear in 2021 due to personal reasons and, just days before Life Is Beautiful announced its 2021 lineup, its replacement headliner – a European act – canceled its arena tour for travel reasons, along with its appearance at the festival.

“We’ve had to take into account that a few internationally based artists may not be allowed to travel to the U.S. in time for these festivals this fall,” says Lee Goforth, an agent who works on the music festival team at CAA, which represents major Life Is Beautiful bookings including Tame Impala, A$AP Rocky and Glass Animals.

“We have new challenges and obstacles that need to be discussed,” says David Strunk, an agent at UTA, which represents Young Thug, billed highly at both APE festivals, and a slew of other artists on those lineups. “We’re all working together to confront those issues head on.”

Among those challenges are radius clauses, which make less sense in a festival landscape condensed into just a couple months.

“We’ve been a little more lenient on radius clauses to allow bands to properly route and get their business done,” Spivack says. “Everything’s a discussion. Nothing should be black and white. You know, let’s get into the gray together.”

Even with the fall rush, some artists have exercised more caution for full-fledged touring, with the likes of Roger Waters and Kenny Chesney recently postponing tours to 2022.

“While some are ready to take the risk of planning on these events happening, others will choose not to take the risk per chance that the events are compromised in terms of lesser capacities or future postponement,” Goforth says.

That’s worked to the advantage of festivals seeking headliner-level talent for the fall when, in a typical year, artists have finished their annual rounds on the festival circuit and moved on to their own hard-ticket plays. Scott encountered that firsthand when APE moved Outside Lands from August to October while managing to keep its lineup mostly intact.

“Lizzo and Tyler, the Creator, who had been planning tours in the fall, were going to be the wild cards,” he says. “They decided not to do the tours, so they became available. It was a double-edged sword. A lot of these big tours were falling apart, which was not great for the industry and for the fans. But at the same time, it ensured that they were available to play Outside Lands.”

Josh Kurfirst, partner and global head of festivals at WME, which represents both Lizzo and Tyler, the Creator, agrees that thin hard-ticket touring this fall has been a boon as festivals crowd the calendar.

“Festivals have become the only routing in the fall of 2021,” Kurfirst says. “What we’ve noticed is that the more tours push to 2022, more artists are willing to switch gears and confirm some festivals in 2021 instead. … The festivals themselves have become the sole routing options, so having more targets in a more concise time period actually helps the artists with their costs and the promoters with the amount of artist availabilities.”

This, however, has created what Kurfirst describes as “grid gridlock.” With many festivals carrying over some or all of previously announced bills for 2020 or spring 2021 into this fall, agents are encountering lineups that are mostly booked, making it tough to add other artists.

“Artist availability is at an all-time high and festival inventory at an all-time low,” Kurfirst says.

Even with public health trending in an encouraging direction, fall festivals will look different than their pre-pandemic iterations.

“We want our backstage to appear almost like a ghost town,” says Spivack, and Scott says Another Planet has added “a line item for COVID expenses” that will likely consist of some combination of rapid testing, vaccine passport verification and increased sanitation, to be determined closer to event dates based on evolving public health guidelines.

“Promoters are generally trying to absorb those costs as show expenses to mitigate the financial impact on the consumers and artists as much as possible,” Strunk says. “Until COVID is eradicated or there are universal guidelines, we will be dealing with local adjustments in real time, including changes to expenses.”

And after the unpredictability of the last year, promoters and agents acknowledge that new scientific findings or government restrictions could jeopardize these festivals on a moment’s notice.

“If there isn’t a fall ‘21 of mass gatherings and shoulder-to-shoulder rock events, it will be heartbreaking,” Spivack says. “But we’ll be prepared, if that’s the case.”

Still, regardless of the logistical headaches this fall’s unusual festival season is creating, the industry’s takeaway is overwhelmingly positive. 

“The hunger and demand is there,” says Scott, calling the speed with which both Outside Lands and Life Is Beautiful sold out “a wonderful sign for the health of the industry.”