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Festival Forum: Overjoyed or overblown?

Festival Forum: Overjoyed or overblown?

Chairs: Christof Huber, Yourope (CH) & Clementine Bunel, Coda Agency (UK) 

Guest speakers:
Charles Attal, C3 Presents (US)
Melvin Benn,  Festival Republic (UK)
Stephan Thanscheidt, FKP Scorpio (DE)
Anders Wahrén, Roskilde Festival (DK)

Despite various predictions about the decline of an oversaturated market, the festival scene goes from strength to strength. So much so, that its influence now extends to the political sphere, while the touring calendar gradually shrinks to make room. But in a delicate live music ecosystem, do these powerhouses simply hold too much influence?

Session co-chair Christof Huber opened things by asking Charles Attal of the US’s C3 Presents about the growth of US festivals.

“We’re still playing catch-up [with Europe],” Attal responded. “The market is not mature yet, but there are ‘pop-up and disappear’ festivals that are hurting the business. Well-established ones are sticking around but those that don’t get it right are fly-by-night."

The promoter behind Lollapalooza said the brand is growing organically. “We’re not searching to put a flag somewhere. We work with partners. We like to be in green space near a city centre. Only one per country.”

Confirming that audience expectation has changed in ten years, Festival Republic’s Melvin Benn said that there “still has to be a relatively raw experience, certainly at a camping festival.

“But at every one, the expectation grows every year in terms of what artists will appear, what facilities, how good sound and lights will be. For me, that’s wonderful because it drives us on.”

How do the promoters deal with balancing higher expectations and pressure on ticket price?

Attal said: “Margins are tighter. Costs going up 15% but you can’t pass that on. We’ve got to be sensitive with pricing. If you have a $250 ticket and raise it $10 you can kill the show.”

This was something Stephan Thanscheidt of FKP Scorpio agreed with. “In Germany, which is a very solid and healthy market, we had three years of bad weather and terror attacks or threats. This is affecting sales now. We have fantastic line-ups in this country, [tickets are] doing OK but not flying like they would have… We’re heavily investing in finding ways to get over this. We need good weather, no terror threats and then it will be OK,” he said.

Co-chair Clementine Bunel from Coda Agency asked if artist fees was a big issue. Benn – who has Kendrick headlining Reading and Leeds – said: “I think a problem for every festival promoter is securing the artist...Prices get compared across different territories now, and they never used to.”

"We need good weather, no terror threats and then it will be OK”

But competition hasn’t made the business worse, he said, because it makes the offer better for the festival goer.

“My point of view is I want to pay the artist what they’re worth. Sometimes we overpay because we get it wrong but that’s our fault. There’s never been a better time to be in live music, and festivals are at the forefront of that.”

However, there were no concerns about the number of possible bands for booking because there’s a significant number of bands that are not represented on bills – in particular women-led acts. “I’m not nervous about the future because I think there’s plenty more talent to come through,” said Benn.

One problem all organisers said they faced was where artists appear on the bill? It can be a battle, especially in EDM, in which some of the panel said they’d lost artists due to them not being happy with where they were on the poster.

The Keychange initiative, from the PRS Foundation aims to have 50/50 male and female line-ups by 2020. While lauding the goal, not all the panel agreed with the approach.

Attal said: “C3 Presents is 65% women, we’re run by women and our bookers are dominated by women. I’ve had this conversation with them. We could get there.”

Roskilde’s Wahrén said the festival has made a donation to the cause because “we think it’s good they’re trying to solve the problem.”

“We need more women playing instruments and to keep playing so they can end up on festival stages. We can help discuss it, funding it, but we can’t start with festival line-ups,” he said.

Benn agreed: “I didn’t sign-up, I launched a programme called Rebalance.

“In 2017, the top 600 songs on Billboard were 82.3% men. Of 899 Grammys from 2013-18, 91% were men. That’s reflected in our booking.

“I discovered very few women get into the studio to make music, so I wanted to know how do I change that to improve the pool I pick from.” He added: “If we can get substantial more women coming in they’re not going to take the place of the guys, it just means there will be a bigger talent pool to choose from.”

Other sessions in the Festival Summit series:
Festival Summit: The innovators
Festival Summit: Artist fees

The Festival Summit 2018 was run in association with: