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As Audiences Change, Successful Music Festivals Need More Than Good Tunes and Dry Weather

Josh Florence breathed a sigh of relief on the morning of this year’s Homegrown Music and Arts Festival. The annual event he organizes had been scheduled to host its 10th installment the day before, Saturday, April 13, at Dallas’ Main Street Garden Park, but was postponed less then 48 hours ahead of time because of weather. Even with a sunny forecast, Florence couldn’t be sure the gamble would pay off until Sunday rolled around.

“That point always comes. There’s a certain point throughout the day where I’m like, ‘OK, man, it looks like we’re going to pull this thing off and make it out alive,’” says Florence, who is also a co-owner of several local businesses including Deep Ellum’s Club Dada and Independent Bar & Kitchen. “I woke up that morning, saw the weather report and saw what a beautiful morning it was, and I felt good. I knew instantly that we’d made the right call.”

The stakes were higher than normal this year for Florence and his team, which first hosted Homegrown at the downtown park space in 2010. Sales tanked so badly at last year’s festival that Florence had issued a last-minute call for help getting the word out, even offering free tickets to bring in people. The festival already needed to rebound this year, so torrential rain that struck on the scheduled Saturday came at the worst possible time.

“I was out at the park during the storm all day Saturday and there were about 6 inches of water throughout parts of the park. The city invested in a top-end drainage system in that park several years ago and, man, that sucker works,” Florence says, marveling. “The next morning there were a few spots with puddles but they squeegeed those into the drains. Beyond that, it was not soggy. I thought I’d walk out into a mud pit but it was in pretty good shape.”

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Long established as one of North Texas’ most popular boutique music festivals, allowing for only a few thousand attendees, Homegrown’s recent struggles help to underline just how tenuous the festival business can be. Plenty of others have failed in recent years, like the Bulladora Music Experience, which was sunk by rainstorms on its first try in 2016, and the following year’s Starfest, an ill-conceived “pop-up” that never came close to taking place. The latter garnered comparisons to the now-infamous Fyre Festival in the Bahamas that landed its founder, Billy McFarland, in prison.

Others have had similarly checkered fates, from the poorly attended, one-and-done Dallas Music District Fest of 2015, which changed locations because of weather, and the far more credible Suburbia Music Festival, which collapsed after one year when mega-promoter LiveNation pulled its support. Even otherwise successful events like Denton’s 35 Denton and Oaktopia or the multicity Untapped, the combination beer and music festival that sold out its first year in 2012, have come and gone.

Yet Homegrown kicks off the area’s busiest time of year for music festivals, with Fort Worth’s Fortress Festival taking place near the Modern Art Museum this Saturday and Sunday. Newly minted Grammy winner Leon Bridges headlines Fortress Festival, making his first festival appearance in his hometown. A week later comes JMBLYA at Dallas’ Fair Park, and a week after that an ambitious new “luxury” venture called KAABOO Texas at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, which already has other locations in San Diego and the Cayman Islands.

So is there still room for growth among festivals in Dallas-Fort Worth — the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the United States — or are these promoters doomed to face an uphill battle in a sprawling and indifferent market?

“I don’t think (those failed festivals) are reflective of the market,” says Scott Osburn, co-founder of Lights All Night, the electronic music festival that takes place each New Year’s at Dallas Market Hall and celebrates its own 10th year later in 2019. “The festival business is really hard. It’s more difficult today, realistically, than it’s ever been just because there’s so much more content out there and so many other festivals. The festivals out there need to be capitalized properly, have the proper teams in place and understand the markets really well. Probably the defining factor is just understanding the market.”

That changing landscape is hardly confined to Dallas. Once successful festivals like Houston’s Free Press Summer Fest (later known as In Bloom) and Day for Night have gone out of business, in the latter’s case because of allegations of sexual misconduct by its founder. Even Austin isn’t immune, with Sound on Sound Fest, the successor of sorts to the hugely popular Fun Fun Fun Fest, stopping after two years.

“I think that, in general, festivals are shrinking and the festival market is shrinking across the country,” says Graham Williams, who founded first Transmission Events, which held Fun Fun Fun, and now runs Margin Walker, which hosted Sound on Sound. Though he’s based in Austin, Williams’ company has a team in Dallas.

Williams suspects these failures come down to broader logistical trends. “It could be the increase in touring acts playing venues throughout the year that makes them less available for festivals, as record sales have dropped and being on the road has become a financial necessity,” he says. “Or the new rules [that] promoters and producers are facing: due to so many cancelled festivals over the past five years, agents, artists and production companies are requiring more and more upfront payments that limit the spending ability for festivals. … So many independent festivals have stopped due to not having the ‘bank’ to back its costs.”

Spune Productions ran both Untapped and Index Festival, which combined a daytime, outdoor festival space on the edge of Deep Ellum with nighttime gigs in several neighborhood venues, the latter of which is similar to the long-running Not So Fun Wknd and, in previous incarnations, Elm St. Music & Tattoo Festival. But, in addition to logistical issues, Spune marketing director Annette Marin admits Index, in particular, succumbed to growing too fast, having extended to a third day in its last year, 2014.

“Sundays are difficult in DFW. If you ask me, one of the biggest mistakes we made on Index was extending the event to a third day. There were many logical reasons we did it, but that day fell very flat for us,” Marin says. “We lost a lot of money and a lot of times it was our own money, and unless you’re fully funded, it’s just hard to sustain when you grow too fast. That’s the moral of [Index’s] story when I look back on that time and what we did wrong.”

But Williams believe the nature of music festivals themselves has been changing in different years, as well. “New and different ideas and concepts around what a fest is and what a fest can be or even should be will end up as the future of festivals,” he says. “At some point, there is disinterest in a field or parking lots with a few stages. It works great with a younger demo, who aren’t as picky, but harder to gain traction with folks that go out more and have more to compare the experience to.”

Crowds at JMBLYA in 2017EXPAND
Crowds at JMBLYA in 2017
Roderick Pullum

Fortress, which has carved out a niche of its own as the only game in Cowtown, set out to provide something different by marrying its musical concept with a visual art aesthetic grounded in Fort Worth’s arts district. But it had to learn from some mistakes in its first year, 2017, when fans complained about the long walk between the two stages — one at Will Rogers Memorial Center and the other at the Modern Museum of Art. Those were pared down to just the former location last year, where its two stages are now set facing one another.

“Our eyes were bigger than our stomachs in year one,” admits Fortress co-founder Alec Jhangiani, who figures the first year’s arrangement would have been more fitting for a fourth or fifth year. But the core vision, of a meeting between art and music, stayed intact, with last year seeing the addition of installations curated by Art Tooth. Jhangiani points toward Solange’s 2017 performance in Marfa with artist Donald Judd as a reference point.

“I felt that first year was a little bit of us trying to impose live music onto an art museum in a bit of a rudimentary way. What we realized was we want to be a little more organic,” Jhangiani says. “It’s not at all like Burning Man (in Nevada), where the art installations are very much festival(-like) installations. Instead, what we want are museum and gallery pieces that work in a more ephemeral event, where you have to be in this time and this place to experience this artwork.”

Lights All Night has adopted a similar approach to its indoor venue, which Osburn says was inspired by European warehouse parties. Last year’s event took the interactive components to another level, with art installations provided by Sweet Tooth and an e-sports gaming lounge provided by Swedish tech company DreamHack. “What our fans really care about is the experience of coming in with friends and meeting new people, and not just standing in front of a stage and watching a concert. They want to walk throughout the space and be able to be a part of different parts of the art elements,” Osburn says.

KAABOO, which has forged a partnership with the family of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, is taking that eclecticism in a different direction with its self-proclaimed “something for everyone” mix of music, art, comedy and culinary programming. Its six stages will be split between the interior and exterior of AT&T Stadium, including a comedy club with bottle service and a Las Vegas-style lounge. With four tiers of tickets ranging from $299 three-day passes to $20,000 “Ultimate Hang” VIP passes, KAABOO labels itself as a “hospitality driven” festival.

“KAABOO is very different in the experience it’s offering in that it appeals to an adult demographic. An adult is maybe educated, has a job and still loves music, but doesn’t want the dust and dirt and port-o-potties and camping aspect of what a typical festival may bring. An adult maybe has a nostalgic sense of music, and wants to hear the music they grew up hearing in combination with Top 40 hits,” says KAABOO chief brand and marketing officer Jason Felts.

While KAABOO’s other events are held in coastal and destination areas, Felts, who grew up in the Dallas area, says North Texas has several things going in its favor. “We were really looking for an underserved market that had a large, core adult demographic in a major-market city,” he says. “We were also looking for world-class partners, partners who understood the market, partners who had a venue that made sense, and that’s obviously the Jones family. While they own and operate one of the best sports franchises in the world, they really do have a like-minded approach to delivering a live entertainment experience.”

With a hodgepodge of artists ranging from Sting, Lionel Richie and Lynyrd Skynyrd to the Killers, Kid Rock and Pitbull, plus comedians such as Dennis Miller and Dmitri Martin, KAABOO’s Texas lineup has raised some eyebrows. But, among other festival promoters, there seems to be a belief that Dallas can at least support a large-scale festival of KAABOO’s footprint. “It takes the right formula, but I do feel like there’s room in this market for a marquee, gigantic festival,” Florence says. “I [just] don’t know that there’s the perfect location for a real big, ACL-style fest here. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out in Arlington with KAABOO. But to me, with a big, outdoor festival, you have to have grass under you feet. You can‘t be on concrete.”

Felts has no such concerns, although he downplays expectations slightly for KAABOO’s first year in the area. “This year is a test year for us from the perspective that we’ll see what the market responds to and we’ll know what people are gravitating towards. … This will be a great opportunity, essentially, to determine what the metroplex is craving, then respond and plan accordingly for next year,” he says. “KAABOO and our partners, the Jerry Jones family, have made a long-term commitment to Texas and to the metroplex, and we’re here to stay. So seeing is believing.”

Fortress Fest's inaugural year in Fort WorthEXPAND
Fortress Fest's inaugural year in Fort Worth
Mikel Galicia

Booking the right acts is still the best way to bring in fans. Lights All Night, having made its own one-off effort to set up a satellite event in El Paso in 2016 (and before that, in Mexico City in 2013), has doubled down on maximizing its appeal.

“This year we sat down and said we’re an EDM fest, that’s what we’ve been branded as, that’s our core audience, and to really build that audience we have to hit the serious ticket buyer [so that] someone within any part of the state of Texas will look and say, ‘Wow, I cannot justify missing that,’” says Osburn, estimating that about 25 percent of LAN’s ticket sales come from outside North Texas. “It’s not easy to do. A lot of times it comes down to available talent, routing and radius clauses.”

Ironically, another potential hindrance, particularly for smaller festivals like Homegrown, is the success of local musicians. Having already put its companion event, Old 97’s County Fair, on hold — Florence admits the two events “cannibalized” each other — he says Homegrown may move away from its Texas-only format. “Moving forward, we will always have a lot of Texas flavor, but I don’t know that this is something that will be just Texas-based anymore because the list is limited by what we can afford. [Our budget] excludes us from a Gary Clark Jr., Leon Bridges, Willie Nelson, Beyonce. We‘re not in that level,” Florence says.

As artists like Clark or Bridges earn wider acclaim, especially by winning major awards, that drives up the cost. “What compounds that even more is they’re playing in their backyard, where they make the most money. Until they break out and become a national and international act, the hometown play is going to be where they sell the most tickets,” Florence says.

Being such a high-risk business with ever-narrow margins, even the most experienced promoters can get it wrong from time to time. Florence admits he got ahead of himself in recent years.

“For several years now, making it to 10 years has been a big deal to me. It feels very symmetrical and balanced. It’s literally been a decade of our lives. Once we’d gotten past year five, I wanted to make it to year 10, and it actually affected us last year a bit,” Florence says. “I really wanted to make it to year 10 and I’m glad we did. We started with a clean slate and ended up doing just fine.”

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