Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

The festivals’ bubble

There are always winners and losers in the festival game. At the time of writing, there are plenty of people getting ready for festival weekends in Barcelona (where Primavera will be in full swing), Dublin (that will be Forbidden Fruit), …

Tue, May 29, 2012, 09:15


There are always winners and losers in the festival game. At the time of writing, there are plenty of people getting ready for festival weekends in Barcelona (where Primavera will be in full swing), Dublin (that will be Forbidden Fruit), London (Field Day) and many other spots on the European map. There will also, though, be many acts, agents and music fans cursing their luck for betting on the wrong horse, as a number of festivals hold up the white flag and cancel the order for the extra portaloos.

Music Week reported last week that three UK festivals have pulled the plug, due to “financial pressures” (Rough Beats and Cloud 9) and “a number of circumstances beyond our control” (Golden Dawn). The promoters behind Cloud 9 probably spoke for many of their peers when they said that “the festival environment this year has been incredibly difficult for many small, independent festivals and has proved to be too challenging for us to overcome”.

There may be no Glastonbury this year, but that doesn’t mean a significant increase in footfall and uptake for other fests. People aren’t flocking to the new breed just because the original of the species is not happening and there are probbly a clutch of promoters who were betting their farms on that happening. Indeed, with every passing week, Michael Eavis is looking like the canniest farmer in the live music business for picking this year of all years to take a year off.

Likewise, the lads in Park Road in Dun Laoghaire, as MCD’s decision to hold off on “Europe’s greatest music festival” in 2012 is also looking like a case of good timing. Sure, the absence is going to have an effect on the company’s bottom line – a glance at the 2011 accounts will show you the importance of Oxegen and the stated 190,000-plus ticket sales to the profit and loss account (that Billboard Boxscore figure, which is the figure reported by the promoter, may come as a surprise to many local observers) – but it’s better than a colossal loss if punters were to say no this year to Oxegen as was. We could be bold and ask about the sales figures for Red Hot Chili Peppers in Croker and Madonna at the Aviva, but let’s accentuate the positive instead and point to the sell-outs in the bag for some of the Phoenix Park shows replacing Oxegen. That said, the lack of a direct like-for-like replacement for Oxegen this year looks like being a good decision in light of how the market is performing.

If you want further proof of a slowing in the big festival market, have a word with Vince Power. The bullish promoter who built the Mean Fiddler brand before Live Nation and MCD bought it and turned it into Festival Republic has been back in the game in recent years via a stake in the Benicassim fest in Spain and the brand-free Hop Farm festival and gigs in England. A policy of strongly marketing Benicassim to British (and Irish – there have been a spate of full-age ads for it in the Irish tabloids) music fans has seen it gain traction with fans who want the thrills and spills of an European festival, but who think Primavera is too cool for school.

However, Power’s company Music Festivals PLC has admitted that ticket sales are “currently slower than last year”. This profits warning – “the festivals market in general has been affected by the continued depressed economic climate and the availability of strong revenue-generating acts” – comes despite high-profile bookings. It’s hard to sell tickets when many of the potential punters are broke and jobless and just don’t have the cash to spare for a weekend watching acts.

Indeed, the fact that Music Festivals is talking about cutting costs rather than ticket prices is proof that promoters like Power are not seeing the wood for the trees. It’s the punters’ inability to afford ticket prices as much as the acts’ lack of pulling power and over-supply in the market which is really causing the festivals’ bubble. If Power wants to get in more punters, lower ticket prices would help. But lower ticket prices would mean paying lower fees to acts and that would simply see agents taking their acts elsewhere. After all, if Power won’t pay the cash, someone else might be willing to do so.

If the festivals’ bubble bursts, the acts have only themselves to blame. As we’ve noted here previously, it’s understandable why acts are pimping themselves so much on the live circuit. Lack of revenue from traditional sources mean they have to go on the road again and again and again – three Irish visits in a calendar year would be the norm for many acts – but it’s also creating an imbalance in supply and demand. Do you really need to see that act again in June if you saw them in February? Unless an act is hot and breaking (or see the slow, steady build behind Michael Kiwanuka and Tune-Yards when it comes to the Irish market), the “meh” factor comes into play.

Will the Irish festivals’ market manage to avoid what’s happening in the UK and Europe? Well, per the residential property market, it’s difficult to talk about a soft landing when you’ve got crashing-and-burning going on elsewhere. As we saw with Summer Sessions a while back and with other events in years gone by, Irish festivals are not immune to these changes in market fashions, no matter how bullish promoters are about their events. While all festivals will find the business of selling tickets tough in a time of economic austerity and sales coming later and later in the day, established events at least will enjoy some soft promotional power by vitue of having been around for a while. It’s the newer events, the ones trying to establish themselves in difficult times, who will find the going tougher.