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 Bonnaroo, 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?
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.
And 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?