The truth behind the summer festival season

With the close of the CMJ Music Festival in New York on October 20 the North American touring music industry draws to an unofficial annual close for the year. Most bands see touring as a vital part of self-promotion but gone are the days of running everything out of the back of a van and booking shows through word of mouth à la Black Flag in 1979. Instead an enormous industry has developed along with a well-defined circuit of major festivals that serve as media magnets. The two biggest typically bookend the festival season — Austin Texas’s South by Southwest (SXSW) in the spring and New York’s CMJ in the fall. In between are other big-ticket events like Coachella Sasquatch the Pitchfork Music Festival the Vans Warped Tour and Lollapalooza as well as Toronto’s North by Northeast and numerous folk festivals.

All of these events draw tens of thousands of attendees and in theory the possibility for exposure is immense. Still not every band can make the most of it. I remember watching The Primrods play to 17 people at a MusicWest show (and they were headlining) while at SXSW I saw a New England band Maritime play to five other people. True this might be a music lover’s dream but for many bands appearing at these events requires the marshalling of scarce resources.. So the question becomes who benefits the most?

To get some answers Fast Forward began charting SXSW bands by measuring blog mentions. Every time someone mentioned a band or tagged them in a blog the band scored a hit. The results showed that at SXSW first and foremost it helped to be British. The British music industry sent over a tightly focused delegation and the British press limits itself to a few artists. This year the focus was clearly on Amy Winehouse who saw her blog hits skyrocket and went on to use those numbers to fuel major summer exposure. Last year Bloc Party had a similar experience as did Arctic Monkeys the year before. Conversely Montreal’s The Dears opened for Bloc Party this year and nobody noticed.

Second and more importantly it’s clear that you need a buzz to make a buzz. Numerous bands at SXSW had new albums or EPs slated for release immediately following the event and regardless of whether they saw their numbers jump during SXSW they all spiked afterwards. The biggest winners at the Coachella festival in May were Bjork and Interpol both of whom were touring new material. The Polyphonic Spree were able to parlay a solid SXSW set into a springboard to more lucrative summer shows including a ride on the Lollapalooza wagon doubling their blog hits over the summer.

Unlike most major summer festivals CMJ is more like SXSW in that it specializes in relatively unknown bands. In fact most of the bands appearing at CMJ are averaging less than two dozen blog hits a day. Only bands like Voxtrot or Mates of State who’ve been riding the festival circuit since SXSW are approaching the 100-hit mark. Many bands are running at their lowest levels since the spring making any forthcoming spikes in their blog hits this week attributable to their performance at CMJ.

Judging from most bands’ progression a trip to SXSW or CMJ needs to be part of an integrated approach to touring not just a one-off. Many bands book dates on the road from Austin and New York to help defray costs but constant promotion is just as important. It is easy to get lost in the hundreds of bands that frequent these festivals. One good example to follow is Tokyo Police Club who started the year off as a small-scale band arrived in Austin with hype from no less than Rolling Stone and went on to play any stage available the rest of the year. They also followed up major appearances with EPs to help capitalize on their momentum. Their blog hits have quadrupled and they’re recording their first full-length while courting labels. Did any individual show catapult the band to stardom? No but each appearance on the festival circuit has brought them closer to a record deal.