CAA’s Darryl Eaton On the State of the Music Festival Market & Why Niche Genre Events Are Thriving

As the summer kicks off, the music business is shifting into the 2024 festival season, which has already seen its fair share of surprises. From Coachella only selling 80% of its available inventory, to Lovers & Friends getting canceled over severe weather and the steady growth of genre-specific or niche festivals like Chicago’s Sueños, the market is moving and fans’ tastes are shifting, with promoters, agents, managers and artists all looking to find the right formula to build out the best ecosystem.

At the forefront of all festival booking is CAA’s co-head of North American music Darryl Eaton, who books acts like blink-182, The Weeknd and RBD and helps develop festival booking strategy for major stars and emerging acts. He’s had extensive experience both booking his acts and watching the festival scene in the U.S. grow over the years, as players like Lollapalooza, Coachella and Bonnaroo move from scrappy upstarts to staples of the scene and the market begins to diversify with genre-specific lineups and new, previously-untested locations.

Eaton sat down with Billboard to discuss how the 2024 festival season is faring, the appeal of nice festivals and where festivals fit into artist’s careers. “Things go in cycles,” Eaton says. “Look at Lollapalooza and Governors Ball this year — they had their fastest selling years in a decade. The formula is not black and white.”

How do you feel about the overall state of the festival business right now? 

It’s really good. It’s been strong and growing over the last several years. There are new festivals coming up every year. One that goes up and doesn’t do well, or gets cancelled, or business is off, gets the biggest headlines. But for every one that’s not doing well it seems to be two or three that are coming online that are doing well. Overall, I see it as a growth sector.  

We’re in a state where it is hard to create a new Bonnaroo, Coachella, Lollapalooza — a big, established [festival] — and those legacy brands are great and dominant. But what I’m seeing is a lot of growth in these smaller, niche festivals that are either very genre-specific or in new locations. They are popping up all over the place.  

Why are these newer niche festivals doing so well? 

Hard to say. For instance, there’s Jeffrey Shuman, who curates a couple of these very specific festivals that he puts out. He’s got hard rock festival Sick New World, Lovers and Friends that recently launched, When We Were Young which is a retro punk vibe, Besame Mucho which is Latin-driven. Goldenvoice just put up a new festival called No Values, which is punk rock. All those festivals have done really well.  

They are very targeted: targeted music, targeted demo. They do a good job of creating a lineup that is undeniable. Festivals are driven by the talent. You can have as much vibe out there as possible, but it’s really about who you book that drives sales.  

We saw slower-than-usual Coachella sales this year. Do you think that has anything to do with their lineup or the repetition in lineups for these legacy festivals? 

From a touring standpoint, the business is very cyclical. The right artists dropping the record at the right time is what enables you to get Beyoncé to be your headliner at Coachella. Sometimes the planets don’t align for some of these festivals, that the time period is off for key artists. And sometimes things come together and there’s a lot of available headliners where there is too much to choose from.  

If Coachella was off this year, I don’t think it is indicative of the festival or the talent. Things go in cycles. Look at Lollapalooza and Governors Ball this year — they had their fastest selling years in a decade. The formula is not black and white.  

Where do festivals fit into artist development these days? 

It depends on the artist. Getting in front of a lot of eyeballs at one time is a big part of the draw, both on the way up and when you’re established. Look at blink-182, who is headlining Lollapalooza. Last year, they sold out two nights in Chicago at the United Center and made way more money than you could make playing Lolla as a headliner. But they wanted to be in front of 100,000 people and find new fans and keep regenerating their audience. That’s why some artists will take a bit of a pay cut to play in front of an audience that could be four to five times their draw.  

On the way up, for developing artists it’s about getting in front of people and being around other artists. Having that sense of community in the artist sense is important to a lot of these are artists that play [festivals]. The majority of the reason is to get those eyeballs and, if you’re good, win them over. [When clips of festival performances go viral], it can be like a giant online infomercial for you as a band.  

Is it more lucrative for big artists to be playing festivals over headlining arena tours? Or have increasing ticket prices made it more valuable to stick to their solo tours? 

Post-pandemic demand has been really strong and ticket prices have creeped up. For a lot of artists, it used to be you’d get an offer for a festival and, because it was a one-off and not necessarily part of your tour routing, you would demand fees that were much greater than what you might get if you played the market for a solo tour date. But at the higher end, if you’ve got the demand and you can sell tickets, you can generally make as much if not more doing your own show. So, it’s about strategic desires to get new fans. Artists always aspire to play these festivals because it’s a small group that gets invited to play and it’s a badge of honor.  

It is getting more expensive and more difficult for smaller acts to do their own headlining tours. Do festivals make more sense for them? 

You can’t develop a career only playing festivals. There are some artists who do it. They’re the perennial festival artists that have no hard ticket sales, but for the most part, in order to develop a career and have long-term solid fan bases, you need to be out there earning it — being on the road, selling hard tickets, developing fans.  

Are there any niche festivals that have impressed you lately? 

Some of the ones I mentioned before, like When We Were Young. They did a great job of making an undeniable lineup that captured the imagination of everybody who ever listened to that music for a period of time. They had to be at that show. When they started the one in Las Vegas three years ago, they blew out 65,000 tickets and then added a second show and immediately blew out another 65,000 tickets and then added a third show. Anything that captures that kind of audience with that kind of velocity is impressive.  

Because these lineups are so specific, it seems there can only be so many artists that will fit the bill. Do you think they will be able to sustain that enthusiasm from festivalgoers? 

I don’t know. Thankfully, that’s not my job. [Laughs] That would cause me great stress. But it remains to be seen. I’ve heard rumors about what they are coming up with for this year, but that’s the struggle for the niche festivals. Maybe they do burn out of their lineups over time, but I am sure these festival organizers are already thinking of what might be the next idea, the next niche, the next festival. Someone like Goldenvoice, who does Coachella, they’re always trying to do other festivals and other ideas. You’d think if you had Coachella and Stagecoach, you’d be like, “Yes, we’re good,” but it always seems like they’re hungry to come up with new ideas. There’s a particular addiction for all these festival curators to do more and come up with new and fresher ideas.

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