Why Artists Shouldn’t Rely Solely on Music Festivals
by Denisha Kuhlor
Each year consumers are plagued with more and more festivals. At this point, festivals seem to exist for practically every niche. Whether you are attending Lovers and Friends, Afronation, or even the Amapiano Festival there is something out there for everyone.
Festivals have become so popular that many artists have even created their own namesake festivals (e.g. Drake’s OVO Fest, J.Cole’s Dreamville Fest, and Tyler the Creators Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival). The continued growth of festivals has created an advantageous opportunity for artists who, thanks to their booking guarantee, can largely financially derisk performing in that market.
When an artist is booked for a festival it allows them to enjoy the financial upside of guaranteed revenue regardless of whether they have an engaged enough fanbase to justify performing in that market in the first place. As a result, there is a growing number of artists whose live performance strategy is heavily focused on getting booked at festivals versus selling tickets for shows that they headline (a much slower and steady approach).
While this strategy initially appears to be very appealing, diving deeper it becomes apparent that the short-term upside (largely financial) has real impacts for the long term. This strategy heavily impacts the rate at which an artist’s ability to grow an engaged fanbase, hone their performance, creative direction, and stage presence, and have hard quantitative metrics to point to around audience conversion.
How Festivals Have Impacted the Consumer
In addition to impacting artists’ live performance strategies, more music festivals being produced have influenced how consumers patronize live music. On a price per artist analysis, festival tickets provide a value that makes it hard for any artist headlining their own show (even if they have openers) to compete with.
The rise of social media has greatly contributed to the growth of festivals. These festivals grew beyond their lineups and heavily pioneered what we know as “festival fashion” today. As a result, many clothing brands were born to serve this consumer including Cult Gaia and Revolve. When Revolve went public in June 2019 it mentioned Coachella seven times in its S-1 highlighting the impact of the festival on the company’s bottom line.
With consumers being inundated with large lineup festivals, the bar for a fan to pay and see an individual act has gotten much higher. While both festivals and concerts rely on ticket sales and in-person purchases such as alcohol, food, and merchandise, festivals hedge their bets by prioritizing and designing a lineup that isn’t contingent on any single artist to ensure they maximize attendance. This strategy allows festivals to build their own brand with consumers who have an affinity to the festival versus the lineup. For a smaller artist, the festival is going to sell tickets regardless of their performance as attendees are there for the festival versus the individual artist.
The largest immeasurable factor that artists need to take into consideration with heavy festival shows is the exponential effect they have on consumer sentiment. Given that festivals optimize for a broad audience, the festival serves as the point of introduction to potential fans, making the stakes much higher. Energy is contagious (and so is the lack thereof) so if an artist has a set that isn’t well-received or not met with much fanfare, the artist suffers decreased sentiment amongst the attendees, especially in a social media era with the broader public.
Some attendees of the hip-hop festival Rolling Loud took to Twitter with clips that showed rapper Coi Leray’s set, citing a lack of audience receptiveness and commenting on her overall stage presence. For a new artist, festivals are a challenging place to convert fans as not only are you being judged on your stage presence but essentially being stack ranked against the rest of the performers similar to a competition show. It is easier to convert a casual listener into a fan if they attend a highly engaged show focused on the artist versus converting an individual who just witnessed an artist’s festival performance that had a lukewarm reception.
If you were an artist would you want to attempt to convert 10,000 festival attendees (most likely passing time before the headliner) into casual fans or 2,000 casual fans at your own concert into superfans?
Furthermore, live performances force artists to confront the dissonance that exists between their perceived online fanbase versus their actual fanbase. It is a hard pill to swallow when you think of your fanbase as encapsulating your 2 million social media followers when in reality you are having trouble packing a 2,000-capacity show.
This dissonance maintains its ambiguity when an artist is heavily reliant on festivals as they very rarely witness how many people come out for shows where they are the sole headliner.
Out of Necessity, African Artists Prioritize Carrying Their Own Shows
The music coming out of Africa is finally taking center stage globally. All the major labels now have an office on the continent. Nigerian artist Wizkid has sold out multiple shows at The O2 Arena in London, and Nigerian singer Tems just debuted at number one for her song with Future and Drake, “Wait For You.”
Before the world truly took notice, many African artists prioritized developing their stage presence and carrying a show on their own as it was essential to their survival. Looking at performance trends for many African artists, while some of the biggest artists are selling out arenas now, their initial performances reveal very humble beginnings.
Being overlooked by festivals abroad, artists often looked beyond festival promoters to book them. Many up-and-coming artists perform at birthday parties, weddings, and nightclubs to generate revenue and grow their fanbase. Once their brand awareness grows amongst the African diaspora these artists turn to tours at small venues in the United States and Europe.
Nigerian Afro-fusion superstar, Burna Boy, represents how focusing on headlining your own show in a market can set the stage for stardom. Burna recently made history as the first Nigerian artist to headline Madison Square Garden. The show, which according to sold 13,586 (100%) tickets generated $1,576,641 in revenue with an average ticket price of $116.05. During the show, Burna thanked his New York fans for following his journey amongst multiple venues stating:
“I want to thank you New York for riding with me through this journey. My New York journey started from Playstation Theater (2,100 capacity), then moved to Gramercy Theater (499), then moved to the Apollo (1,506), and then we did Prospect Park (9,000) for free and today we are in Madison Square Garden (20,789).”
Let’s take a closer look at this venue progression by capacity:
“We took the stairs,” Bose says, quoting her son’s description of the slow path he was forced to take in the live sector. “We didn’t do any elevators. We spent a lot of time and money planning to go around the world. We ran through the label’s tour support pretty quickly, so we were using money he’s making from shows in other places, particularly in Africa, to bankroll our initial touring. Yes, it has been hard, but there is no way we’re performing 16,000 to 20,000 capacity venues when we didn’t start with 3,000.”
This strategy has continued to pay off with many of the top artists selling out large venues many times over (Davido selling out the O2, Wizkid selling out the O2 (16,938 tickets) three nights in a row, and having a sold-out U.S amphitheater-level tour). Additionally, now that music from the continent has really hit the main stage, these artists are also getting booked at major festivals including Coachella, Dreamville Fest, and Afronation.
How Cardi B Harnesses the Moment
On the corollary, hip-hop star Cardi B has taken a different approach. Cardi B dropped jaws everywhere when she temporarily posted her shows (and booking fee) lineup in 2019 in response to people asking why she hasn’t been on tour.
In the caption, Cardi explained that her take-home earnings after expenses performing in markets as part of her own solo shows paled in comparison to the guarantees she gets for festivals. Time will tell what Cardi’s attendance will look like if she does a tour alongside her second album. Interestingly enough Cardi B’s extensive festival shows have allowed her to essentially A/B test many aspects of her show. Whether incorporating stripper poles into her performance at Coachella (leading her to spend more on stage design than the amount she made from performing) or wearing a Nigerian flag-inspired outfit for her performance in Lagos. Cardi B has definitely experimented with her set and overall show.
When Cardi does go on her own headlining tour I anticipate that she will incorporate all her learnings from her festival shows over the year while turning the show into bringing along many of her past collaborators and artists she simply admires. While her super fans will definitely be happy, I anticipate many people will buy a ticket simply to have a good time, something Cardi is well known for.
The Right Answer Lies Within an Artist’s Strategy and Long-Term Goals
There is no perfect science to live performances as an artist. It comes down to the artists’ short-term and long-term goals and prioritizing performances that align with that strategy. Artists who prioritize a festival-first strategy run the risk of overconsumption when they do decide to go on tour as the consumer has already seen them. Headlining their own shows provides artists with the greatest opportunity to deeply engage with their fans and convert listeners into new fans. A strong track record of headlining shows comes in handy when negotiating an artist’s booking fee when they do perform at festivals.
With Coachella doling out as much as $4 million to headliners, investing in smaller shows initially can definitely pay off. A mix of both may be the best approach. Tours and solo shows provide the best path to building a highly engaged fanbase, while festivals give artists exposure to a wider audience and an additional income stream.