Do you hear that? It's the sound of music festivals playing around the country—800 to be exact. Music festival attendance is on the rise, with nearly a quarter of Americans flocking to the mainstage for their favorite bands.
Music festivals are way more than just a multiple-day concert, though. They've become a breeding ground for trends, product launches and brand partnerships. Music festivals are a slice of culture putting the city, the people, the music, the fashion, the food and more on display.
With Lolla behind us and ACL in front of us, we're at the height of fest season, making it the *perfect* time to put on your flower crown and jump right into the frenzy of music fests. Drumrollllllll, please!
Why are music festivals growing? To use the most overquoted stat of all time (I swear I'll never use it again), many point to the fact that 78% of millennials prefer experiences over things and music fests are the perfect embodiment of this.
Another reason? It's a cash cow for everyone involved, including the host cities. In 2017, Coachella was the first fest to pass the 9 digit range, grossing $114MM and raking in $704MM for the Valley's economy. No wonder, because it cost an average of $2,347 all in to attend last year.
It's also a great way for performers to make money these days. According to Rolling Stone, "Live events are quickly shaping up to be the most lucrative space for musicians in the digital-music era."
That's not to say it's always a yellow brick road. Whether it's the weather, the lineup or lack of interest, many fests have gone on hiatus or called it quits. Woodstock's 50th-anniversary festival was canceled before it happened and let's not even get started on Fyre Festival...
With that being said, the promise of a massive, captive audience has any brand excited. AdAge reports that brands are spending upwards of $1.6B to sponsor music festivals but advise that before they spend a pretty penny they should know the distinct culture of each one to make sure it's the right fit for their audience. I couldn't agree more, so we put together a cultural guide to the top music fests around the country.
A few notes before we jump in. Reported attendance varies drastically based on the source. The numbers used here represent the total aggregate attendance over the entire span of the festival (meaning they are not deduplicated) and this is the most recent available data. Helixa reports on social media engagement of a particular topic and weights it to be representative of the US Population.
First up, Coachella! A fashion festival disguised as a music festival that takes place each April in Indio, Cali. Fast fashion brands like H&M release capsule collections and create interactive experiences on the grounds and companies like PopSugar and Revolve one-up each other with their influencer-studded cabana parties outside the grounds. No surprise then that this fest has the highest social following of all.
Business of Fashion details the importance music festivals have on the fashion industry: "Festivals are huge moments in the cultural calendar, they’ve become to fashion and beauty brands what the Super Bowl is to other consumer product categories."
What's next? Summerfest! The largest music festival in the country taking place each June/July in Milwaukee, WI. The social media following is at the lowest end of the spectrum, but that's because it's a nearly opposite audience of Coachella. It's often called "the people's party", which makes sense with brands like Harley and Miller Lite getting involved.
With all this talk about music festivals, we can't forget Austin City Limits, the third most attended fest and my first one ever! It brings in an older crowd but still has some solid social engagement, reflecting Austin's innate techy qualities. Also, their food choices are on point.
If you're interested in the profiles for other top music festivals shoot me a note. I didn't want anyone to overdose on charts today.
With the massive crowds descending on music festivals, one might wonder, are we hitting a plateau? The answer is yes and no.
USA Today proclaimed that America's biggest music festivals are "more skippable than ever" due to homogenization—it’s become "increasingly common to see a mix of the same 15-20 names headlining nearly everyone."
When you look at the evolution of genre mix across the top festivals, it points to similar findings. According to Vivid Seats, ACL's Country and Folk acts hit an all time low last year and Hip Hop/Rap is on the rise.
Many of the hardcore festies I interviewed said the same. Sarah from Raleigh says, "As festivals have become more mainstream, you're seeing bigger headliners which draw in a different crowd. This is why I lean towards some of the smaller festivals popping up—where you can still discover new music and be surrounded people who are there for the music, not just to take photos."
It's important to consider what the hardcore festies want because they are a small but powerful group. According to Eventbrite, 20% of festival-goers attend an average of five to six festivals each year and they are spending 78% more than the casual festies.
Because of this, boutique, mashup festivals are starting to spawn around the country, breathing new life into the music fest scene.
Caroline from SF says, "I've noticed that a lot of smaller festivals seem to have draws besides just music. For example, Bottlerock in Napa has music but also has food and wine, and even features a culinary stage with celebrity chefs that get paired up with other celebs or artists (Martha Stewart + Snoop Dogg, for example).
Next month, I'm going to an offshoot of Bottlerock called Sonoma Harvest Fest, which is a super small festival at a winery that's catering to the wine crowd (music is from 12-6pm!). They're doing two weekends of music, where the first weekend is Ben Harper-type chill music, and the second weekend is more pop/rock."
Lexi from LA expands on this saying that fests are becoming more holistic experiences. She talks about her favorite one, Lighting in a Bottle, that has yoga classes, dance classes, conversations and talks about the world, and cooking classes, all on-site.
She explains further: "The music scene is evolving and now there is a festival for everyone, you just have to find the right one, or better yet the right community of people you want to share the festival experience with."
Lindsey Myers, a CAA talent agent, predicts that "heavy curation towards the fan will continue to grow. Where we’ve really seen festivals thrive is when they create an experience that a fan can’t get elsewhere."
Companies are pulling out all the stops to create unforgettable experiences that continue on past the event.
Sweetgreen bypassed the fests completely by creating its own—Sweetlife, a music festival created to connect with and support their local communities.
Pickathon, a music festival meets content studio, also does things way differently. They cap attendance to keep an intimate feel and produce customized sets that allow for both an amazing in-person experience and also year-round video streaming.
For example, because 60% of their audience is watching their videos on their phone, multiple camera angles and zoomed-in shots become an imperative. They produce more than 250 videos across about 20 original series on average that are released on a rolling schedule throughout the the year to hold fans over.
Megastars like Queen Bey and TSwift are also making bets on digitizing their concerts for all to see, dropping docs about their Homecoming (aka Beychella) and Reputation tours on Netflix.
With that being said, nothing will ever replace the experience of seeing it live. As Andrew from Brooklyn puts it, "what you cannot get anywhere anytime besides a music festival is a group of thousands of people shedding their inhibitions and the straight jacket of modern American society, spending 3+ days just focused on having the maximum amount of fun."
Like any huge trend, music festivals are going through an evolution, shedding what doesn't work and reincarnating as new experiences. The biggest fests will continue to provide a voyeuristic look into America's subcultures, while smaller, more comprehensive ones will further draw in the hardcore festies, giving brands even more options to engage their groupies. And whether you love country music or are a huge jungle disco funk fan, there's a fest out there for you.