Mid-Year 2024: Volatile Festival Market Demonstrates Need For Caution But Also Opportunity

2024 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival Weekend Two
FESTIVAL HARBINGER?: Coachella, considered a bellwether music festival as one of the first major outdoor events of the season, experienced from slower than usual ticket sales, leading some to speculate whether the live music bull run of the last couple of years is fizzling out. (Getty Images)

Major music festivals can be considered a barometer for the live music industry as a whole – and for good reason. High-profile, large-scale events can gauge overall demand for live music and available talent, and act as an indicator of genre trends or more specific and immediate responses to certain artists, such as when Pollstar cover artist Chappell Roan gets moved to a larger stage at Bonnaroo to meet demand that skyrocketed since the initial booking.

It can also be tempting to say the sky is falling if a festival has an off year. The bigger it is, the bigger the hit when counting on 40,000 or 50,000 ticketholding, beer-drinking and merch-purchasing fans per day.

The city of Indio, California, released attendance figures showing that promoter Goldenvoice reported 81,690 tickets sold for Coachella’s first weekend, with another 80,148 for the second. Meanwhile, country music sister event Stagecoach reported 89,003 tickets sold for its single weekend. That’s still a huge, industry leading event and responsible for about a quarter-million people onsite over the three weekends, but
slower-than-usual sales for what many in the industry consider the kickoff to spring – and a larger single-weekend turnout for its country music sister event – has left many wondering what happened and what it means.

Festival producers and talent buyers will never say it’s easy to curate and secure headliners but, with increased touring activity across the globe, 2024 seems especially difficult.

“This has been one of the more difficult years in terms of booking headliners for Outside Lands,” Allen Scott, president of venues and festivals for Another Planet Entertainment, previously told Pollstar. “And it feels like our particular time period is really tough. We put together what I think is a really good lineup, but it was definitely challenging this year.”
The San Francisco event, which takes place in August, has shown growth in recent years while many large, multi-genre festivals choose not to report box office results. In 2023, Outside Lands reported 225,000 total visitors at 75,000 capacity per day, grossing more than $40 million, beating the previous year’s similarly-attended festival by about $6 million.

Outside Lands may be an example of sticking to the format (compelling popular music) and riding the genre wave, with contemporary headliners such as The Killers and newly announced Sabrina Carpenter, who replaced Tyler, the Creator as a late scratch. However, the event also features a country-leaning headliner in Sturgill Simpson, in his first major performance of 2024 and ahead of his first full tour since before COVID. There’s also a prominent “Special Country Set” by Post Malone, making a special occasion out of an already popular festival headliner.

Another example is Bourbon and Beyond in Louisville, Kentucky, which has a loosely defined genre built around the food and spirits of its host city, meaning the event can lean rock, pop, blues, jam or, this year, Americana. Topping the bill is red-hot Zach Bryan and Tyler Childers to go along with Neil Young, Dave Matthews Band and 100 or so others. Danny Wimmer Presents execs say the September event could be its largest yet, even while its rock festivals continue to set attendance records. Compelling bookings include a reunited Slayer, a strong draw in a genre that can be difficult to mix up from year to year.
While headliners go a long way toward selling tickets, it’s not only the top line of the artist bill that has been a challenge.

“The bigger companies are buying tours,” says Michael Berg, a festival owner, talent buyer and partner in events including Suwannee Hulaween in Florida and North Coast Music Festival in Chicago, both in the 20,000-per-day range. He says music festivals are becoming less of an anchor or marquee event for many artists.

“Because of the economic cost of firing up the engine, it’s easier for a band to take a tour deal, go out, live on a bus and go city to city rather than fire up the machine and do just one festival – it’s just way more expensive,” he said. “It’s definitely harder to get artists to commit to festivals right now and then also to try to make a festival lineup that’s unique and not like every other homogenized one out there.”

Berg said it’s crucial to deliver what an event’s core base is looking for, while offering something unique. North Coast Music Festival, for instance, is sticking to its EDM bread and butter with top talent including Illenium, Subtronics, AC Slater, and DJ Diesel (Shaquille O’Neal). Berg says that event is on pace to be its second-largest ever.

Meanwhile, Hulaween, a jam-heavy Halloween-timed event hosted by The String Cheese Incident, enters its 11th year in 2024 hoping to build on a sold-out 2023. That event is also back to basics – with a twist.

“This Bob Weir / String Cheese thing is a very big deal because this is the only place you’re going to be able to see this collaboration,” Berg said of what’s being billed as “The Bob Weir Incident,” which will be two full sets of Grateful Dead tunes to close out the festival. “For the jam band world, we’re going to make a big splash with this.”