Last Friday afternoon, the state of music festivals in Texas was dealt a major blow when it was announced that the 2017 installment of Sound on Sound Fest was canceled just over a month before it was set to take place. On its face, the cancelation of a music festival in just its second year would not be that notable. What made it so was what the festival’s demise represented, as in every sense, Sound on Sound Fest was the spiritual successor to Fun Fun Fun Fest, the memorable genre-bending Austin festival that ran nearly ten years before its untimely end in 2015 due to a variety of factors. Just like that, one of the state’s most daring and innovative music festivals is gone, the overall landscape certainly looks bleaker.
What makes the abrupt cancellation alarming is that this wasn’t a disaster of mismanagement or cocaine-fueled benders on par with the Fyre Festival debacle of this past spring. As Graham Williams of Margin Walker told the Austin Chronicle last Friday, Sound on Sound ended because a prominent investor got cold feet and pulled their funding, leaving the festival with a deficit they couldn’t fill. According to the article, Williams explained that “potential partners were a lot more bullish a few years ago and now there’s more of a perceived risk,” adding that production and talent were asking for more money so they wouldn’t be hung out to dry if something happened. Caught in a perfect storm, Margin Walker decided they had no choice but to cancel the festival.
Williams and his team have had over a decade of festival planning experience between Fun Fun Fun Fest and Sound on Sound, and have proven frequently that they have the expertise to pull off a large-scale festival. This year’s Sound on Sound was set to feature an impressive lineup too, full of artists playing their only Texas stop of the year such as Grizzly Bear, Iggy Pop, and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Williams even stated in that article that ticket sales “were on track with expectations.” Perhaps their investor was not satisfied with those expectations, or there were other circumstances that led to their departure, and certainly more details may emerge. For now, it seems like this collapse was less about Margin Walker’s failures and more about the surrounding environment, a market that is far from the sure bet it may have been two years ago.
In summer 2014, writer Grayson Currin wrote a thoughtful analysis for the now defunct Wondering Sound (whose archives have been unceremoniously scrubbed from the web) speculating that the music festival bubble was about to burst. While he may have been a little early in calling that, 2017 has shown that his warnings would eventually come true. Apart from the Fyre mishap, this year has also had the bankruptcy and cancelation of Pemberton Festival in Canada, the end of Apple’s Itunes Music Fesvial in London, and the cancelation of Karoondinha Festival in Philadelphia, one that was supposed to feature John Legend and Chance The Rapper.
Looking at just Texas, the past two years have had as many mishaps in our state as the rest of the world. Austin’s Levitation Fest was canceled in 2016 due to weather, and then didn’t even come back for 2017. Its 2018 installment will return the festival to its smaller roots of a collection of individual shows in the downtown Austin area instead of the large three-day event at Carson Creek Ranch.
This past summer, after having to be relocated to NRG Park two years in a row, FPSF pulled the plug early into its second day and was forced to issue refunds. Houston’s Open Air Festival, originally set for this weekend, was cancelled in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey along with Index Fest. While all of these cancellations were weather-related, it’s telling that, apart from Levitation, most were outright cancelled instead of trying to facilitate makeup shows, as if it were more economical to simply not have the festival.
There are bright spots to be found. Day For Night started in December 2015, and though it doesn’t quite draw the crowd that FFF drew in its largest years, it’s still one of the most innovative festivals in the world, a major coup for Houston to create the type of festival people travel from all over to see. According to a report published by ACL organizers C3 back in May 2017, the 2016 festival increased its economic impact on the City of Austin 24 percent over 2015. SXSW, which has drastically reduced in size after a 2014 drunk-driving accident, still is a major destination for all kinds of artists, even if it is steadily pivoting away towards music to focus on technology, media, and politics.
While many of these cancellations have been due to outside factors like weather, natural disasters, or investors backing out, the end result is a string of festivals that ended up falling through. It's disappointing for the organizations putting these on; even if they get insurance coverage for any of these cancellations, they're still left with months of hard work resulting in failure. Not every festival is able to recoup their losses and move forward. At the end of the cancellation FAQ on Sound on Sound's official website is a note that there are no plans to continue the festival going forward.
Even if there wasn't a bubble that burst, it's clear that the landscape is shrinking. It wouldn't be surprising if some of the other festivals that were canceled due to weather choose not to come back, or at least come back in a reduced capacity similar to Levitation's plans for 2018. As demand and tastes change, maybe this could inspire more specialized festivals that focus on specific genres like Day For Night or JMBYLA.
The worst part of last Friday's news was that out of all the festivals to end abruptly, it was a shame that it happened to the team who pioneered the current age of Texas festivals with Fun Fun Fun Fest. Now, the end of Sound on Sound marks a significant turning point for live music. Whether a new wave of festivals will rise to take its place or the landscape shifts away from festivals as a whole remains to be seen. For now, there's going to be a major hole in music fans' calendars this November for the first time in more than a decade, one that will be hard to replace.
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