[The Music Issue]

Can Vegas take its music festival surge any further?

Fans (and squid) at Electric Daisy Carnival
Photo: Alex Perez

A single weekend marked the beginning of the Las Vegas music festival boom: June 24-26, 2011.

Before then, multi-act and multi-day music events in Southern Nevada were sporadic stops for touring festivals (Warped Tour, even Lollapalooza in ’94), financially challenged (Neon Reverb), poorly planned (Pastel Project), short-lived (48 Hours Festival), outside the Valley (Area 51 Soundtest), and largely either radio promotions (Our Big Concert, Junefest) or niche affairs (Extreme Thing, Punk Rock Bowling, Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend, Las Vegas Jazz Festival, Reggae in the Desert). Our last significant, mainstream-nudging fest, Vegoose, started 72,000 fans strong in 2005 but ended in 2007 after drawing only 46,000.

But on that non-holiday June weekend four years ago, Electric Daisy Carnival began its massively successful run. Defecting from LA after a controversial 2010 edition and welcomed with open arms by then-Mayor Oscar Goodman and Clark County, EDC drew 230,000 to Las Vegas Motor Speedway over three days, eclipsing any of its previous years and, well, most music festivals that year. Last June, EDC’s attendance hit 400,000, making it the biggest festival weekend in the country.

Two years later, a new Downtown musical experience, Life Is Beautiful, emerged, which included the Fremont East Entertainment District in its footprint. And this May, two significant festivals launched: the musically experimental, Burning Man-inspired Further Future, and the first American installment of Rock in Rio, spanning two weekends and christening the MGM Resorts Festival Grounds.

The main stage at Rock in Rio 2015

The main stage at Rock in Rio 2015

That we have dedicated festival grounds—on the Strip, no less—says something about the evolution of the live music experience in Las Vegas. It means other festivals will emerge, like the ACM Party for a Cause, a country music smorgasboard taking place in early April. It’s actually one of two twang-pop fests hosted by MGM—the Route 91 Harvest Fest takes over further down the Boulevard at the MGM Resorts Village next month—that are part of a growing national trend of country music weekenders.

In general, festivals have become a major part of the American concert business, and the overall music industry. Trade publication Pollstar published its Global Festival Calendar with more than 1,200 events in 70 countries. And according to Wondering Sound, 847 of them took place on this continent last year. “On any given weekend through the year, there are festivals taking place across North America,” says Nick L., founder/content manager of Festival Snobs.

We have Southern California’s Coachella to thank. After a vibrant touring festival business flamed out in the late 1990s, and a few months after Woodstock ’99 literally went up in flames, promoter Goldenvoice tested the waters for a European-style music weekend that favored artistry over radio-friendly acts. Fast forward 16 years later to this past April, and Coachella remained at the top of the all-time highest-grossing festival list, with a record-breaking $84 million haul over two weekends.

Some events withhold their grosses, so finding a definitive dollar amount representing the American music festival box office is like finding a face-value EDC pass the day before it begins. But it’s a significant take. According to Forbes, the top five festivals combined to make $183 million just on ticket sales in 2014.

It was only a matter of time before Las Vegas capitalized on the festival surge. As the so-called entertainment capital of the world, we’re already a unique music market. Vegas has more arenas than any city in the U.S. and a fairly large population, Pollstar President and Editor in Chief Gary Bongiovanni points out. “In terms of the size of the city, if a tour is only playing 30 cities, Vegas is probably on that list.” Throw in more than 41 million annual tourists, a formidable hospitality infrastructure, a central location in the Southwest and a relentlessly sunny climate, and it begs the question: Has Las Vegas become a festival destination?

Sort of, says local talent buyer Patrick “Pulsar” Trout. “There are really two music scenes in this town: There’s the tourist music scene (EDM, radio rock) and there’s the local music scene (indie rock, punk, metal, etc.). I think what we have seen in the last few years is festivals coming into town to take advantage of the tourist market, which is certainly a good thing.”

Factors like tourism and infrastructure—or even talent lineup—don’t necessarily make Las Vegas (or any other city) a good festival town, according to Bongiovanni. He argues it’s the festival sites and the atmosphere produced. “EDC is a perfect example where the environment is what counts, and not so much the DJs. [Insomniac] lights the grounds up and creates sub-environments.”

Bongiovanni adds that the verdict is still out on the venues for Rock in Rio and Life Is Beautiful. For the former, it was not only the first American Rock in Rio, but the first time the MGM Resorts Festival Grounds were used. For LIB, he cites its “urban nature” as a significant aspect of its potential appeal.

Much excitement followed the initial announcements of those two festivals, but they haven’t done gangbusters business. Though Rock in Rio drew 172,000 over four days (spread over two weekends), daily attendance never approached the venue’s 80,000 capacity. Life Is Beautiful has yet to eclipse the 30,000 daily-attendance mark despite headliners like Kanye West, Foo Fighters and The Killers, and rumors of soft sales this year are spurring speculation that it will be three-and-done, à la Vegoose.

The popular counterpoint to soft ticket sales is that Coachella didn’t break even until its fourth edition. “In general, most major fests lose money in first, second, even third years,” Bongiovanni says. “They either go away or turn the corner and become established.” That Rock in Rio wasn’t a success out of the box is a detail he says isn’t relevant.

What is, and also a popular topic: the festival bubble bursting. The national market has been saturated for some time; Vegoose organizers cited the festival glut as a primary reason for its demise. Other potential threats to the business: festival consolidation by mega-promoters; headliner fatigue and lineup similarity; radius clauses preventing participating acts from playing the area for months around the event; rising performer fees; and, for Nevada in particular, fallout from the Live Entertainment Tax expansion passed by the legislature earlier this year.

Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello at Vegoose 2007

Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello at Vegoose 2007

But the future could look bright for Las Vegas events with the right strategies, especially if they target locals. Though Trout wonders if more locally geared festivals are financially viable—we’ll see how the expanded Wine Amplified fares during its 10th edition October 9 and 10—he makes the case that Rock in Rio suffered by not advertising or offering ticket discounts specifically to locals. Bongiovanni also emphasizes the need for residential patronage. “The local population has to support the festival. It may be the out of towners that put it over the top, but without locals’ support, it falls apart.”

Niche festivals might also be more of a sure thing. This weekend brings us the second Big Blues Bender, focused on the underserved blues market with acts like Buddy Guy and Walter Trout. Reggae in the Desert has thrived since its 2002 debut. Punk Rock Bowling has increased in size every year since its 1999 inception and 2011 relocation Downtown. And events like Further Future are trending nationally. “Boutique or ‘transformational’ festivals are certainly catching on,” Nick L. says. “They’re typically not near as demanding as some of the major festivals, and offer unique aspects such as speakers, yoga or soul building.”

And Bongiovanni isn’t the only one stressing the importance of a standout setting, especially when it comes to Life Is Beautiful. “I’ve never really explored Downtown Las Vegas in previous trips, so the concept of taking over city streets to host the festival sounded pretty exciting,” says Nick L., who included LIB among his many festival excursions last year. “The experience was certainly unlike any music festival I’d previously attended. The way organizers encompassed Downtown streets and businesses into their festival was fascinating—not to mention the gorgeous street-art murals on the sides of buildings.”

And then there’s the no-brainer of producing singular events one can only experience in Las Vegas. Though LA’s EDC has thrived here, programming the initially jam-friendly Vegoose more like Coachella clearly hurt its chances of surviving. Vegas needs unique events—especially given the uniqueness of Vegas itself.

“I think the biggest mistake made is people assuming that if something works in LA, Austin or Nashville, it will work here,” Trout says. “A festival isn’t going to succeed here by being a carbon copy of another one. Vegas has succeeded because it’s different from any other experience you can have in this country. We need to keep that in mind when we’re looking at festivals, too.”

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