The Risky Business of Music Festivals

Janae Pierre, WBHM

EDM lovers catch a show at Zydeco in Birmingham.

Payton Taylor loves music. This particular night he’s at Zydeco in Birmingham, waiting to catch Psymbionic, an electronic dance music, or EDM DJ. Since last year, he’s gone to at least five music festivals, including Lights All Night in Dallas, Electric Zoo in New York City and Ultra Music Festival in Miami

“I’ve been all over, just going to them,” he says. “Hulaween is another one. They almost cancelled it this year because of financial reasons. But the South, besides the West Coast, is the place for festivals. It’s just not here.”

Just not Birmingham, Taylor says. Turns out, music festivals are financially risky. Producers say the main reason they fail is poor budgeting. But Jon Poor, who runs Birmingham’s Secret Stages, a pub-crawl style event that started in 2011, says there are other challenges, too.

“When you have trouble with funding or you have trouble with weather and ticket sales are off, it can derail,” Poor says. “You look at Sloss Fest.  They have all the money behind them they could want, I would imagine, based on the companies that run it. But it’s tough to get over just rain coming in and totally screwing you.”

Festival producers are tight-lipped on finances, but Sloss Fest organizers called it quits after last year’s severe weather cancelled many acts; it lasted four years. The Steel City Jazz Festival also called it quits after four years.

Jack Schaeffer’s Crawfish Boil had a much longer run, starting in 1994. 

“We brought contemporary bands on one street and zydeco bands on the other street and the second year we must have had five or six thousand people and it went from a little minor street party to now a real event,” Schaeffer says. 

At its peak, the Crawfish Boil attracted nearly 40,000 people with headliners like Fergie, Flo Rida and Gavin DeGraw.

Its biggest competition was Birmingham’s longest running festival, City Stages, which lasted 20 years. But City Stages also grappled with bad weather and low ticket sales. And Jon Poor, from Secret Stages, says there was another problem: corporate sponsorships cover a large part of a festival’s budget, and that hurt City Stages. 

“They gave away lots of tickets, but you have to give away tickets for sponsors otherwise you don’t get the sponsor money,” he says. “So that’s another area where I feel for them like people criticize them, that’s probably why their sales were down. But then, how do they get the sponsorship dollars if they don’t give away the tickets?”

When City Stages folded in 2009, Jack Schaeffer and promoters of the Crawfish Boil hoped they could capitalize on the opportunity, but they knew it wouldn’t be cheap.  

“Either you have to spend a few million dollars on bands and have these big-name bands or you could do the new thing like have indie-type bands, small bands, and have 20 of them,” he says.  

The Crawfish Boil went with big-name acts. But by 2013, Schaeffer says the festival lost a significant amount of money and after 18 years, he decided to call it quits.

Tens of thousands of people have enjoyed Birmingham’s music festivals over the last two decades, from City Stages and the Crawfish Boil to Steel City Jazz Fest, Sloss Fest, and Secret Stages, among others. But festival producers say most events have a shelf life. And that seems to be true here in Birmingham.