Reimagining music festivals for new generation: Not making profits, organizers look to new ideas for events
“I know it’s hot, but everyone, I want you to put your arms around people next to you because we are Grouplove and that’s what Grouplove is about,” lead singer Hannah Hooper shouted to the audience.
Nobody seemed to mind the sweaty strangers next to them, instead throwing their arms around one another with a speed that made the whole thing seem pre-planned. Soon, everyone was dancing in circles together and singing along.
Koreans are famously enthusiastic audiences, and many high-profile foreign artists who visit for the first time say they wish they’d performed here sooner, the festival’s organizers said.
With both artists and attendees having such positive experiences, it’d stand to reason that festivals around the country are making money by the fistful.
Not quite. Most festivals here, especially those featuring foreign artists, are actually in the red.
Incheon Pentaport Rock Festival, the country’s longest-running music festival, has never turned a profit. Established in 1999 as the Triport Rock Festival, the event’s debut met an unfortunate fate. Due to the worst typhoon in the city’s history, the country’s first international festival was a washout. In 2006, the festival was revived under a new name with the backing of the Incheon city government.
Inviting rock stars from around the world as headliners to attract festivalgoers comes at a high price. According to industry insiders, festivals that invite foreign artists often spend nearly 1 billion won ($890,000), and even if they have large conglomerates as main sponsors, they’ll likely barely cover costs.
But if they spend more than 1 billion won, they are bound to run up a deficit.
In an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo last year, Joon Ahn, head of entertainment powerhouse CJ E&M’s music division, said the conglomerate “doesn’t earn much from the Ansan Valley Rock Festival, to be honest.”
“But if we don’t do it, who would spend so much money on such a rock festival?” he continued. “We’re taking on the mission with a sense of duty. Even though some people are critical and say that CJ is holding the Ansan Valley Rock Festival to display a lot of ads [for profit], we actually use the money we earn from ads to pay booking fees to the participating musicians. Our company’s goal is to have the best festival in Asia so that people from abroad visit Korea to enjoy the show.”
According to Ha Jae-geun, a well-known cultural critic, “Korea is a fairly young country in terms of organizing music festivals so it’s quite natural to see such fierce competition. It seems like a lucrative business, so eager businesses jump in even though festivals are losing money at the moment. The time will come when only a few festivals survive and make profit.”
However, Ha added that “since the market is so saturated, and because there’s such fierce competition to bring in popular artists from abroad, there has been an absurd increase in artists’ booking fees. As a result, festival organizers need to look for more creative ways to attract people to their events.”
Some festivals have tried to find a solution through expanding their audiences by inviting artists from other genres. A successful example is the Seoul Jazz Festival, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. Although most festival organizers refuse to disclose exact figures, it has been widely speculated by industry insiders that the Seoul Jazz Festival is the only profitable international festival in Korea at the moment.
This year’s three-day festival kicked off on May 27, showcasing renowned jazz artists such as Jamie Cullum, Pat Metheny, and The Nat King Cole Trio at Olympic Park in eastern Seoul. To diversify the festival’s offerings, in recent years the organisers haev invited artists from diverse genres including R&B and pop, as well as electronic dance music and hip-hop.
Jazz fans dismayed with the change in lineups have complained that “there’s no jazz at the jazz festival.” However, the mixture of artists has encouraged more people to come to the festival.
“I don’t really know much about jazz so I didn’t even think about going to the festival, but my friend suggested that we go together because there are artists from other genres that I like such as Korean rocker Jung Joon-young or singer-songwriter Erik Nam,” said Kim Ji-yeon, a 29 year old from Seoul.
The organizers explained that the jazz scene is still quite limited in Korea. As a result, there’s not much choice for them to “diversify the jazz festival’s lineup and grow attendance while expanding the audience for jazz at the same time.”
Seeing the Seoul Jazz Festival’s success, other festivals began to follow suit. Incheon Pentaport Rock Festival has recently been inviting rappers and Korean indie musicians to perform. At this year’s festival, one time slot of the main stage was dedicated to hip-hop artist like Zion T and Microdot on the first night and indie musicians like 10cm and Rooftop Moonlight the next, in addition to foreign rock bands like Weezer and Suede.
In October, a new kind of festival will debut in Korea. The Seoul Fashion Festival will fuse fashion and music into one festival. Runways will turn into stages and artists will perform while models and celebrities donning the trendiest outfits and accessories designed by young local designers walk down the catwalk. There will be booths for food and beer as well.
Noticing how young Korean festivalgoers wear their most fashionable items for events, VU Entertainment, the festival’s organizer, said it decided to create a new kind of event that will appeal to young people.
“Many young Koreans, even though they are not fashion students or in the fashion business, go to Seoul Fashion Week to enjoy the atmosphere,” said Moon Jeong-eun, a PR official from the festival organizer. “By turning this culture into a music festival, as music has always been an important part of fashion shows, we thought that the general public could really enjoy the latest fashion alongside great music.”
According to VU Entertainment, the venue has been confirmed for central Seoul, but the exact location has yet to be announced. The festival is scheduled to kick off on Oct. 15 and run for two days. The lineup will include some of the country’s most popular hip-hop artists like AMOG’s Jay Park, Gray, Loco as well as Illionaire Records’ Dok2, The Quiett and Beenzino.
“There’s going to be a runway and photo zones installed where attendees can do their own walk and take pictures,” said Moon, adding that street photographers will also be placed in various spots to take paparazzi shots of the attendees.
In fact, Seoul Fashion Festival is VU Entertainment’s third music festival. Its first was the Rainbow Island Music & Camping Festival, which offered attendees the opportunity to camp overnight with the artists that performed during the day, followed by the hugely successful Water Bomb Festival, where people could enjoy performances by rappers while simultaneously having water-gun fights.
All three festivals have one key strategy in common: a distinctive concept.
VU Entertainment said that when it created its Rainbow Island Music & Camping Festival in 2010, it initially followed the trend of inviting popular foreign artists. But the company said the trend now has changed and that Korean festivalgoers now want something more distinctive than a big-name headliner.
“It was important back in the early years to invite popular foreign bands who have never performed in Korea to draw attention and sell tickets,” said Moon. “But as the market became saturated and festivals began to have similar lineups, we thought the key is to provide a unique experience.”
Rather than spending millions of dollars on artists, VU Entertainment filled its Rainbow Island Music & Camping Festival with Korean indie musicians and focused on creating recreational events at night, where attendees and artists can drink and play fun games together.
“This year, we organized a small field day where people formed teams and played sports with the musicians. Regular attendees to the festival look forward to what this year’s recreational activities will be more than the lineup announcements,” said Moon.
The Water Bomb Festival, which was held on July 30 in Jamsil Stadium, southern Seoul, was only in its second year, but due to its distinctive concept of “having water fights and enjoying live hip-hop concerts,” it proved successful, attracting more than 25,000 people. The attendees and rappers are both divided into two teams, and the groups duke it out with either water guns or battle raps.
Attendees can either bring their own water gun or purchase one at the festival.
According to VU Entertainment, a production agency from a Southeast Asian country is interested in using the concept and representatives came to the festival this year to sign a deal.
“In the long run, we believe this is a successful profit-making model,” Moon said.