Urban Music Festivals, Considered

By Tamulonis, Eric | Parks & Recreation, December 2017 | Go to article overview

Urban Music Festivals, Considered


Tamulonis, Eric, Parks & Recreation


Attending the outdoor performance of music, regardless of one's preference, is one of the great pleasures of life. Since the advent of the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, and the iconic counter-culture-defining Woodstock in 1969, outdoor music festivals have been a focus of enjoyment nationally and internationally, and their number has expanded to dozens of major festivals and hundreds of smaller ones.

Rather than losing these events to football stadiums - like the "arena rock" era of the 1970s and '80s - or more rural locations - like Tennessee's Bonnaroo or Indio, California's Coachella - cities are offering up their urban parkland to meet the rising interest in summer music. Some of these include the Governor's Ball on Randall's Island in New York, Lollapalooza in Chicago's Grant Park, the CMA Country Music Festival in Riverfront Park in Nashville, the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park in Austin and Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Many festivals are on non-parkland, such as the Electric Daisy Carnival held in Las Vegas, or are rural, such as the Bonnaroo, Arts and Music Festival in Tennessee, Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California, and others.

Music festivals are a significant urban phenomenon unto themselves. They represent a confluence of popular music industry and urban dynamics trends. Music festivals in our public and private landscapes, urban and rural, have largely escaped systematic consideration perhaps because they are temporary and sometimes inconsistent in location. They are easily overlooked due to their reputation as a voluntary indulgence by those privileged to be able to travel and to spend time and money for the concentrated pleasure of hearing music in a crowd, sometimes referred to as "peak experience." Yet, they are worthy of our attention. Researchers, including Dr. John Crompton of Texas A&M, festival promotion analysts and associated interests have examined the motivations of festivalgoers, both from the academic point of view of the leisure tourism impulse and as a commercial market research subject.

Factors in the Growth of Music Festivals

Several factors have contributed to the growth of music festivals, including the expansion of audiences, their sheer pleasure of attending and the profitability of the venture. At the core of this growth, however, is a sea change in the music industry, with the decline of the traditional recording industry, the evolution of digital media, sharing, outright piracy and dozens of streaming services from major outlets, such as YouTube and Spotify, and smaller ones. With the decline of once more-lucrative recording contracts, touring is now accepted as a major and reasonably sustaining way for musicians of all profiles to make ends meet. In 2002, David Bowie proclaimed: "You better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that's the only unique situation that's going to be left." Because of these trends, 32 million people attended festivals in 2015.

The numbers are worthy of note. A report by IBISWorld places the value of the live music industry (which includes live venues other than festivals) at $28 billion. Although some believe that the trend may have peaked, it remains a major phenomenon. The popularity of music festivals has clearly not escaped the notice of sponsors, who invested $1.34 billion in sponsorships in 2014 and who help make the financial equation work for promoters, bands and festivalgoers. Festivals have grown, diversified, stratified and responded to feedback, such as the need to be more sustainable. From the point of view of public parks management, if planned well, festivals can bring in money, improve the park in which the festival is located or other parks as well, and please year-round park users.

Some Drawbacks and Benefits

While festivalgoers come and go, festivals have a pronounced, albeit largely temporary, impact on our public parks, in social, economic, environmental and, of course, cultural terms. …

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