After the pandemic took U.S. festivals completely offline in 2020 and resulted in an abbreviated, unusual season in 2021, the sector is roaring back with a vengeance in 2022. Pollstar convened several pros from festivals of all shapes and sizes to discuss where the corner of the industry stands today and where it’s headed this summer and beyond.
Charles Attal, co-founder of C3 Presents, the promoter behind Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits and more.
Michael Berg, co-founder of Collectiv Presents and talent buyer and co-founder of North Coast, Suwanee Halloween and new, Chicago-area fest Sacred Rose.
Ashley Capps, executive director of Big Ears Festival, the boundary-pushing event that returned to Knoxville, Tenn., in March, and founder of AC Entertainment, which created Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, High Water Festival, Railbird Festival and Big Ears.
Mari Davies, vice president of booking and talent at Live Nation Urban, which among other events will present the inaugural Strength Of A Woman Festival and Summit with Mary J. Blige in Atlanta next month.
Seth Dodson, executive production director, festivals & events for Pitchfork, which will stage its flagship music festival in Chicago this July.
Paddy Reagan, co-founder of Waking Windows, the Winooski, Vt., fest this year topped by Japanese Breakfast and Dinosaur Jr.
Pasquale Rotella, founder and CEO of Insomniac, promoter of some of the world’s biggest electronic music festivals, including Electric Daisy Carnival.
Denny Young, president of Elevation Festivals, promoter of major Ohio festivals WonderStruck and WonderBus, held in Cleveland and Columbus, respectively.
How was booking the 2022 edition of your festival(s) different from previous years, if at all?
Capps: Once we had made the decision not to attempt anything substantial in 2021 and to focus on 2022, it gave us a great window to plan a strong return. I think that the circumstances also inspired us to come back with a renewed focus and in a spirit of celebration as well. We tried to make the most of the downtime.
Young: Booking Elevation’s 2022 festivals felt very normal, and I mean that in the most positive sense. Our company is fortunate to have close relationships with artists, managers and, most importantly, the agencies. The strength of those relationships was amplified through the pandemic postponements of 2020 and our successful re-emergence in 2021. We got a lot closer with everyone, which I believe paved the way for an overly smooth booking process in 2022.
Attal: It was a bit more challenging than it typically is, mainly because there is such a tremendous number of artists wanting to get back out there and everyone is vying for similar talent. With that being said, we’re happy with our lineups and are excited to get everything back to normal.
Dodson: Our goal this year was to highlight a diverse group of artists who are taking their musical genres to new heights. In terms of booking, the process remained largely the same. As the country reopens and the public continues to adjust to a new normal, we’re seeing a larger number of festivals and tours popping up. I think this opened up even more exciting artist possibilities and pairings for our lineup.
Reagan: As we entered into this year with the anticipation of different comfort levels of the attendees and returning to form as an organization, we made the decision to shrink the size of the festival a bit to help ease the pressure on our team, which left us with less slots and thus less artists. From a headliner and nationally touring perspective, there were some hiccups due to canceled tours being rescheduled, but for the most part, for the size of our festival, we were able to book artists that we really love and have a nice, rounded-out festival lineup.
Davies: Strength of a Woman Fest and Summit is a first-year festival, however, it differs from all other festivals I’ve previously worked on as we were deliberate and intentional with working with an all-woman team both behind the scenes and performing talent.
Rotella: We were only able to produce 25 festivals in 2021, so getting back to booking for our normal volume of events and festivals in 2022 was very exciting. Although I hoped artist fees would drop by 98%, that didn’t happen, so it’s been business as usual for us with bookings.
What has surprised you so far about the 2022 festival season as it takes shape?
Attal: For a moment, it seemed like the return would be staggered and a bit slower, especially with the number of stadium tours that are taking place in 2022, but the amount of festivals that are on the calendar for this year is incredible.
Rotella: What I was most surprised about since we started producing festivals in 2021 and into 2022 was how quickly attendees were ready to get back into it without any worries. Dancing shoulder to shoulder in the middle of a massive crowd jumping up and down really helps you feel as if the global pandemic didn’t just happen.
Berg: The most surprising thing about the 2022 festival season is how many keep popping up in regards to new original content and returning/pre-existing events.
Capps: I’m not really seeing much that surprises me – except perhaps that the overall number of festivals appears to be larger than ever and growing. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.
Young: After what we all went through in 2020, with the carnage of cancellations, coupled together with Mother Nature’s wrath in the fall of ‘21 and the tragedy in Houston last November, sadly I don’t think it’s possible to be surprised by anything.
What trends are you currently seeing in the festival sector?
Attal: The use of SMS for communication is a current trend that we are doing more of and fans seem to be responding well to. Fans have also adapted to varying degrees of protocols as things slowly opened back up and understand that this is our new normal. Sponsors are invested in a major way. It really feels back to business as usual.
Young: We are experiencing a renewed demand from our ticket buyers to see “bands” perform at our festivals. While that may sound like an odd statement on the surface, I think festivals (and the music industry overall) have reduced the footprint available to artists that actually feature musicians playing instruments. On that note, I think 24kGoldn is so smart. He performed last October at Outside Lands with a full band. According to press reports, he was the only rapper at this massive festival to feature a full complement of musicians onstage. We were so blown away by this seriously elevated live performance that we moved immediately to book 24kGoldn for this summer’s WonderStruck in Cleveland.
Berg: It’s obviously different between markets and genres, but some shows are selling really well at the onsale and others are closing strong, while some are canceling and going away. It’s a tumultuous time in the space for some, with others cashing in on giant wins.
Dodson: One trend that I’ve noticed is theming a festival around very specific lineups such as Cruel World, Lovers & Friends, and Just Like Heaven – lineups built to hit a very specific consumer. I think it’s an exciting trend to see, if you fit into that demographic, but part of the draw of a good festival, in my experience, is to discover something new you’ve never seen before. … Also, I think sponsors of festivals are looking for more organic and integrated ways to really engage with the fans, beyond just passing out swag. They’re becoming more organically integrated into the fabric of festivals.
Rotella: Nineties rave fashion is back! Festival fashion has been stagnant and I dreaded coming back to all wearing bathing suits, g-strings, skinny jeans and lingerie. It brings a huge smile to my face seeing my favorite era back. Baggy pants, overalls, bucket hats and oversized t-shirts, it’s really a dream come true for me.
With the “Great Glut of 2022,” are radius clauses today generally less restrictive than they were before the pandemic? If so, how has that impacted your event(s) and booking talent?
Dodson: Everyone wants to tour right now, understandably! And while that’s opened up more booking options, it has also made the landscape more competitive. Fortunately, Pitchfork is a festival that artists are keenly aware of and excited to play, so we’re in a good position in our market. I can’t say I’ve noticed a huge shift in radius clauses.
Young: Elevation Festivals has never imposed a large radius clause on artists. Most of our ticket buyers come from a 120-mile radius and we do protect our investments to that extent. Having said that, 250-350+ mile radius clauses do exist, but I think in the past six years we have lost access to only one artist due to a radius clause. There are so many great and talented artists interested in working that I never really think about who I can’t get. I’m solely focused on who wants to appear at our festivals.
Davies: I’m finding that hard-ticket/headline shows are taking priority (after two years of no touring) which, in some cases, poses a radius issue. However, the demand and appetite for live music is so high that I’m seeing talent blow out their headline shows, creating even more of a demand for their festival plays.
Reagan: We’ve always been pretty loose on our radius clauses, especially because we sit comfortably outside of most major metropolitan areas in the Northeast, but I would say there were artists that were more accessible to us because of the “glut” of touring that is taking shape right now.
Attal: We have a great working relationship with all promoters in the regions and everyone works together on routing throughout the year.
Berg: With certain events and markets we have eased up on some, but not all, of our radius restrictions in return for a lack of announcement restrictions. At this point in the history of the festival marketplace and national economic health status (with the exception of events in the same exact market and timeframe), if you program and curate a meaningful lineup and experience/customer journey and price it reasonably for what you’re providing your fanbase, another festival, months or hundred of miles away, isn’t the reason yours will perform well or not.
Are supply chain issues and/or work shortages impacting your festival? If so, how?
Dodson: Not presently.
Davies: Fortunately, no.
Attal: 2021 posed some challenges but as we get deep into 2022, things are improving quickly.
Young: Elevation’s 2021 festivals were some of the very few fests that ran last summer without any issues of any kind. The continued supply chain issue and staffing shortages are real concerns. We managed flawlessly through difficult times last summer and expect the same of ourselves this summer. We have booked staffing, supplies and equipment earlier than ever, putting down deposits earlier than ever, all in an effort to ensure that we do not have any issues in this regard. But these are crazy times so we need to be ready for anything.
Capps: We’re a relatively small, niche festival. While we were aware of the potential for issues, we didn’t actually end up having any. We were able to put together a terrific, top-notch team and had no real supply chain issues at all.
Berg: Supply chain and trucking issues are raising prices across the board and negatively affecting risk and return by increasing budgets. We felt that the talent pool for high-tier staff already had taken a hit in 2021 coming out of the first 12-18 months of the pandemic. It’s certainly not much improved, if at all, in 2022.
Rotella: It’s something our industry is still feeling the effects of in many areas. There have been shortages in shuttle buses and drivers for EDC Las Vegas this year. Thankfully, we’re always able to find the resources we need and do our best to keep costs down for attendees, but there are still sizable obstacles in the world for many organizations.
How did changing coronavirus restrictions at the federal, state, and local level impact booking the 2022 edition of your festival(s), if at all?
Capps: It certainly made navigating messaging and communications a bit tricky. We were
very committed from the beginning to implementing policies and procedures to keep everyone – artists, audience and staff – safe, but it was a rollercoaster ride and there were unanticipated challenges with legislation and with surges in the virus itself. We have a smart audience and we tried to communicate as clearly and directly as we could throughout the months leading up to the festival. I think the most important thing is that most of our audience knew that we were committed to doing the right thing, so we had their confidence and trust as we made necessary adjustments.
Rotella: It’s impacting international acts due to some restrictions from overseas still in place but to a much lesser extent.
Young: For the first time, in 2021, our lineups featured all domestic acts. Every band and every artist came from the United States. We had booked international artists in 2020 and did all that we could to carry over these bookings into 2021, but the borders were closed. Now, with the borders open, we are back in business with our international friends and, in 2022, we will feature artists from England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Israel. The ability to host international acts in the U.S.A. is absolutely the biggest boost to our events as we further distance ourselves from the pandemic.
Reagan: We certainly took all levels of restrictions into consideration when booking the festival. The majority of our event square footage is outdoors, but we did decide to trim down the number of indoor spaces just in case we needed to make some last-minute changes due to a new variant, an uptick in cases or any of the other unforeseen issues that could pop up. That being said, we understand that artists are touring from city to city being exposed to different groups of people at each stop. We want to honor the vulnerability inherent in their profession, so we will be taking measures to ensure their safety at our festival to make sure we don’t jeopardize their livelihoods on our account.
Dodson: During the booking phase, agents and artists were all optimistic about where we would be by the time the festival was taking place, so it didn’t really restrict our ability to book. We all try to retain optimism and the belief that we’re moving in the right direction.
Attal: Restrictions have made no real impact on booking. That was left behind in 2021.
How has the festival sector worked to improve diversity both onstage and behind the scenes in recent years? What other changes need to be made?
Rotella: Our mantra is “All Are Welcome Here,” and that’s not just for our fans but behind the scenes and on stage as well.
Dodson: We work hard to make sure Pitchfork’s lineup is a reflection of the artists Pitchfork’s editorial team covers on the site, so diversity and gender-equality is always our top priority. That said, the work is never done, and we’re always striving to be better.
Reagan: While I can’t speak to the festival sector as a whole, we’ve worked hard to make sure that the voices represented on stage at Waking Windows are different not only from our own but from each other so that the festival feels as inclusive as possible and provides a space where attendees feel seen and heard.
Capps: Diversity is the core DNA for the Big Ears Festival – not only this year but every year. Well over half of our artists are black, female, Latino, Asian… and we have a very diverse staff behind the scenes as well. This isn’t a directive or an agenda for us – it simply comes naturally. We book many of the finest and most innovative artists in the world, artists that embody the vision of the festival, and we hire the very best people we can find to staff and produce it. The diversity comes naturally.
Berg: Social media accounts such as @BookMoreWomen are pushing buyers to do better with their gender balance and other various accounts and platforms are doing the same for ethnic and racial diversity. Seems like more and more buyers are cognizant and trying to do/be better, which is a very good thing. We hope to see this continue to flower in the right direction in the coming years.
Young: There is no question that everyone is paying more attention to creating diverse lineups, fostering more inclusive and better workspaces and making moves to take care of our planet. I was having a conversation recently with a very senior Live Nation executive who talked about all of the things that Live Nation was doing to lead change both onstage and behind the scenes. The next day I met a Live Nation executive whose sole job it is to design, manage and implement environmentally sustainable programs at their festivals, concerts and on their tours throughout the world. It was truly inspiring to hear all of their plans and how they are executing these initiatives. While we and others do not have Live Nation’s resources, we should have every motivation to follow their lead and do what we can in our communities.
Besides your own, which festival would you love to attend?
Berg: I always love hitting Electric Forest, Bonnaroo and any Phish festival for the roles they’ve played in my career path.
Capps: I find the smaller and more intimate festivals most rewarding these days, so most of my interest is in those. I’m looking forward to Wilco’s Solid Sound festival in late May and planning to attend some festivals in Europe this summer too.
Dodson: International festivals that double as travel destinations are highly appealing to me. Pitchfork has festivals in London and Paris that are incredibly fun and something I look forward to every year. Others that I’d love to check out someday include Iceland Airwaves, Club to Club in Turin and Ceremonia in Mexico City.
Reagan: The Thing in the Spring, Treefort Festival, and Solid Sound would be a treat to be able to attend. Le Guess Who and The Great Escape overseas.
Young: BottleRock is the one and only festival on my bucket list. Tom Hoppa is very aware of this, but as Elevation also has a vast motorsport business, I am always shuttling between Charlotte and Indianapolis on BottleRock weekend. Tom was kind enough to send me lots of merch this past Christmas LOL!
Davies: I’m excited for Live Nation’s Netflix Is A Joke Festival.
Rotella: I want to go to the Intergroom Festival in New Jersey. It’s an international dog grooming conference and it looks interesting. I love art and dogs so the two together sounds like a fun time. I’d like to bring my dog Frosty with hopes of turning him into a Care Bear flying unicorn.
Any predictions for festivals in 2022 and beyond?
Rotella: We predict that the trend is moving towards genre-specific festivals that are
created to satisfy the music interests of a very core audience. Each genre and style of music has its own identity and culture behind it, and I think that we’ll see people gravitate towards producing and attending those types of festivals more and more.
Davies: The inclusion of more international acts at U.S. festivals: K-pop, Afrobeat, Brits, South American acts.
Reagan: Hopefully festivals will continue to focus on their role as the providers of spaces for people to gather and celebrate what it means to be a community, even if that community exists for just a single weekend, and help facilitate our ability to be humans together in a single space at a single time.
Capps: I think the future of festivals overall is very positive. Festivals are about more
than the music; they are about people coming together and sharing experiences. We
all need that and we’re hungry for it now more than ever. I think that festivals that
recognize that and focus on building a genuine sense of community have a strong