by Jeff Zber
Updated 5 yearss ago
Paul Levine stands beneath the awning of the St. Augustine Amphitheater on a clear Saturday evening and takes in his latest creation.
The inaugural Fool’s Paradise Music Festival is in full tilt — two days of musical acts attended by about 2,500 festivalgoers. “It was a challenge to go to a new venue,” says Levine, director and owner of Purple Hat Productions.
Levine’s business arena is getting crowded — more than a dozen music festivals that feature rock, classic rock, country, soul, hip-hop and electronic dance music now call Florida home.
The Wanee Music Festival, which debuted in 2005, drew about 16,000 to the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in rural Live Oak this spring. Purple Hat’s Halloween-themed Hulaween Music Festival has grown from 7,000 attendees at 2013’s debut to 17,500 last fall. The annual three-day Tortuga Music Festival at Fort Lauderdale’s beach was the 14th-highest grossing music festival worldwide in 2015, selling 70,295 tickets and grossing $7.33 million, according to tracking firm Pollstar.
Also gaining favor are “destination” and cruise festivals, including the annual Holy Ship! And Jam Cruise festivals from Boca Raton-based Cloud 9 Adventures and Cayamo, a Journey Through Song, which cruises from Tampa to Cozumel next February.
“The business model has changed,” says Sean Perry, co-founder of the Florida Music Festival, an annual conference in downtown Orlando that brings musicians, producers, promoters, booking agents and sponsors to town to discuss the evolving business. “The music industry is becoming more about touring and less about selling records.”
As the number of festivals has grown, competition has driven some promoters out of the game. Live Nation closed its Coastline/Coral Skies Music Festival in 2015 and put its Big Guava Music Festival on hiatus this year. After eight years, producers shuttered the Bear Creek Music & Art Festival last fall. Levine will revive it in New Orleans in September. Veteran producer Daryl Wolff also announced the end of his AURA Music and Arts Festival. In its seven-year run, the event sold more than 18,000 tickets, showcased more than 175 musical acts and employed hundreds of staffers.
“Producing a show of this scale is no easy task for an independent promoter,” Wolff wrote on AURA’s Facebook page.
Along with the cost of security and insurance, promoters have to pay high fees to the big-name acts that are necessary to draw crowds — a band like Mumford & Sons can command $1 million per performance. Former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, who played at the inaugural Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival this spring, can fetch $250,000. Even lesser-known acts like Black Crowes founder Chris Robinson or spinoff acts from the Allman Brothers Band can get $30,000 to $50,000.
Producers have responded in part by adding more restrictive “radius clauses” to the contracts with performers. The clauses restrict acts from playing another venue within some distance, sometimes hundreds of miles, and some time period after playing a particular festival.
Promoters also try to boost revenue with sponsorships from companies like Heineken, 7Up, Red Bull and SiriusXM, among others, but have to be careful not to overhype the sponsors’ message. “Sponsors come into play, but we don’t want it to look like Times Square either,” says A.J. Niland, chairman of Huka, which produces Tortuga, whose sponsors include Snickers and Corona. “It can lose the magic and lose the vibe. You have to avoid the short-term gain for the longer-term brand.”
Some promoters try to broaden their festivals’ appeal with other attractions. The Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival acquired some 800 acres in rural central Florida this spring to create a man-made beach, secluded areas, art installations and five stages for a sell-out crowd of about 25,000.
“It’s not enough to have great music,” says Paul Peck, Okeechobee’s co-founder and a veteran producer from what some call the granddaddy of the modern music festival, the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee. “The site itself is the headliner.”
James Cornett knows the value of the venue and the events it brings. The Spirit of Suwannee Music Park and Campground his family began leasing in 1985, and purchased 12 years later, today hosts small music events, large festivals and even kids’ music camps. A 2011 economic impact report Cornett commissioned to successfully change the county’s blue laws found his park generated some $34 million in annual impact and accounted for 250 jobs countywide.
“I’m confident that it’s at that and then some,” he says.
With so many events now scheduled each year, it’s unclear how many the market can sustain. Cornett, who markets Spirit of Suwannee’s camping experience as much as the musical acts, is optimistic.
“I would be stunned if people stopped going to multi-day festivals built around community,” he says. “That community is far more powerful than anything going on on that stage.”
Top Florida Music Festivals
Florida is home to a growing number of multi-day music festivals. Some of the larger events include:
Suwannee Hulaween/ Spirit of Suwannee Music Park: Up to 40,000 attendees over three days. Marketing partners include Jam Base, Relix, Camping World and Live for Live Music. The October event opens the Florida winter music festival season.
Sunshine Music and Blues Fest/St. Petersburg and Boca Raton: 5,000 attendees per venue. The blues-focused event is held each January at St. Petersburg’s Vinoy Park and Boca Raton’s Mizner Park.
Ultra Music Festival/ Downtown Miami: 165,000 attendees over three days. Sponsors have included Heineken, 7Up, Red Bull and SiriusXM.
Tortuga Music Festival/ Fort Lauderdale beach: 70,295 tickets sold in 2015. Sponsors include Corona, Ford, Tito’s Vodka and others.
Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival/Okeechobee County: The inaugural show this spring sold out with 25,000 attendees. Sponsors included Uber, Yelp, Ciroc Vodka and others.
Wanee Music Festival/ Spirit of Suwannee Music Park: Up to 40,000 attendees over three days. Marketing partners include Jam Base, Relix, Camping World and Live for Live Music. The spring event closes the Florida winter festival season.