Is there still room for new festivals? Where are the white spaces? What makes a boutique festival?


Boutique Festivals

Those were the questions addressed by a panel consisting of host Jordan Kurland (Zeitgeist Management/Treasure Island Festival), Ashley Capps (AC Entertainment), Jason Colton (Red Light Management), Rick Farman (Superfly), Terry Groves (Pickathon), Ali Hedrick (The Billions Corp.) and Rich Schaefer (Mick Management).

Farman pointed out that while the space for large-scale events was already very crowded, there was still plenty of room for ideas that hadn’t been expressed through a festival format yet. Schaefer said that “the big festivals are not always the most band-friendly ones.”

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Overlapping timetables made it impossible to see all the acts. At small-scale events one could actually go and see all the bands playing. “It’s also good for the bands,” he said. Groves was asked what made Pickathon stand out from other events: “We ask everyone that’s on the line-up to play twice over two days.

That in itself limits who we can have. We don’t do a headliner-driven draw.” Colton, sensing that Groves was not going to praise his own event, jumped in and said: “It has a point of view, which is one of the things that distinguishes a great boutique festival. It has its niche, it has its community, it has its aesthetic, which has been consistent over the years.”

Kurland then asked Capps, whose company is behind Bonnaroo, why he even bothered making smaller events such as Big Ears. “It’s the opportunity to explore creative ideas on a certain scale,” Capps answered. It also offered a way to highlight two venues AC Entertainment manages in Tennessee: the Tennessee Theatre and the Bijou.

“I was really programming this more like a film festival than a music festival, because music festival are somewhat genre specific. No one goes to a film festival expecting only to see Westerns,” Capps said.

Questioned whether she preferred sending her artists to large or small-sized events, Hedrick said: “It makes sense for the artist to play festivals that actually want them. Otherwise they might get a slot at noon or one, which is not the best thing for an artist.” Kurland said that “very focused, higher-priced, experimental festivals, festivals for a small audience, where it’s not just about music, but also about food etc.,” was where the business was headed. He also brought up events that cater to an older audience.

“When we started Treasure Island in 2007 our idea was to be the music festival for people who don’t like music festivals. Two stages, no overlapping sets.” Added Groves: “You’re always going to be constrained by the income you can generate. If you have a small capacity you’re forced to have expensive tickets, which automatically cuts your audience by a third. Our ticket prices have grown significantly, and our audience is growing really slowly.

“We still don’t sell out. Our weekend tickets [for adults] are nearly $300. To some people that’s shocking, to me that’s just the reality of what it costs to produce an event that’s of higher quality.”

Most people attending Pickathon will camp there all weekend. Only about 500 day-tickets are sold, according to Groves.

“A lot of people treat it as a backyard vacation for a family of four that lives in Portland and maybe doesn’t want to go to Gorge or Yosemite. They’ll have friends for their kids but at the same time they can go and get shit-faced at night and listen to music until 3 a.m. in the morning.” Farman saw opportunities in “things that are highly immersive.

Look at where the theatre space has gone, even film to a certain degree. It’s highly interactive, engaging the audience. A big component of that is technology. The launch of the iPod coincided with the rise of the large festivals, because everybody had all this access to music. An all-you-can-eat live experience was just a perfect match for it.” According to Farman, technology will increasingly create an immersive experience at festivals.

“In the future, you will become enveloped in the event itself,” he said, and added that trying out new things “requires a willingness to fail. As technology evolves there’ll be massive opportunities for amazing, dynamic live experiences.” Virtual Reality is going to play a massive role, according to Farman. He called it a misconception that people would stay at home if they had all these technologies that enabled great home experiences.

“People want to go out.” Schaefer agreed: “Nothing’s going to ever replace the experience of being there.”

Colton welcomed the increasing competition in the market, as it made festivals up their game. “They’re ramping up their marketing, ramping up their backstage experienced,” Colton said. “They’re forced to go pro, or they won’t make it past year one or two.”

Adding the promoter’s view, Capps said: “A rising tide raises all boats. It’s great. Festivals have become a major discovery opportunity for music fans.”

Steve Gumble, who produces the Telluride Blues & Brews festival and was among the crowd, wanted to know how to best convince agents and artists to lower their fees for boutique festivals who couldn’t afford them otherwise. Hedrick pointed out that it depends on the band. “If they only want to play a certain amount of gigs that summer, you cannot really take lower offers.

Also, if they don’t want to route, if they only want one-off events, that makes it hard too,” she said. Colton suggested to invite agents to the festival and to convince them of it, which would make them more inclined to agree to a lower offer. “What do you know now, that you wish you would have known at the start?” was another question from the audience.

Farman’s answer was simple: “Everything.” According to him, it was even good not to know everything from the very start, because that would have probably prevented him from even starting an elaborate project such as Bonnaroo.