The large festival business, once an opportunity for entrepreneurs to enter the game, has become increasingly devoid of independent players as as the live music business shifts to tours bankrolled by global promoters.
Live Nation’s acquisition of a controlling interest in the massive Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., from founders AC Entertainment and Superfly continues the global concert firm’s aggressively acquisitive streak in the U.S. festival space, and at the same time eliminates the “independent” status of what was the largest independent music festival on the continent.
Live Nation has been the most active of late, and the world’s largest promoter has raised its festival presence in the U.S. exponentially in the process. The ongoing success of both Bonnaroo and C3 made them ripe targets — Bonnaroo is a perennial sellout, with more than 80,000 in annual attendance and gross receipts estimated at $25 million, and C3 was the leading independent, with global brands in Lollapalooza and the ACL Music Fest, among others.
As the only publicly-traded live music company, Live Nation aims to show Wall Street it is a force in this robust space, and Bonnaroo, which Rapino calls, “another crown jewel in this festival channel strategy,” definitely sends that message home. Live Nation now has more than 60 festivals in its portfolio of European and North American events, including U.S. events like Lollapalooza, ACL Fest, Electric Daisy Carnival, an exploding country music fest roster that will have at least seven events in 2016, and, now, Bonnaroo.
As all of this unfolds, the festival landscape has changed greatly since its early days, when Coachella and Bonnaroo shook up the doldrums of a post-consolidation touring industry. At the time festivals were a place where ambitious, savvy talent buyers could develop a business without having to build an amphitheater, or trying to outbid the giants on arena tours. Goldenvoice, C3, and Superfly and AC Entertainment were the risk-taking trailblazers in this world, and now all three are part of bigger players.
It is worth noting that both Superfly and AC Entertainment remain independent festival producers outside of Bonnaroo. Among their ventures are Superfly’s Outside Lands fest in San Francisco with Another Planet Entertainment, and AC’s Forecastle fest in Louisville, Ky. The Live Nation/Bonnaroo deal “doesn’t impact [these events] in a structural way at all,” Capps says. “Live Nation is not buying AC or Superfly. But I think we all are looking forward to developing this relationship, and I know we all look forward to exploring what the future may hold.”
Indeed, the Governors Ball team is not immune to the attractions of a deep-pocketed backer, having themselves partnered with Live Nation’s country music division on the launch of FarmBorough, New York’s first country music festival set for June 26-28 on the Governors Ball site. For now, Governors Ball remains happily independent as it tees up its fifth edition June 5-7, but Wolowitz does not rule out the possibility of a deal down the line.
“My partners and I are all 31 years old,” Wolowitz points out. “We have a lot of goals and things we want to achieve in this business. Perhaps that means taking on a partner that would give us the resources to grow. Perhaps it means we keep our heads down and remain independent. Whatever happens, we’ll make the best decision for Founders.”
Farman believes the festival market is still open enough that an independent could launch a new event just as Superfly and AC did in2002. “I think you will always have innovators in this space,” he says. “Superfly and AC stay independent companies and, as independent companies, absolutely believe that there’s plenty of new opportunities directly in the festival space and around the edges of the live experience, in general.”