Glastonbury Mud On My Wellies: FestForums’ Laurie Kirby On The State Of The Festival Market

Lead Photo Laurie Kirbie Standing
Laurie Kirby Photo Courtesy FestForums

There may be no better person on the planet to have a conversation with on the current state of the festival market than Laurie Kirby. As president of industry conference series FestForums, which she founded in 2015 (after five years running IMFCON, which became XLIVE), she has her finger on the festival pulse and is in constant touch with festival promoters, talent buyers, vendors, agents, promoters, production personnel and artists—from Jack Johnson to Alice Cooper and many others. She is so steeped in the festival space that she even got her “Wellies stuck in the infamous Glastonbury mud.” Kirby discusses the state of the festival market, opportunities and challenges, ticket pricing, the loss of Michael Lang, George Wein and Robert Richards, Web3 and her craziest ever festival experience.

Pollstar: What makes a good festival?
Laurie Kirby: The best events are well-planned by seasoned professionals. From buying tickets, the festival location, ease of entry to seating and sound quality, the festival framework should be safe and attractive. Promoters need to engage the local community for resources that add cultural experiences as few have the reach of a Coachella. Music that includes seasoned acts interspersed with emerging talent offers familiarity and discovery. Peter Shapiro’s Lockn’ Fest is a great example of bringing old and new acts together. Niche and well-curated festivals that are properly budgeted, funded and executed can prosper but need to be careful on talent spends and unanticipated expenses. There’s no substitute for an experienced lawyer on your team. All expenses are higher, and sponsors and ticketholders are called upon to offset this, which is a challenge given our current economic state and the limited discretionary income available to live music lovers.

As for the experience and acts, they should be well-curated and reflective of the niche. In terms of what I like, who doesn’t love a little Mavis Staples? She gets me on my feet every time! From Glastonbury to Newport Folk Festival and Outside Lands, all of which I have really enjoyed, the vision of the producers should be tangible and memorable. I agree with Kevin Lyman’s assessment that niche and artist-driven festivals have a bright future.

For global and domestic touring in 2022, Pollstar chronicled record-setting revenues and attendance and 2023 looks to be even bigger with Q1 already outpacing Q1 2022. Do you think 2023 similarly will be a record-setting year for festivals? Do touring and fest markets usually correlate?
Tours and festivals can happily coexist without cannibalizing each other provided promoters don’t insist on radius clauses. I would never insist on one as I believe our role is to support the artist, not the other way around. All live music is interdependent, and to the extent possible, it behooves promoters to find ways to collaborate. Bands playing festivals have short sets so there is room for superfans to also see just their favorite artists on smaller stages separately. Since the pandemic, festivals have been all over the map in terms of success and even the big boys have scuttled some festivals. I cannot prognosticate who will survive as my meter, my success-o-meter, has proved me wrong many a time!

You mentioned the loss of three wildly influential festival pioneers: Woodstock’s Michael Lang, Newport’s George Wein and Glastonbury’s Robert Richards. What did they mean to you?
Not only were these three legends of the festival industry, but they were also great human beings and dear friends. It meant so much for me to honor them at FestForums. They were visionaries, believers, doers and totally irreplaceable. The world is a better place because of them.

Challenges in the live market were rampant last year with inflation, labor shortages, supply chain hold-ups, extreme and unpredictable weather. How do you see these impacting festivals this year and beyond?
All these issues are hugely impacting festival viability. It’s no place for the faint of heart and personally I don’t see these issues going away anytime soon. The big players have the advantage of shared resources and better bargaining power for talent and infrastructure. Festivals have many in-kind resources at their disposal and should take full advantage of the many budget-reducing goods and services available.

We spoke briefly about the challenges putting on festivals in primary markets like in NYC or LA, and you mentioned there may be more opportunities in smaller markets. Can you explain?
The larger cities are often saturated with competing events that include theater, sports, and more. Smaller cities are hungry for live music and thus are more receptive to smaller acts and curated events. Organizers can take advantage of lower production and venue costs and talent routing through larger cities nearby. Plus, the promoters are closer to their communities and can leverage local resources.

I was impressed with how Rolling Loud used SoFi Stadium’s exterior grounds and parking lots for this year’s LA edition. Is that a model you think will be increasingly replicated, especially with so many new buildings online in secondary and tertiary markets?
SoFi is making an aggressive play for more festivals. It certainly isn’t new since many facilities have been trying to attract festivals to take place on their sites. But I do think since festivals have grown in popularity and facilities want to monetize them, this phenomenon will continue to grow.

The art of pricing for festivals is a difficult one. Premium sales and sponsorships can impact decision making as can demand and inflation and market forces, like a jam-packed festival season. How do you see these market forces impacting pricing?
There is an art but there is also science. Festivals need to inventory their assets and define their audiences and its reach. Ticket prices can be dynamic and VIP tickets, like first-class travel, are the money makers. Charge too much and you wind up on Groupon. Big ticket festivals have deployed payment plans as millennials, Gen X and Gen Y festival fans can’t always afford the large prices charged. Sponsors expect ROI and need accurate measurements of CPM’s and other such surveyed data to justify its sponsorship dollars. Valuation of the property’s assets can include exclusivity, eyeballs, audience brand loyalty and activation opportunities. All festivals need warm relationships with their sponsors as they are the partners that make festivals possible and if managed properly, are part of the festival experience. There are other revenue streams too like merch, food & beverage as well as festival ticket insurance revenue that guarantees the ticket revenue income regardless of cancellations.

One favorite aspect of fest-going is the surrounding area – last year I went to fests in Napa, New Orleans, Austin and LA’s Chinatown – do you think fests can do a better job of integrating their surroundings? If so, how?
I think destination festivals are great! Partnering with local attractions is always a win-win. I think the better question and bigger challenge is that festivals do not monetize the economic impact of their festivals. Every festival should have an economic impact study done to leverage this important asset. Sponsorships, grants, revenue shares and other assets should be provided to festivals for providing jobs, increased tourist spending and awareness during their events. For example, companies like Stay 22 return the commission on rooms and airline tickets back to the festival and is tracked through the festival website

Laurie Kirby Jessie COllin
Back To The Garden: Laurie Kirby with Jesse Colin Young who won FestForums’ 2023 Spirit of Woodstock Award. Past FestForums honorees include Jack Johnson, Shep Gordon, T-Bone Burnett and Rita Coolidge. Courtesy FestForums

Your take on the state of the following five festival buckets:

The wellness trend?
Wellness is the buzzword of the 2020s but it is warranted. The pandemic illuminated the mental crisis this country faces. Attention to mental and physical health is now a focus of festivals for its fans, staff and artists. It is becoming commonplace for large festivals to provide onsite counseling and mental health tents. And there is an explosion of festivals solely devoted to promoting wellness such as Wanderlust, MeFest, The Sun Valley Wellness Festival and many more. In fact, it is probably the fastest growing sector of genre festivals in the U.S.

The buzz around tech, Web3 & immersive experiences?
Those three categories are each a topic in and of itself worthy of lengthy discussion. This brave new world of visionaries seeks to enhance the festival experience for tech savvy folks eager for immersive experiences. Technology, much of it finetuned and/or developed during the pandemic, is here to stay in areas such as ticketing, entry, POS and more. Frankly, SXSW does a spectacular job of introducing new technological experiences. I first saw AR/VR, record players and robotics at the festival in Austin. However, it can feel inauthentic and commercial as opposed to Lightning in a Bottle that delivers sensory magic. Such activations need to be seamless, intuitive, and most importantly meaningful. Metaverse festivals are popping up and time will tell if these virtual events gain traction.

The state of branding and brand activations?
Brands are very savvy, and they want their goods and products in the hands of the fans. Activations can be as simple as vehicle transport experiences or drink samplings, or as complicated as adoption of new technology. Festivals and the brands or agencies need to be completely transparent upfront over who is managing the activation to ensure success. Festivalgoers love activations, and they create greater brand loyalty if properly executed.

Inclusivity and diversity at festivals?
It is really wonderful to see consciousness being raised around this critical issue. Given the diversity of our culture, there is enough multi-cultural and gender talent to be represented at festivals. It is a reality that certain genre festivals pose trickier programming issues but that means talent buyers need to cast a wider net. In fact, it means that talent buyers should be more diverse as well as they are more in tune with their respective cultures. Fans need to vote with their wallets if festivals aren’t featuring diverse lineups.

What was your craziest festival experience?
Having produced many festivals, I have a lot, but I can’t name names so what fun is that? As for attending festivals, getting my Wellies so stuck in the infamous Glastonbury mud, I couldn’t move at all! My friends had to lift me out. We then made our way to the 4 a.m. afterparty where I rehydrated two gals overdosing on God knows what and then wound up on the stage dancing with a friend alone with the DJ! Is that oversharing?