Riding the Wave

The music industry sees potential and profits in outdoor concerts like Baltimore's Virgin Festival

June 17, 2008|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,SUN REPORTER

In the past few years, shrinking album sales and illegal downloads have shaken up the music industry. But after a downturn in the late '90s, live music festivals are once again flourishing - offering some hope for a struggling industry.

After the horrendous 1999 Woodstock and the subsequent sputtering of Lollapalooza, American music festivals looked all but done for. But now, festivals such as Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, a revitalized Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits Music Festival are grossing in the tens of millions, making them formidable revenue sources.

When a crowd of more than 70,000 flocked to rural Tennessee this past weekend for the annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, they helped fuel the resurgence of massive, multiday music events. In the past few years, new festivals like the Virgin Mobile Festival at Pimlico Race Course and All Points West in Jersey City, N.J., have sprouted across the country.

"It's definitely a growing part of the industry," said Gary Bongiovanni, the editor-in-chief of Pollstar, a music trade magazine. "The festival busi-ness is so successful in Europe, but there's a feeling that the market here in America hasn't been properly fulfilled."

These days, the demand for festivals is strong enough that organizers from the Virgin Mobile Festival don't see the nearby All Points West as competition - even though they're on the same weekend, they share some of the same performers and are only a three-hour drive apart.

The three-day, three-stage All Points West festival boasts headliners Radiohead, one of the world's hottest alternative rock bands, and singer/songwriter Jack Johnson, with roughly 40 others. Virgin Mobile Festival, a two-day, three-stage event, also has Johnson, as well as Bob Dylan, Kanye West, Nine Inch Nails, the Foo Fighters and Stone Temple Pilots, among nearly 40 other acts. The producer behind All Points West also booked Coachella.

"I'm sure there's some overlap, but I dont see anyone leaving from here to go to New York for [All Points West]," said Seth Hurwitz, who booked the Virgin Mobile Festival.

"Our geographical breakdown on our ticket sales have us doing pretty much same out of town business as we did before."

Last year, about 15 percent of Virgin Mobile Festival's audience came from the New York/New Jersey/Pennsylvania region, organizers said. But there's enough live music lovers in the region for both events to be successful, Bongiovanni said.

"The Northeast is a corridor that has such a huge population that it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect that those two festivals coexist," he said.

Bongiovanni points to Europe, where it's not uncommon to see two big festivals in the same country on the same weekend with a lot of the same performers. Since many European cities didn't have easily accessible state-of-the-art arenas, promoters looked to the countryside and established sprawling camp-out festivals decades ago. Now, festivals are spread all across Europe, he said.

"In Europe, it's all about the summer festival," Bongiovanni said. "On any given weekend, you probably have your choice of half a dozen. You can pick a country and go there.

Some, like England's V-Fest, have seen crowd sizes grow exponentially since they started. Virgin Group founder and chairman Richard Branson thinks the Virgin Mobile Festival in Baltimore will be able to duplicate that long-term success.

"It's building a brand - building a festival brand," Branson said last year. "It took us 11 years in England to go from 20,000 people in the V-Fest in Europe to 130,000, which it is every year now. It will build."

There's plenty of money to be made in large scale festivals, too. Coachella grossed $16.3 million last year, Lollapalooza $9.8 million and Austin City Limits $11.3 million, according to Pollstar.

While the Virgin Mobile Festival roughly broke even last year, organizers think it will bring in more money and people in the coming years.

In its first two years, Virgin Mobile Festival established itself as a relatively inexpensive, well-run festival with a solid lineup, said Ryan Detter, a writer for the Baltimore-based music blog Quarterlifeparty.

"There are a lot of good acts at Virgin Fest that are not to be overlooked," he said. "For the size, I'm really impressed with it."

Detter plans to travel to All Points West on Friday night to see Radiohead and then head back to Baltimore for Virgin Mobile Festival on Sunday. He also went to Coachella earlier this year.

"Instead of spending $10 for 30 shows all year, I'll just go see them all at one festival," he said. "It's a good way to get a feel for a band you might not want to pay to just go see them."

Still to come this year (not including All Points West and Virgin Mobile Festival) is the seven-year-old Austin City Limits and the now Chicago-based Lollapalooza. Each has a giant lineup of dozens of acts.

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