With the completion of Austin’s sprawling South by Southwest, festival seasons is officially underway. For country music fans, however, that may mean having to collect refunds on tickets as much as planning trips and lineups.
Since 2016 began, at least six country music festivals have been canceled, including four major events: Farmborough in New York, Big Barrel in Dover, the competing Delaware Junction and Dega Jam in Alabama. Another two were canceled last year.
So has the country music festival bubble burst?
For the most part, the event cancellations come as a complete shock to both artists and fans. Farmborough had its inaugural event last year to rave reviews and over 40,000 attendees. Yet the festival organizers provided very little explanation for canceling, other than, “Conditions dictate that we redirect our energy at this time,” which means that energy most likely went to another festival the organizers put on that was facing competition in the area.
With the number of new high-dollar country festivals popping up over the past five years, it’s fair to immediately assume the supply is outpacing the demand. Just look at Big Barrel and Delaware Junction, two brand new festivals featuring all-star artists taking place about 30 minutes from each other.
While Big Barrel canceled and offered no explanation, Delaware Junction just completely disappeared. The website went down. Delaware officials can’t get ahold of Live Nation or Highway One Group, the two companies responsible for the festival. Even state officials who leased the land for the festival haven’t heard anything.
Another, even more scandalous, fate befell Thunder On The Mountain, a 2015 country music festival scheduled to take place in the beautiful Ozark Mountains in Arkansas. Despite having a skilled production company, a picturesque location and an amazing lineup of mainstream country, red dirt and Americana, the festival was canceled only weeks from the first day.
Artists received emails that basically said, “We can’t tell you why, for legal reasons, though it has nothing to do with ticket sales.” A few super-sleuths on the internet soon found that the parties responsible for the festival were actually suing each other.
So, at best, we get only speculation as to why this sudden new crop of country music festivals wilted within the first few years. Too many too fast? Too expensive? Sponsors pulling out?
A lot of it can be attributed to human error and a fundamental misunderstanding of festival culture.
It’s important to realize that the biggest and most notable music festivals in America started out as passion projects, not cash grabs. Even in the 1950s up in Newport, the jazz and folk festivals were there to provide a service to fans who wanted a chance to gather, appreciate and cultivate.
Events like Coachella started in bars. Lollapalooza was artist-driven. Multi-genre festivals, which are easily the most successful, tap into the “playlist” mentality of music fans.
So when you don’t have a built-in fan base that followed you from day one, and you’re specifically only booking country music, you better be sure you know what you’re doing. And more importantly — that the people you’re looking to for funding trust in the investment of the festival, even if it loses money the first year.
Look at the most successful country music festivals: Stagecoach in California immediately had the trust of the state because it was put on by GoldenVoice, the same folks who do Coachella. The infrastructure was already there. Sponsors were willing to trust in the brand, and country music fans trust in the lineup, which features literally something for every country music fan.
Another highly popular country music festival — CMA Fest in Nashville — has the benefit of artists who all play for free. Why? Because they know all of the funds will go to the CMA Foundation, an organization dedicated to music education. And because the CMAs make it very easy for artists to participate.
So when Thunder On The Mountain — which was put on by the folks who organized the EDM festival Wakarusa, which also went belly up after 11 years — mysteriously cancels and has promoters suing sponsors, you know they’re not operating on the same fundamental understanding of what makes a country music festival so appealing.
And to be clear, country music festivals are still very appealing. There are over 20 major country music festivals scheduled to take place in the U.S. this year alone. And that doesn’t even include Texas, which hosts a smattering of its own Texas country and red dirt music festivals.
Starting small is not a bad thing.
So has the country music festival burst? That depends on your perspective, and whether you bought tickets to one that canceled with no explanation at all. Best rest assured, more will continue to pop up across the country as long as people attend festivals. Their fate relies on whether or not organizers choose to tap into what makes a festival great, as opposed to what makes a festival immediately profitable.
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