What sponsors can learn from music festival flops

Phoenix Festival, RIP. Universe 98, RIP, Gay Pride, RIP. It was to have been the most exciting musical summer ever staged, with a line of sponsors to rival the line-up of bands. But something has gone horribly wrong.

Yes, the weather’s been foul. Yes, the World Cup has eaten three lions’ share of mind. Yes, promoters can be as dodgy as sponsors can be demanding. Yes, there’s clearly trouble in the music industry when Wembley Stadium can only find half the number of acts it has staged in recent years. These are contributing factors to the carnage in festivaldom. Yet many of these are short-term, circumstantial issues and sponsors and promoters alike are holding out for a better summer next year. Out goes Beckham, in comes Beck. Out goes Owen, in comes Oasis. Roll on ’99.

There’s a deeper problem with festivals, however: there are simply too many of them. We now have 16 festivals at an average ticket price of over 50. Supply hugely exceeds demand. Why? It’s time we stopped blaming the weather and took responsibility for this situation. The glut has arisen because sponsors have been desperate to use trendy tools to target trendy audiences, and they have made budgets available for promoters to drive supply upwards. We have not considered that our audience may simply not want more festivals.

Oversupply or “jumping on the bandwagon” is a curse which dogs youth marketing. What ultimately happens is that so many of us jump on said bandwagon that the wheels fall off. The moment one alcopop appears on the market, a hundred others battle for shelf space. The moment one bank creates a dedicated student account, the entire high street starts promoting trendy financial services. This would be acceptable if there were a relevant differentiation between the products, but there’s seldom a substantial difference.

In exactly the same way, festivals have become much of a muchness. The same bands, the same sponsors, the same levels of personal hygiene. And in a couple of weeks we’ll see the same compilation CDs, cover-mounted on music magazines.

Is there a solution? In theory, the answer is simple. We need to hold back from making short-term, tactical decisions and “jumping on the bandwagon”. We need to understand this market better and assess realistic levels of demand. We need to differentiate our products in a way which is relevant to the audience. In short, we need to develop a coherent, long-term strategy for targeting young audiences.

It’s worth noting that this has been a fantastic summer for those who have not succumbed to short-term hype. Tickets for Glastonbury sold out very early. Womad, the world festival, sold out. And beyond music, the Edinburgh Festival has enjoyed greater attendance than ever before. Each of these has created a long-term relationship with their audiences and offered a relevant, differentiated opportunity. As marketers, we could take a leaf out of their books, both in terms of the products we create and the activities we sponsor.

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