The music or the money?

This is an article by Mark Grainger.
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Music festivals are amazing things. For bands they can prove just how far they’ve come as they take to a stage in front of thousands of people and for the crowd they frequently provide some of the most memorable moments of the summer, if not the year.

Some of festival appearances of the past have become legendary with Jimi Hendrix forever associated with America’s Woodstock but far more continue to live on in the memories and YouTube accounts of those who attend each year.

Recently though, events have suggested that the previously booming festival scene may not be as healthy as was readily assumed.

For example Sonisphere, Europe’s huge touring metal festival, was recently forced to cancel its UK date at Knebworth Hall due to poor ticket sales, causing some of the bands on the bill such as Faith No More to compensate fans by scheduling separate shows in the capital.

Make no mistake, the loss of Sonisphere is a huge blow to the UK festival season, especially in a year where the fields of Glastonbury are also lying fallow, but I’m not convinced that it’s indicative of a decline in popularity for festivals on a whole as there are many factors can affect the uptake in tickets.

One of Sonisphere’s big problems was that it failed to match up to both its billing and tradition of being a heavy rock festival. Whilst there was no problem with the previously mentioned Faith No More, or even with glam rock stalwarts Kiss being on the bill, the addition of Queen raised a significant amount of eyebrows especially once it was announced that they would be fronted by American singer, Adam Lambert.

Now, the act of stepping into Freddie Mercury’s flamboyant shoes has has never successfully carried out before, with even veteran performer Paul Rodgers deciding to call it quits after recording a largely unpopular album with original members Brian May and Roger Taylor. But Lambert’s Queen may have been too bitter a pill for potential Sonisphere ticket buyers to stomach. Queen may be a legendary band but having them fronted by an American – and an American who was a runner up on TV talent show American Idol at that – is hardly going to get the metal heads through the turnstiles and onto the camp site.

The issue is that knowing your publics and what they consume is key. The UK on a whole does not have the same style of wide-ranging music festival as can be found in Europe, with the multi genre stages of T in the Park a pale imitation of the scope and genre range of events such as Primavera in Spain or Belgium’s Pukkelpop.

Niche targeting

Thanks to the number of festivals taking place in the UK around the summer months and their artist appearance agreements, UK festivals mostly have to carve out a niche and set out their stall for who they want to attract. Latitude for example is doing very well in providing a stage full of the more cultured and critically adored bands such as Elbow, Bon Iver and The National, whilst The Cambridge Folk festival and Two Thousand Trees have gained a dedicated following amongst indie and folk fans and the burgeoning Slam Dunk North and South annually caters for Punk and Ska fans.

Very rarely do these festivals book anybody too controversial, with the greatest leap in recent memory arguably being Jay-Z performing at Glastonbury, a booking which was unanimously deemed a success after his headline slot.

Are festivals in a slump then? The odd isolated instance aside, I don’t think there is much evidence to suggest that they are. Ten years ago they certainly had their troubles, with regular riots on the last day of  the then Carling-sponsored Reading and Leeds festivals making the newspapers several years in a row. Today the festival is a much less volatile affair, and one must wonder how much impact the lack of Carling’s logo on the festival’s banner has had on the perception of the event.

Friendly face versus evil industry

An interesting trend is how, in a number of cases, the festival organisers themselves have transcended the roles of booking agents and logistical show runners to become celebrities. Whilst they are not exactly household names in the traditional sense, there can’t be many music fans or regular festival goers who don’t know the names of Glastonbury’s Michael and Emily Eavis or Melvin Benn of the Reading and Leeds weekend.

The fact that these people have become figureheads for their respective festivals serves a handful of very important purposes as far as public relations is concerned.

Most importantly it gives the primary public, the  weekend ticket-buying music fan, an identifiable face, a real person to relate to and buy into away from an increasing abundance of corporate sponsorship.

They also provide a focal point, a trusted voice of both enthusiasm and experience who, when quoted on the newest up and  coming band to step onto the main stage or the latest band embarking in a long line of reformation tours, can be regarded with  a sense of trust and belief. After all, these people are more about the music than the money aren’t they?

Whatever the motive, these promoters and organisers, who know their bands and their respective festivals are so far removed from what is seen as the evil music industry as to be the perfect spokespeople, bastions of trust and a champion of the music fan. With them at the reins mistakes are forgiven, the big festivals carry on as normal and it’s really rather hard to see what sort of circumstances or error could realistically stop the festival wheel from turning each year.

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