The Year In Festivals: Marquee Moments From Disco Donnie To Outside Lands
Steve Jennings / WireImage – Outside Lands
By October, things started to feel almost normal with Outside Lands reporting more than 222,000 tickets sold over the Halloween weekend in San Francisco and grossing more than $33 million.
Every year, music festivals give fans as well as artists some of the best bang for their buck, in many cases their biggest shows of the year. This year was no different – except for that whole COVID thing.
Way back in late April, Disco Donnie Presents may have put on the first large-scale U.S. concerts of any kind with the Ubbi Dubbi festival in Ennis, Texas, which saw up to 30,000 ravers per day and close to 10,000 campers.
“I knew there was a lot riding on it, not only for electronic music but also for all live music,” James “Disco Donnie” Estopinal Jr. told Pollstar. “That added extra pressure. There were a lot of naysayers and a lot of people basically hoping that I failed. It was a struggle, internally and externally.” Estopinal provided vaccination clinics onsite and even enlisted COVID-sniffing dogs at Ubbi Dubbi and the subsequent Sunset Music Festival in Florida, which both had top electronic talent like Illenium, Kaskade, Carnage and many others.
“I did say it was the hardest thing we’ve ever done, but in the end it’ll probably be the most important thing I ever did.”
With mostly positive media and fan reaction, events continued, with Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam in Panama City Beach, Fla., with relatively lax COVID protocols June 4-6, headlined by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Brad Paisley and Luke Bryan and with close to 30 total artists, with capacity at 30,000 per day.
While Texas and Florida have been outliers during much of the COVID era, and fans of country music and EDM considered more eager to attend concerts, a larger hurdle was coming with Lollapalooza, the first major multi-genre festival – in an urban setting, with mainstream artists, much larger crowds and much riding on its success. Live Nation and C3 Presents developed a COVID policy requiring fans to be vaccinated or show a negative test from within 72 hours ago before entering. It was a success, with Live Nation reporting that 90% of attendees were fully vaccinated, and local health officials saying the event was far from the feared super-spreader event, despite close to 400,000 total attendees at Grant Park over four days July 29 to Aug. 1.
It was mostly off to the races at that point, although the Delta variant made things difficult for touring artists, and some major artists pulled out of marquee slots, including Stevie Nicks (ACL, BottleRock) and Nine Inch Nails, which had been slotted for some of Danny Wimmer’s rock fests. Also, a sobering moment for the business came when Bonnaroo became waterlogged to the point of being canceled just days before, a stark reminder that not just COVID can ruin a show.
Another milestone was the C3-produced Austin City Limits festival making public that fans would have to prove being negative for COVID, which included being vaccinated – despite concerns at the time that the state of Texas may not allow such policies. Louis Messina, longtime George Strait promoter, noted ACL being a personal highlight, with the King of Country attracting an audience of about 70,000.
Other successes included Rolling Loud’s Miami flagship event, this year taking place in July and seeing 75,000 fans per day for high-energy hip-hop sets from some of the world’s top stars, including Megan Thee Stallion, Post Malone and many others.
“We were never sure when it would really happen,” Rolling Loud co-founder Tariq Cherif said after the event. “There’s always a curveball, and we never really knew the show was happening until it was happening. So there was a lot of stress there, but at the end of the day we prevailed.”
Danny Wimmer Presents pulled off four major outdoor events in notably different markets, from California to Kentucky, with Metallica headlining two nights of its three major rock festivals and some of the festival producer’s biggest crowds yet, in the case of Aftershock in Sacramento and Louder Than Life in Louisville.
Goldenvoice’s Day N Vegas hip-hop smash made headlines in November for landing Kendrick Lamar’s only show of the year, while the stalwart Outside Lands in San Francisco grossed more than $33 million on 220,000 total attendees over the Halloween weekend.
Boutique and smaller events also made the most of being quick and nimble, with events like BeachLife Festival near Los Angeles likely expanding to two events per year and Elevation Festivals’ WonderBus and WonderStruck in the Midwest giving way to additional Wonder events for 2022, as event organizers put in extra work to accommodate fans and artists at a difficult time.
However, the year will forever be marred by the Astroworld disaster in Houston, where at least 10 were killed in a crowd-control nightmare at a major artist-curated event Nov. 5, which will have lasting repercussions for years.