National Post (Latest Edition)




It’s that time of year, again. Music fans, floral crown devotees and people who simply like to party for days on end in open deserts/fields/parks are planning annual pilgrimage­s to their sacred places.

Comparing the modern music festival experience to a religious one isn’ t such a stretch; the most popular festivals thrive on fostering a sense of community through music. For many attendees, there’s a belief that festivals inspire a sense of peace, love and goodwill that’s increasing­ly hard to come by in our everyday lives.

It’ s no coincidenc­e that churches now make mission trips to top music festivals, where hordes of young people are ripe for evangeliza­tion. “The Jesus Tent,” a creation of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, has been a popular 24/ 7 pop up at Bonnaroo over the last several years. Of the approximat­ely 80,000 people who attend the festival each year, 15,000-17,000 visit the tent. It’s the largest evangelist­ic event held by the Tennessee convention each year, and possibly of any denominati­on in the state.

According to Nielson, a whopping 32 million people attend a music festival in the U.S. each year, travelling an average of 903 miles. Music Canada reports close to 16 million fans attend the country’s 558 festivals each year.

Despite the massive success of music festivals, all is not alive and well in the live music industry. While festival behemoths are seeing more fans and dollars than ever, traditiona­l small and medium-sized live music venues are struggling to keep the doors open. Three months into 2017, Toronto has already lost seven venues this year, including the Hideout, the Silver Dollar and the Hoxton. Across the pond, London, England has been ringing the alarm for years. According to a task force commission­ed by the mayor, the metropolis lost a staggering 35 per cent of its smaller music venues between 2007 and 2015.

Festivals appear to be rising stars, but some would rather compare them to combustibl­e supernovas primed to destroy everything in their path. Behind the bright stage lights and picture- perfect moments rests an uncomforta­ble, but worthy question: are music festivals killing live music?

Local and regional live music venues aren’ t seeing fans’ money, but someone is. Desert Trip, the highest grossing festival in 2016, raked in a cool $ 160.11 million. Coachella clocked in second with $ 94.22 million. In Canada, the Pemberton Music Festival earned $11.58 million while Osheaga brought in $ 10.88 million. Music spending is thriving, but its patterns have shifted dramatical­ly. Online statistics portal Statistica reports most music- related activities are seeing year-after-year declines of consumer expenditur­es with the notable exceptions of music streaming, DJ events and music festivals.

In 2014, Canada’s live music industry decided it needed a voice to address the challenges it faces. Music Canada Live was born to advocate on behalf of the community. One of the major issues it’s addressing is the closure of venues across the nation.

The epidemic of small and medium- sized live music venue closures is, on the surface, alarming because of their historical­ly important role in the music ecosystem. They serve as incubators for emerging artists to gain experience and fan bases. Without them, there’s a fear that up- and- coming acts will suffer, and that there will be fewer opportunit­ies for local and regional acts to thrive.

While other factors, including gentrifica­tion and ever- expanding condo developmen­ts, play a big role in the demise of venues, there’s no denying that fewer fans — especially millennial fans — want to see small, one-act concerts. In fact, many younger millennial­s have never stepped inside places like Toronto’s El Mocambo or Halifax’s The Carleton. These are venues that those just a few years older consider iconic. To them, mourning the loss of these places seems as outdated as grandma pining for the days of 80-cent loaves of bread.

Millennial­s came of age in an era of easy access to music, with streaming services that allow them to sample limitless numbers of artists. Young fans no longer have five bands they want to see; they have twenty or thirty. Music festivals provide the live version of streaming services’ infinite variety.

There’s also festivals’ recognitio­n that shareable experience­s are king for this generation. Over 85 per cent of festival goers will share content on social media and, interestin­gly, the majority of that content doesn’t feature performanc­es. It features fans themselves and their friends. Music festivals by design are perfect for digital marketing and use this to their advantage. Meanwhile, many smaller venues remain lost somewhere in the 20th century, still relying on posters and classified­s ads for promotion.

The problem for some purists is that music festivals aren’t really about the music at all. On a base level, they aren’t typically good places to actually listen to and appreciate music. Unlike indoor venues, outdoor spaces aren’t designed to relay sound in its best form. You can usually hear other acts playing in the distance, and performers often have to deal with intense heat, blinding sun, rain and mud — not to mention placating a more general audience rather than rabid fans.

Attendees are only one piece of the rise of music festivals, though. Corporate sponsors spend approximat­ely $ 1.3 billion per year to have a presence at such events. Increasing­ly, they’ve gone from small partnershi­ps to in- your- face activation­s and eponymousl­y naming stages. Some brands, such as Bud Light and Coca- Cola, have even launched their own festivals. This flies in the face of the indie, freewheeli­ng spirit music festivals spawned from.

Further complicati­ng matters is the growing festival monopoly of mega promoters Live Nation and AEG Live, who now own controllin­g stakes in dozens of festivals ( including Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapaloo­za) and continue to gobble up new ones by the season. Insiders worry the growing corporatiz­ation of music festivals by two behemoths will suck creativity and lineup diversity out of the live music scene. Already, many artists perform multiple stops on the “festival circuit” owned by one of these companies and it’s becoming harder and harder to find truly unique rosters of talent. Big promoters’ prioritiza­tion of profit above all else also tends to skew lineups towards proven Top- 40 or nostalgic acts — all while instilling a low tolerance for risk, controvers­y and, all too often, diversity.

Festivals can be credited for bringing a large amount of enthusiasm for live music in a generation that largely lives in the digital world. However, the question remains, at what cost?

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 ?? TONY CALDWELL / POSTMEDIA NEWS FILES ?? Huge music festivals are seeing more fans and dollars than ever, while small- and medium-sized music venues are struggling to survive.
TONY CALDWELL / POSTMEDIA NEWS FILES Huge music festivals are seeing more fans and dollars than ever, while small- and medium-sized music venues are struggling to survive.

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