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Who’s Getting Rich Off Summer Music Festivals?

dayfestivalYou hear a common line from people who download ripped music online: “maybe I don’t pay for the albums, but I go to concerts, I buy the t-shirts, I support the artists I listen to.”

The sentiment is echoed in business models being pushed by the music industry itself. The summer music festival scene is exploding. The hugest multi-day concerts, like Austin City Limits and Sasquatch, are selling out months ahead of time. Old staples, like Sarah’s McLaughlin’s Lilith Fair, are being reborn, and locally-organized independent music festivals and folk festivals are springing up and growing all over the world.

And the festival model makes sense for promoters and producers. Rather than funneling time and money into a single artist, and concerts that may draw a few hundred fans, they get to run an efficient, cost-effective music Wal-mart: huge crowds all get the same decent product, relatively low cost-per-band, short sets, cattle-style herding from beer to food to port-a-potty. It all runs like a big box store for concert-goers.

Even during a recession, kids are willing to fork over the cash (as much as $300.00 for a basic ticket to a 4-day festival) to see their favorite bands and enjoy the festival experience. And some, like sunsetfestivalBonnaroo, are growing exponentially, pulling in $30 million last year alone through ticket sales and ad partnerships.

Which sounds great! That means all my favorite bands are out there enjoying the summer festival tour circuit and making the money they’re not getting from CD sales, right?

Yeah right.

The sad truth is that music festivals are run using a strict and rapidly scaling payment hierarchy. Headlining acts make a lot of money, and less famous bands – independent bands – earn, well, not money so much as the absolute, unmitigated honor of playing a well-attended festival.

Sounds fair enough on the surface. The big names that draw the crowds should earn bigger paychecks than relative unknowns. It’s the standardized, brutal inequality that’s at issue here. At Bonnaroo, for example, approximately $6 million is being spent on talent this year, and headliners are drawn to the festival to the tune of over a million each. Four nights equals four headliners equals well over 4 million of the budget gone. The rest goes to “middle tier” acts, and the dozens of other bands playing through the sweaty afternoons are lucky to get their hotels or travel expenses covered.

nightfestivalAnd Bonnaroo is no anomaly. The big UK festivals pay over 1 million pounds for their headliners. And even electronic music events, like Barcelona’s Sonar Festival, often start as bare bones productions where nobody gets paid, but evolve into cash machines that court big names with their profits, and leave most acts unpaid. New and independent artists perform for peanuts, theoretically compensated by the promotional opportunity.

Last year, North American festivals pulled in an estimated $2.5 billion, while UK music festivals boosted the economy by 130 million pounds. It’s hard to believe that somewhere amidst that Scrooge McDuck pile of money, there’s not a way to pay all performing artists fairly. After all, if touring and summer festivals are going to be the new business model for the working music industry, than everybody’s got to get paid. Not just the handful of headliners.

What do you think, artists? Is it enough just to get a chance to play at a big music festival, or would  you like to get a piece of the take?

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  1. Jason
    It's a tiered payment system, yes. Bigger bands make bigger dollars, and that's due to their hard work and years put in. But to make the festival look like the big bad guy isn't accurate. You're not taking into consideration that bands are ASKED to play a festival. No one is holding a gun to a band's head and saying "You will sign this contract, you're going to play at 11:30 am on the small stage, and you will play for free and like it." I've been at the BMI stage at Lollapalooza, where the early artists admit they're getting paid next to nothing but just relish the opportunity to play on the bill. While this isn't always the case, to say small bands and indie artists are getting 100% screwed over is irresponsible reporting. And you're also painting a picture that indie bands don't get paid. This couldn't be further from the truth. I know indie bands that don't have a following except for the Chicagoland area get paid handsomely at Lollapalooza. They make more money from that one 45-minute slot at noon on the first day than they do in 3 weeks of touring in their broken down van across the midwest. The biggest point is something I eluded to in the first paragraph, no one is making these bands sign the performance contract. They have a choice. And considering festivals have been back now for several years, none of this is new news to them. They know what they're getting themselves into. And it's up to them if they're looking for a big pay day or if they're looking to get new fans.
  2. [...] recent pieces I’ve come across, “Who’s Getting Rich Off Summer Music Festivals” by Anne Stewart, and “Music festivals ‘are paying too much for [...]
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  4. Hey Man
    Everyone who works should get paid. Maybe the event leaders would like to try and run a "Headliners Only" tour. That way they'd still depend on fans willing to dish out the same amount for a shorter event with less bands. EVERYONE who performs is contributing to the success somewhat for the event and EVERYONE should be paid something.