Fyre debacle shows how smaller acts can get burned in modern music festival economy

The Fyre documentaries on Hulu and Netflix gave a behind-the-scenes look into an ill-planned music festival and its aftermath.

Both films tell the story of how co-producers Billy McFarland and Ja Rule convinced investors and festival goers into forking over millions of dollars for what promised to be a luxurious, music-filled getaway on an island in the Bahamas. The festival, which was supposed to be headlined by Blink-182 and Major Lazer, ended up being canceled at the last minute, leaving audiences stranded, local workers unpaid and the producers in legal jeopardy.

Most viewers probably enjoyed seeing the producers receive their comeuppance and snickered at the millennials lured to the event by Instagram influencers.

But as scholars who study festivals, musicians and the careers of creative people, we thought of the lower-tier musicians who rely on events like Fyre.

For every Blink-182, thousands of smaller acts hope to hit the stage. With musicians increasingly dependent upon live performances, how can these smaller acts thrive under the festival model?

A synergistic relationship

Fyre isn’t the only recent festival debacle. Last year, the Bay Area’s XO Music Festival was canceled after low ticket sales, artists dropped out and various legal issues.

A high-profile band can afford the occasional misfire, but what about the others? Of the 33 announced acts at Fyre, only one band performed: a “local no name band” that was never on the bill.

The relationship between festivals and talent seems straightforward. Larger acts cost more but draw ticket sales and media attention. Smaller acts work for producers in three ways: They are cheaper, fill the bill and lend festivals some authenticity.

The book “Music/City” explores the balance between corporate interests and the spirit of creating unique music-driven experiences. Austin’s South by Southwest festival, for example, is unique in that it was founded on the idea of giving a platform for unknown acts to perform before New York and Los Angeles record executives.

In the book, a singer-songwriter explained that festivals work for musicians because they get to perform for fans but also help “find people who have never heard of you.” Musicians are, she said, trapped in “taste silos”; festivals can broaden their audiences.

Festival organizers see value in smaller acts too. One producer explained that they lend authenticity by “representing the city’s culture.” For a producer who schedules performers at a major country music festival, he balances “legend type artists” with smaller, cheaper and promising acts.

A disease of excess supply

But when it comes to getting paid, there’s vast inequality.

Festival headliners can make millions. For example, Beyoncé, Radiohead and Kendrick Lamar made between US$3 million and $4 million at the 2017 Coachella festival. Lower-tier acts can expect to make around $15,000 per performance at a major music festival.

For smaller acts, this is still a significant amount, especially when you consider how difficult it is to make a living as a musician.