Wednesday, January 31, 2007

FP comments on The Festival Network

The plans of the newly formed Festival Network to create a large portfolio of "best of breed" festivals that takes advantage of economies of scale marks a important milestone in the development of the music festival industry.

It also raises a possible cause for concern that a business that has been largely characterized by small operators motivated by their love of the music could be moving in the direction of corporate management that is in it for the money.

I don't think that's the case with The Festival Network. My interviews this week with CEO Chris Shields and George Wein, chairman of the company's Festival Productions division, revealed an seemingly sincere concern for preserving the joys of the festival-going experience (see related posts).

Shields spoke convincingly of his intention to keep commercial sponsorship to an "appropriate" level. For example, he said that new events produced by the company would be less likely to be named for a corporate sponsor, moving in the opposite direction from several of the company's existing events that are named for a Japanese electronics manufacturer and an all-American purveyor of deep-fried dough.

While some festival attendees might prefer an entirely corporate-free zone at their favorite events, I'm not in that camp. The income generated by corporate sponsorship is a major factor in improving the quality of production and keeping ticket prices affordable. Those are things that all festival-goers should appreciate.

On the other hand, I've definitely seen festivals that go too far in allowing the intrusion of corporate marketing to affect the culture of the festival. If we want to see commercial logos festooning every part of an event, we'd go to NASCAR.

And while there is good reason to hope that The Festival Network will tread lightly as it applies increased business discipline to the festival management business, it may help to open the door for other companies who would have fewer scruples about exploiting the community to make a buck.

Thankfully, mom and pop festivals run purely for the love of presenting great music to an appreciative audience are always going to be with us. But it seems inevitable that big companies producing multiple festivals is a trend that is going to accelerate, and especially at the highest profile events.

We'll keep an eye on this issue in the festival seasons ahead and continue advocating for an ethic of festival management where the commerce serves the art and not the other way around.

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