Carey Christensen, assistant professor, Music Industry, California State University, Northridge; Trae Judy, partner, Music Farm Productions; Dave Stewart, founder, New Music Confab; and Dr. Armen Shaomian, assistant professor, Department of Sport and Entertainment Management, University of South Carolina, make up Panel #3 at SEVT. (VT Photo)

REPORTING FROM COLUMBIA, S.C. — SEVT kicked off here with 300 in attendance, bringing together sport and entertainment industry leaders, students and teachers of the future leaders of our industry. For a conference that is put on in partnership between the University of South Carolina and Venues Today, a panel discussion on the recent explosion of music festivals, thanks largely to millennials, seemed appropriate.

“There was a huge period for musical festivals in the 60 and 70s, then quite honestly they died,” said Dave Stewart, founder, New Music Confab. “Other than the Grateful Dead, no one made money doing music festivals on a large scale until about the early 2000s. What happened with this generation, because for 20 years no one would do that? No one would go get sticky, smelly, not have a shower for two days and pay $500 for the privilege.”

Millennials are more willing to spend on themselves and dish out the money for experiential things. Attending music festivals has become almost a rite of passage, which is fueling the growth in the U.S. But with that growth comes the risk of oversaturation. From monsters like Coachella and Bonnaroo to more regional events, the challenge today is differentiating themselves from every other festival.

“From my research, it’s about the secondary entertainment,” said Carey Christensen, assistant professor, Music Industry, California State University, Northridge. “Everybody has 50 bands, and everyone is going after the same pool of entertainment now so, for mid-sized festivals, how do they differentiate themselves from everybody else? It’s this rise of secondary entertaining, the rise of food villages and sponsor villages and booking complementary acts, like comedy. It’s about really making it an experience, having those repeat customers come back year after year as a destination.”

In that sense, smaller festivals may have an advantage, being able to pay more attention to the differentiating details.

“Because there’s so much competition now, you’re having to get a little more engaged in the boutique situation,” said Trae Judy, partner, Music Farm Productions. “Coachella is great if you want to go spend time with 200,000 of your friends. You have the ability as a promoter or producer to detail certain nuances about your festival. You can be more hands on with more interaction between the artists and consumers. The size helps in the ability to reach everyone. You have to be creative to create those unique situations that allow you to compete with the Coachellas and the like.”

The rise in festivals may also be attributed to a broadening of music tastes for today’s fans, who have unlimited access to any music at their fingertips.

“We’re influenced by more bands,” said Judy. “Everyone may listen to rock and roll, but we all listen to more stuff. Everything is infused and influences the other genres. As consumers, I think our minds are open more than they were 20 years ago. Everyone says they listen to everything, but the reality is we’re being more influenced by more styles of music, which has led to a festival like Bonnaroo that has hip hop, EDM, rock and alternative country rock stuff. I know I can go to a festival and know that will enjoy a variety of genres. There’s definitely value in that.”

During the inaugural New Music Confab last year, Stewart said he kind of just picked the bands, all of which were unsigned artists.

“My love for the industry was always founded on my love for finding new music,” said Stewart. “Not that I don’t like some of these big artists, but I felt like there was a niche for a smaller music conference to dial it back with people I knew in the industry.”

This year, in partnership with ReverbNation, they’re going after some more established artists but have also opened it up for submissions. In the first hour, they received over 850 applications. In the first three weeks, they’ve received 1,200.

Judy also showcases small, local bands at his festivals. “For the smaller bands, I think it’s more about the exposure than the actual dollars and cents.”

With the rapid growth of music festivals has also come an environmental concern. Thanks to the campsites, many festivals are left with piles of waste to get rid of and thousands of discarded tents.

“What Europe has been struggling with is this culture of young people going from festival to festival and they just walk away from their tent and their trash at each one, because tents are so cheap now,” said Christensen. “Now the promoter is left with 50,000 tents.”

He said a Dutch company has created a cardboard tent that is brandable. The cardboard is thick enough that it can last three days in the rain and is biodegradable for easy and responsible disposal at the end of the festival. Christensen said a few European festivals will begin offering them next year. It’s a matter of changing the culture to get people to value their tents. It’s a cultural problem that has become an environmental problem, and it’s a challenge festivals in the U.S. are facing as well. Last year, Judy said Bonnarroo collected all the leftover tents, coolers and sleeping bags and donated them. But beyond reusable items, “going green” as a festival requires strong local partnerships. 

“The reality is it’s about resources, and sometimes it becomes green prohibitive to be environmentally conscious,” said Judy. “As promoters, we certainly need as much help at facilitating that as possible. But to be successful overall, you really need the buy into the local community to make that happen, because they have the resources. We try to get the city or parks and rec involved, and nine out of 10 times they’re going to help you, but they don’t always have the funds to take care of that. I hope our festivals become more green focused, because there’s a great opportunity for teaching. More support locally would certainly help the smaller shows.”

2014 was a big year for the festival explosion, and today, festivals have become anchor dates in artists’ tours. Up and coming artists are getting exposed to new fans; fans that will pay to see 50 different bands all in one place.

“The one thing that really hasn’t been disrupted in the music part is the live experience,” said Christensen. “It’s the one thing you can’t digitize. You can’t have that tribal experience. Yes, you can stream it and things of that nature, but it’s not the same, and I think people crave that.” 

Interviewed for this story: Carey Chrstensen, (818) 677-3041; Trae Judy, (843) 577-6989; Dave Stewart, (803) 777-8215