Welcome to Festival Outlook, a new supplemental column that will provide more in-depth analysis for the rumors found on Consequence of Sound’s Festival Outlook. In this installment, Alex Young, Frank Mojica, and Dean Essner discuss OutKast’s plans to play 40 different music festivals in 2014 and how it could change the business model for both headlining acts and music festivals going forward.
Alex Young (AY): OutKast first announced their plans to play 40 festivals a couple weeks back, but I guess the idea of them being everywhere this summer didn’t really sink in until last week’s barrage of lineup announcements. In a matter of hours, André and Big Boi were announced as headliners for Governors Ball, Hangout, Firefly, CounterPoint, and Florida’s new Big Guava. Add in Coachella, and that’s six down, 34 to go.
When we first began discussing this column over e-mail, you guys suggested that this is the climax of an oversatured music festival circuit and lack of viable headliners. But I actually think we reached that point several years ago, and instead the biggest takeaway is what appears to be a new business model for festival headliners. As one of the few remaining “unique” gets, OutKast can pretty much do as they please and the route they chose was to ensure 40 big guaranteed paydays. By playing strictly festivals, they need not to worry about booking their own shows and promoting them to ensure sell outs. Regardless of how well the festival does from an attendance standpoint, OutKast has already been paid.
Dean Essner (DE): Well, I think the first question we should address is this: What does this mean for festivals that aren’t big enough or are in too close a proximity to Coachella or Governors Ball to secure OutKast as their headliner? On the surface, we can surmise a natural, perhaps positive sense of differentiation. Not everyone loves OutKast. Some may loathe the duo. This may open up a stronger market for smaller, less popular festivals that didn’t have the budget to book OutKast.
However, the adverse effect is also possible. If OutKast truly did pick the 40 biggest festivals– the ones who were willing to cough up the highest amounts per set– for their tour, then everyone else looks slight and unimportant as a result. A natural tier system for festivals seems to be forming, and this this year’s criteria is simple: OutKast or no OutKast.
Frank Mojica (FM): I wondered if smaller, less popularized festivals were doomed after All Tomorrow’s Parties left the states and FYF became a 30,000 person event in a park. There has been a new wave of more intimate festivals lately, however, with Mountain Oasis and Moog in Asheville and the return of the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville. Festivals such as these should do okay without a headliner like OutKast, but I think it’s the newer, large-scale local festivals like Big Guava and Governors Ball that are going to be feeling the pressure to secure such an act.
When you don’t have the established reputation as a destination event that Coachella has, then you need a big name to help convince tens of thousands of people to attend. It helps if the event in question is located in (or near) a major metropolitan area with a significant number of people that just want some music and that “festival experience.” I don’t think all these festivals will survive by booking the same handful of headliners as everyone else, though. In any case, Florida doesn’t have the best track record for festivals.
I’m interested to see what will happen with the OutKast model next year. If several of these festivals go belly-up, will OutKast be blamed for not being the expected draw? Also, would it be advantageous for a more veteran touring act to do this next year, versus the usual tour of a few festivals and a couple dozen arenas or amphitheaters?
DE: I don’t think OutKast is in a position, at this point, to be blamed for anything. Granted, the reunion hasn’t yet begun, so everything is based solely upon anticipation. But OutKast is OutKast. There’s a reason they’re headlining 40 festivals. Organizers believe in their ability to turn hype into ticket sales. Unless they suck and the early reviews are so off-putting that those considering buying single-day passes to see just them decide against that, I can’t see any see any situation where they’d be at fault.
Also, everything about their current business model– milking the end of their overlong hiatus into a series of massive paydays– is shrewd. All they have to do is show up and play their hits for an hour. And they get to do it 40 times without having to endure a half-empty amphitheater in Utah or North Dakota along the way.
AY: We won’t know for some months whether this OutKast model is successful for festivals, but if I had to predict, I’m going to guess it won’t be. I got some flack a few weeks ago when I suggested that nostalgia is the only reason OutKast was a headliner at Coachella and if they had never broken up, would they still be on the top line in 2014. I just don’t see there being enough of an interest level in seeing OutKast for 40 festivals to sell out. But that’s what these festivals are banking on, because clearly they’re spending a large chunk of their budget on booking them. CounterPoint has no other top level headliner, Firefly’s middle-tier is pretty pedestrian, and, no, Jack Johnson is not a headliner in 2014. Aside from Governors Ball, Hangout managed to book the most decent lineup, but OutKast-The Black Keys-The Killers pales in comparison to 2013’s trio of Tom Petty-Stevie Wonder-Kings of Leon. And we won’t even begin to talk about Big Guava.
OutKast won’t be blamed for the demise of certain festival(s) — in fact, even if several festivals do go under as a result, I still see this being a future business model, especially for a band such as Radiohead, whose mainstream commercial popularity has dwindled in recent years but who still remains a No. 1 headliner for festivals. The festivals who prove creative with their money and book left-field acts will be the ones who live to see another year. That’s what Governors Ball managed to do: they still spent a significant chunk of money on OutKast, but also nabbed Jack White and The Strokes’ first 2014 performances for around the same price as what Hangout probably spent on The Black Keys and The Killers, and still had money leftover to nab more acclaimed acts such as Interpol, TV on the Radio, James Blake, and Damon Albarn. If anything, I think Governors Ball, and not Coachella, should be the model for upstart young festivals, because it has managed to evolve into a top-flight festival without the legacy or the cache while also presumably working with a smaller budget than say Coachella or Lollapalooza.
FM: I can understand some of these newer festivals taking the more pedestrian route because acts such as The Killers and The Black Keys have considerable mainstream appeal, but I think the sameness that is going on will definitely hurt in the long run. I expect to see some of these festivals in our inevitable “Departed Festivals 2: Electric Boogaloo” feature. On a related note, I find it interesting how Jack Johnson has resurfaced as a headliner since he proved a disastrous choice for Coachella and All Points West in 2008.
Someone like Radiohead going the OutKast route would be perfect for these festivals since they are a long-established, proven draw. Also, securing tickets for one of their shows is more of a drama-filled headache than I am currently willing to endure, and that has to be true for a lot of us. Speaking of The Black Keys, am I crazy or have they done 40 festivals a year every other year for a decade now? It certainly feels like it, at least.
For those of us that plan our travels around festivals, having the same few headliners everywhere makes the events less enticing. OutKast playing every event does take some of that luster away from their upcoming Coachella appearance, but living in Southern California, I probably won’t have any other opportunities to see them locally. If I still lived on the east coast, I’d be less inclined to attend, but still would since they are the only American fest that has The Knife and Neutral Milk Hotel, as well as favorites like Warpaint and Little Dragon.
Even with the waves of “who is OutKast?” and “I’ll just see them elsewhere” sentiment, Coachella still sold out in record time, so having ubiquitous headliners won’t hurt them. In the case of Coachella, the balance seems to be shifting away from epic reunions and left-of-center heroes to superstar DJs and mainstream music marketed as indie-friendly, anyway, and the biggest draw seems to be simply being there. People complain whether the headliners are playing every other fest like OutKast, or just every major city in recent memory like Arcade Fire is about to do and Muse spent 2012 and 2013 doing, and even when it’s someone they don’t think is worthy doing an extremely rare performance like The Stone Roses and Blur. Yet despite the complaints, everyone comes out because it’s the place to be.
Headliners aside, what about reunions? Being a fan of a more esoteric band is hell when they reunite and only play one festival (usually Coachella) and a few cities, especially if you’re not near any of them. For that reason, I’d like to see more reunions go the OutKast route, but I wonder how many festivals would even be interested in booking them. For example, I heard All Tomorrow’s Parties unsuccessfully attempted to get Pulp to headline Asbury Park in 2011, but I doubt most medium-to-large American festivals would be interested in such acts. Additionally, sometimes even Coachella won’t land such reunions. Cibo Matto and Failure are inexplicably absent from the bill and have yet to appear on the lineups of any other festivals. If Slowdive is actually announcing a reunion next week, could a stateside tour for someone like them ever include a string of festival appearances?
DE: I think a young upstart festival can survive if it can develop such a niche. For instance, Moog prides itself on the fact that its focus is IDM, with a lineup rounded out by Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder, RJD2, and Laurie Anderson. It may be “intimate” as Frank pointed out, but it’s specialized. It’s the bigger festivals, which usually feature a hodgepodge of rock and hip-hop with no discernible “niche,” that have to be on their toes.
Alex, you mention Governors Ball as a good model for future festivals, but I still worry about its staying power. Remember All Points West, the New York City-based festival that booked Radiohead on the In Rainbows tour in 2008, and Coldplay and a reunited My Bloody Valentine in 2009 that had people calling it the Coachella of the east? It went under after two years. By many standards, it was able to secure a nice mix of big names and “left-field” talent, but it couldn’t survive.
What I’m saying is, perhaps, when you’re not Coachella or Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo or a smaller niche festival, there is no clear-cut formula for sticking around year after year. Festivals must grow and evolve and pick its acts as if this is the last year they’ll exist, and hope that over time, people will continue to show up. Then you become Coachella, where tickets are selling out long before the lineup is even revealed.
AY: 1,700 words later, I think it’s safe to conclude this: Aside from the big four or five and a few niche festivals who embrace their “nicheness”, the festival circuit remains in flux, and the OutKast reunion is just another example of this. Everyone dreams of launching a festival, some people actually make it happen, but far too many promoters find themselves in the red a year later. OutKast gave 39 festivals the chance to “feel like Coachella”, while securing themselves a massive payday. They also probably put a few festivals out of business for 2015.