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Coachella opens a season of sold-out festivals

By Charlie Amter, Special to CNN
Top artists such as Kanye West and Arcade Fire will perform at The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
Top artists such as Kanye West and Arcade Fire will perform at The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
  • More than 100,000 people attend The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival
  • Artists such as Arcade Fire and Kanye West are set to perform
  • Festivals including Bonaroo, the All Good Festival will round out summer's successful season

Los Angeles -- This weekend more than 100,000 people will take in a music festival experience near Palm Springs, California, at The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

Top artists such as Kanye West and Arcade Fire will share the bill with lesser-known acts from the worlds of dance music and alternative rock at the experiential outdoor mecca for music fanatics, which sold out months ago. Festivals such as Coachella, now in its 12th year, represent one of the few bright spots in the bleak music industry, which is still reeling from the decline in CD sales.

Americans have acquired a taste for well-organized annual branded music festivals that rivals the appetite for fests among fans in England, a country that has been rocking outdoors for decades via massive annual happenings such as Glastonbury, which released its 2011 lineup this week.

"The fact that Coachella sold out is a great sign for the industry," said Gary Bongiovanni, live music trade magazine Pollstar's editor-in-chief.

"Economically, festivals are the best bang for your dollar."

Coachella represents the unofficial kickoff to what is shaping up to be a banner year for festivals, which are growing in size and number domestically and internationally.

The lineup for June's popular Bonaroo festival in Tennessee was recently revealed. Smaller festivals such as San Francisco's Outside Lands also are expecting record crowds this summer.

It's no longer just Coachella and Bonaroo grabbing headlines and top name acts. Rival festivals have been growing quickly all over the country, from Washington State's Sasquatch! Festival to West Virginia's All Good Festival.

"For the larger festivals, a key part of (success) is discovery," Bongiovanni said of the appeal of top-drawing outdoor summer festivals, where acts not known to many share a bill with more well-known acts.

Increasingly, domestic music lovers with a bit of expendable cash are seeking out international music festivals, the organizers said. A small but growing number of Americans are becoming roaming global music festival nomads, and they want Coachella-esque experiences outside the United States.

"We're well located geographically near New York, Boston and Toronto and there's not much else like us on the East Coast," said talent booker Nick Farkas, Evenko's director of programming for Osheaga, a summer music festival in Montreal.

"Twitter and Facebook have really helped us attract more Americans," he said, adding that "just under 10%" of his audience came from the United States in 2010, the festival's 5th year. "We expect that number to go up in the coming years."

Farkas said Americans are attracted to international festivals thanks to sources like Twitter. Fans are stumbling upon happenings they may have never heard of before via acts they follow on the social networking website.

Facebook, too, is helping snare adventurous Americans seeking out their favorite DJs, who have long played festivals popular in Europe, which are not on most U.S. citizens' radar, such as Belgium's Tomorrowland festival.

Tomorrowland is a massive dance music festival where names such as David Guetta have played. So far this year, almost 500 advance tickets were bought by U.S. fans for the festival, more than have been sold in (better positioned, geographically speaking) countries such as Spain and Switzerland. That's a sharp increase from the under 200 that sold last year and the 60 tickets sold in 2009.

Promoters attribute the jump to word of mouth spread by music fans via Twitter and Facebook.

Perry Farrell, the Jane's Addiction singer who started Lollapalooza in the early 1990s, foresees plane-hopping music fans possibly as the new norm for moneyed festival hounds.

"I always assume that Americans like to travel in the summer," said Farrell, who held his first Lollapalooza-branded festival outside America in Chile earlier this month.

Lollapalooza partnered with a travel agency to offer package deals to North Americans wanting to check out Lollapalooza in Santiago, although Perry said the inaugural festival was mainly for South Americans. But he echoed sentiments by many in the music industry about the strength of the global festival market.

"The most healthy aspect of music right now is in festivals and dance music," he said.

"I'm getting requests from business people that are looking to create ventures (for branded festivals) all over the world."

Come next summer, despite a down U.S. concert market in general, the festival promoters said wealthier American music fanatics will likely be ready to hit the festival circuit all over again, especially if events are 50 miles or closer, and increasingly considering events up to 5,000 miles away.

Bongiovanni thinks the bottom line is that people still want to see live acts in a magical setting outdoors, no matter where the stellar lineups take place.

"People have been known to drive long distances to see festivals," he said. "Fans want to see live music still ... we have a bright future."

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