The Year In Festivals: Taking Calculated Swings In 2022

2022 0916 Experience Nathan Zucker 8
2022 And Beyond: Brandi Carlile is pictured during her Bourbon & Beyond headline set in Louisville, Kentucky. It was the first iteration of the Danny Wimmer Presents-produced festival since COVID and saw an attendance of more than 140,000 over its four days. Photo by Nathan Zucker

The words “conservative” and “music festival” tend to be oxymoronic, but success in 2022 meant calculated risks and conservative budget projections. Cautious optimism follows into 2023.

“Ticket sales I felt were really strong for ’22, probably exceeding our projections at the festivals,” said Danny Hayes, CEO of stalwart rock music festival producer Danny Wimmer Presents. This year, the company staged five large-scale festivals, with 2022 seeing the multi-genre Bourbon and Beyond festival in Louisville making its post-COVID return and the debut of Golden Sky country festival in Sacramento. Those events were both second-weekend affairs, sharing sites with the long-running rock festivals Louder Than Life in Louisville and Aftershock Festival in Sacramento, which both saw record attendance in 2022.

“It’s been a very deliberate, methodical strategy and that will continue to be our outlook for ’23,” Hayes said. “I think that the best way to get hurt is to over-extend. In 2021 we focused on the festivals that are our best performers. In ’22, we pushed the envelope a little and in ’23, we’re bringing back Sonic Temple (in Ohio). That’s enough risk.”

Still, Hayes said both 2021 and 2022 were “exceptional” years operationally and ticket sales-wise for DWP, with fans demanding the return of Sonic Temple at Historic Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, for 2023 and the new Golden Sky having a strong blind presale for year two.

With DWP’s festivals becoming destination events attracting people from all over the country as well as other continents, Hayes has to closely monitor macroeconomic trends.
“Cancellation insurance is one of the craziest variables that we’ve seen. It’s quadrupled in the last several years, plus added all kinds of bells and whistles like deductibles, co-insurance and just things we’ve never had to deal with, even four years ago,” Hayes said.

Calculated aggression seemed to be the name of the game globally for major operators in 2022, with Lollapalooza not only returning to Chicago but back to staging multiple events in Europe and South America and announcing its first Lollapalooza India, set for late January in Mumbai and headlined by Imagine Dragons and The Strokes. Rolling Loud is expanding to Thailand after successful events in Portugal, Netherlands and Canada.

Operators of smaller-scale festivals have shown caution while being able to take chances and move quickly to put on events during a difficult period.

“I would say this was a major growth year from a revenue standpoint and a market standpoint,” said Adam Lynn, co-founder of Prime Social Group. The company is known for its flagship Breakaway Music Festival brand that takes place in multiple secondary markets and added San Francisco this year, hosting EDM, hip-hop and alternative artists. Lynn added, “Just surviving 2022 from a festival standpoint, given the climate, is actually a huge success.”

Helping to get through the year meant purchasing cancellation insurance for the first time, Lynn said, which came in handy when Hurricane Ian made Breakaway Carolina untenable Sept. 31 to Oct 1. The event, scheduled at zMAX Dragway in Charlotte, has been moved to May, with much of its lineup intact. Next year is still taking shape, but “we will be adding,” Lynn said. “It’s a matter of how many, but we will be one of the few expanding
festivals of 2023.”

If major festivals are dealing with macroeconomic factors when relying on large-scale attendance to major events, smaller events are likewise subject to smaller, more immediate economic events.

“I think 2020-2021-2022 have been three awkward and frustrating years,” said Denny Young, head of Elevation Festivals, which produces alternative/indie-rock-learning “Wonder” events in Columbus and Cleveland and expanded this year to Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.

He said 2021 was a success, as the company was able to go on sale early at a time when few events had confirmed yet. However, “We came back down to Earth in 2022 as choices became more robust, everybody was touring and the economy cratered.” Young noted high points in 2022, including strong headliners like Lorde, The Lumineers and Duran Duran. A second-year WonderRoad is already confirmed.

“You work your way through difficult times and keep going,” Young said. “If I let one or two awkward and difficult years derail the whole operation, I would have demonstrated I wasn’t that serious about this.”