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The Coachella Festival

Rocked by recession, music festivals are rolling over

Hard times are forcing some events to cancel or go on hiatus. Coachella seems to be humming right along.

April 17, 2009|Chris Lee

The shaky economy is rattling the summer music festival.

In the months leading up to the Southland's premier concert event, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival -- which kicks off its 10th edition in Indio today with performances by such pop luminaries as Paul McCartney and Leonard Cohen -- recession-era fiscal realities have led to a string of cancellations by respected festivals.

Florida's Langerado Music Festival was canceled because of poor ticket sales. The San Francisco Blues Festival took a year off (with doubt cast on its return in 2010) because of a drop-off in corporate sponsorships. And because of anticipated cuts in state arts funding, the Appel Farm Arts and Music Festival in New Jersey went on hiatus, with plans to instead stage a benefit concert in a year that would have been its 20th anniversary.

Scotland's Hydro Connect Festival and Red List Live in Britain also fell victim to the economic climate.

And after undergoing changes to stay afloat in recent years -- making general admission free in 2007 and scaling down to become a one-day festival last year -- Ozzfest '09 was canceled because of headliner Ozzy Osbourne's decision to spend time in the recording studio.

"The economy was the thing that finalized our decision," said Sean Timmons, artistic director of the Appel Farm Arts & Music Center. "It's an expensive event to put on, and therefore could be an expensive loss. It made sense to take a year off and reposition the event."

Festival organizers across the continent are voicing concerns that tough times could soften ticket sales in an era when corporate sponsorships -- a critical source of revenue -- are increasingly difficult to secure and competition to book performers with proven box-office drawing power has never been more fierce.

Although some sectors of the concert industry are showing surprisingly healthy returns, as the dollar strengthens against the euro and the British pound, event organizers worry about a decline in European attendees. As a result, many festivals are slashing ticket prices and placing new emphasis on "value" to lure festival-goers.

"We're really conscious about keeping prices either the same or lower than last year with tickets, merchandise, beer and concessions," said Del Williams, executive producer of Columbus, Ohio's Rock on the Range Festival. "We want to be sensitive to what people are going through and not make it a hardship to go to the show."

For its part, Coachella -- which has been pulling in crowds of up to 140,000 in recent years -- began offering a layaway plan to pay for three-day tickets (which cost $269) and onsite camping tickets this year; Stagecoach, Coachella's country music counterpart, which will be held at the Empire Polo Field later this month, offers the same deal.

"We want to give people six to nine months to make payments," said Coachella founder Paul Tollett. "If we can make it easier on this concert crowd, we'll take steps to make that happen."

Producers for the Voodoo Experience Music Festival in New Orleans dropped all ticketing and handling fees.

And Pasquale Rotella, chief executive of Insomniac, the firm behind the Electric Daisy Carnival, an electronica festival in Los Angeles that drew 65,000 people last year, said the event plans to increase the number of performers and slash ticket prices from $130 to $99 for a two-day pass this year.

"People are feeling tapped," Rotella said. "But we are going a lot bigger, spending a lot more money while still keeping the price down. We are trying to help people by being conscious of our ticket prices."

In recent years, outdoor music festivals have proliferated across North America, many attempting to replicate the financial success and cultural sweep of Coachella.

"Large footprint" multi-genre music festivals such as the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Tennessee, Michigan's Rothbury Festival, Lollapalooza in Chicago and New Jersey's All Points West Music & Arts Festival have become a rite of summer.

They offer all-star rosters of rock, electronica, country or jazz acts -- sometimes all of the above -- performing on multiple stages over the course of a day or long weekend, often in far-flung "destination" locales.

But Chang Weisberg, owner of Guerilla Union, said the event and marketing firm behind the successful touring hip-hop festival Rock the Bells, the market simply isn't big enough to support so many events.

"There are so many festivals in the multi-genre format, there's a lot of fatigue in the market," Weisberg said. "Langerado -- that's scary to see a major festival can fail due to lack of ticket sales. But the competition is so stiff. . . . They are all chasing the same acts."

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