Festivals Stage A Major Comeback

Fans attend Coachella in 2019, the most recent year Southern California festival took place. The event returns for two weekends this month with a lineup led by Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, Swedish House Mafia and The Weeknd. (Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images for Coachella)

For two decades, the festival sector has been a key indicator of the live industry’s health, reflecting the ups and downs of the broader business. In March 2020, Miami’s Ultra Music Festival and South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, were among the first to come off the books as the coronavirus pandemic descended on the U.S.; in July 2021, the return of Chicago’s Lollapalooza was symbolic of live’s resurgence – and the first post-lockdown concert for many of the tens of thousands who attended.

But, like the live industry at large, the 2021 season was hampered by the Delta variant, changing coronavirus restrictions and general uncertainty. Rather than serving its typical role as a mid-summer highlight, Lollapalooza kicked off a truncated, late-to-start festival season that extended deeper into the fall than normal. (Look no further than San Francisco’s Outside Lands, usually held in August, which made the best of a new calendar slot on Halloween weekend by rebranding in celebration of the spooky holiday.)

So, what do the scores of festivals announced for spring, summer and fall 2022 – many new, many returning to their normal calendar slots and others still celebrating their first post-lockdown editions – represent? An industry that, at every level, is back on its feet and thriving.

“It really feels back to business as usual,” C3 Presents co-founder Charles Attal, who plays a crucial role in Lollapalooza, tells Pollstar in this week’s festival survey, which asked pros from Insomniac, Live Nation Urban, Elevation Festivals and several other companies about the state of the sector.

The takeaways might sound familiar: While supply chain, staffing and coronavirus-related challenges linger, they’ve diminished substantially in scope and scale – and event organizers are better equipped than ever to meet them.

In turn, the 2022 festival season looks a lot like the 2019 season and the 2020 one that was taking shape before the pandemic scuttled it. Coachella, long a bellwether of not just taste but festival operations, will return to Indio, Calif., next week with headliners Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, Swedish House Mafia and The Weeknd (more on that shortly). New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest, Hangout, Boston Calling, BottleRock, Forecastle, Governors Ball, Bonnaroo, Pitchfork, Lollapalooza and Firefly have all reclaimed their traditional calendar slots.

However, if a time traveler from January 2020 encountered the festival lineups announced for 2022, plenty of differences would stand out. Halsey (this week’s cover star), will headline Hangout, Governors Ball and Firefly and is among the vanguard of young artists from pop (Dua Lipa) to indie-rock (Phoebe Bridgers) to jamgrass (Billy Strings) whose standing on festival lineups has skyrocketed due to pandemic-era growth.

The flourishing festival space also has numerous newcomers that range in shape and size.

“The most surprising thing about the 2022 festival season is how many keep popping up in regards to new original content,” said survey respondent Michael Berg, who co-founded North Coast, Suwannee Halloween and new, Chicago-area fest Sacred Rose, which debuts in late August with a bill topped by Phil Lesh & Friends, Khruangbin, Black Pumas and The War on Drugs.

Buzzy events are making splashes in other major markets. Matthew Morgan, founder and ex-head of Afropunk, announced the inaugural LETSGETFR.EE in March, which will bring Missy Elliott, Wizkid, Anderson .Paak, Ozuna and more to Queens in August. Across the country, Southern California will welcome two huge late summer events: Goldenvoice’s This Ain’t No Picnic, resurrected for the first time in two decades and descending on Pasadena with a bill led by The Strokes and LCD Soundsystem, and Primavera Sound L.A., the esteemed Spanish fest’s American debut topped by Arctic Monkeys, Nine Inch Nails and Lorde.

New fests, many of them boutique, genre-specific or both, abound, from electronic promoter Insomniac’s new Washington, D.C. event Project Glow to Goldenvoice’s single-day Southern California country show Palomino to Live Nation’s zeitgeist-grabbing single-day emo and alt-rock blowout When We Were Young, which will be staged three times in Las Vegas in October to meet demand.

Even Danny Wimmer Presents, the promoter best known for its hard-rock festivals – four of which it staged in 2021 for one of the sector’s biggest success stories of the year – keeps expanding, by way of its just-announced, two-day country event GoldenSky, slated to take place in Sacramento, Calif., in October.

Bonnaroo’s Which Stage, pictured during Walk The Moon’s performance in 2019, the most recent year the Tennessee event took place, will welcome fans once again in June. (Josh Brasted / WireImage)

Other fledgling fests, like THING, the eclectic Port Townsend, Wash., event that debuted in 2019, survived pandemic to see another day.

“Festivals have become so commonplace and predictable, I just had no interest in doing that,” THING founder Adam Zacks, who also founded beloved Washington fest Sasquatch, tells Pollstar. “I wanted to bring something fresh to the table.”

Artists, too, keep asserting themselves, as curated events from Philadelphia’s Roots Picnic to Oakland’s Second Sky, assembled by Porter Robinson, are set to return this year.

And audiences are ready: “Many events still feel like a reunion and something special,” says survey respondent Seth Dodson, executive production director, events & festivals for Pitchfork.

Still, pandemic notwithstanding, pulling a festival off successfully takes skill, ambition and, sometimes, a bit of luck. Bonnaroo was poised to return in September 2021 – later than its typical June calendar slot – but called off its event at the last minute after remnants of Hurricane Ida soaked its Manchester, Tenn., festival site.

Even when weather, long a thorn in the side of summer fests, holds, human factors can upend events. Earlier this month, Kanye West, who now performs as Ye, made good on a threat to withdraw from his Sunday headlining slot at Coachella if fellow headliner Billie Eilish failed to apologize for a perceived sleight against Travis Scott; on Wednesday, just nine days before the Indio, Calif., fest was to open its gates for its first weekend, promoter Goldenvoice announced the elevation of previously billed Swedish House Mafia to Sunday headliner alongside new booking and freshly minted stadium headliner The Weeknd.

Following the death of drummer Taylor Hawkins on March 25, Foo Fighters called off all their 2022 concerts, including six North American festival headlining appearances. Nine Inch Nails, previously announced to headline several fests of its own, will replace Foo Fighters at May’s Welcome To Rockville in Daytona Beach, Fla., and Boston Calling; at press time, the band’s replacements at Memphis’ Beale Street Music Festival (April), New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest (May), Montreal’s Osheaga (July) and Aftershock in Sacramento, Calif. (October), had yet to be announced.

But these are the types of challenges that promoters dealt with long before the pandemic and, coronavirus or not, festival seasons will always have unforeseen obstacles.

As survey respondent Denny Young, who oversees Ohio’s WonderStruck and WonderBus festivals as president of Elevation Festivals, tells Pollstar, “We continue to live in crazy times. The pandemic is not over. There is war in Europe that has the potential to expand. We are still a very divided country. Music festivals are not immune to any of these broader global issues.”

But, he continues, “as an industry, we need to work hard each and every day to deliver the very best momentary getaways we can. … Music remains the ultimate uniter of people. Even better than sports, because at the end of the show, everyone leaves happy.”