Festivals, which are unique opportunities for leisure, social and cultural experiences (Cole and Chancellor 2009; Getz 2005), may be the perfect example of products sought by contemporary consumers in their quest for immersion through varied experiences so as to give multiple meanings to their lives (Firat and Dholakia 1998).
The contemporary music sector has overhauled its economic model, with listeners now spending far less on purchasing music and instead becoming consumers of live experiences. Live shows have become the sector’s leading moneymaker.
While a good deal of research has focused on understanding festivals from the spectator’s point of view, very little has been conducted from the standpoint of the organizers. Although festivals exemplify the “experience economy,” there has been little investigation into the strategies they implement (Bronner and de Hoog 2019; Geus et al. 2016; Manthiou et al. 2014).
My objective is to move forward with the conceptualization of the festival experience by identifying the main action levers used to make it special and unique (Getz 2012).
In order to select the festivals for inclusion in the sample, I carefully monitored festival practices for several years, in France and elsewhere. The reputational logic was considered in the selection, based on some of the rankings of festivals regularly published on specialty websites.
Based on my knowledge of the sector and other sources of information, I selected 39 major festivals. As recommended for multiple case studies, the composition of the sample met two criteria: diversification and saturation (Glaser and Strauss 1967). For consistency, the vast majority of the selected festivals feature contemporary music and are aimed at young adults. To capture diversity in terms of music genre and aesthetics, the sample includes rock, pop, electro, electro-dance, metal, multitype (and a few cross-disciplinary) festivals with a national or international reputation held in France, Europe, and around the world.
The experience-reinforcing levers identified were grouped into three broad categories.
1-Space–Time Frame of Festivals
With regard to the levers for strengthening the experiential dimension of festivals, it is useful to begin by analyzing those relating to the space-time framework at the heart of the definition of the event.
Festival sites with various intrinsic characteristics
The venues chosen by the festivals in my sample indicate a wide diversity of practices, from “ordinary” to “extraordinary” (depending on their proximity to everyday life).
To understand a festival’s choice of venue, let us first examine the general territorial anchorage of events, in that some festivals choose a large city, others seek a remote or rural area and yet others prefer a resort, whether at the seaside or in a ski area.
Apart from choice of territory, allowance must be made for specific spots for events. For some festivals, these spaces intrinsically have symbolic meaning (and immersive and experiential power) based on various characteristics. This applies, for example, to festivals held at an outstanding natural site (in the heart of a volcano or a glacier, in the middle of the jungle, in the desert, on an island) or occupying a heritage site, such as a citadel, a former fort, a disused quarry, refurbished prison or power station. Some festivals opt for floating tourist venues, with events taking place entirely on a cruise ship.
Some festivals work actively on scripting so as to build or reinforce their symbolic content (Filser 2002) and make them even more conducive to escape and immersion. While all festivals seek to develop a strong sensory experience (through lighting, sound etc.), some have invested more specifically in this narrative, especially when there is nothing intrinsically extraordinary about the venue.
The use of theming, defined as symbolic window-dressing to give meaning to the consumer’s actions (Carù and Cova 2006), makes it easier for festivalgoers to identify with the story. In the festival context, theming may be defined at various levels: a general (permanent) theme, often related to the musical anchor point of the festival; an annual (variable) theme, related to a narrative that is renewed at each event; and themes for different locations (spatial) related to the narrative specific to certain spaces (e.g., stages).
It is difficult to understand experiential strategies without also taking the time frame into consideration. For some events, the combination of time and place is a key feature of scripting and differentiation. In the case of Secret Solstice (Iceland), the spatio-temporal setting is part of its DNA: as it is held in Reykjavik in mid-June when the sun never sets, the festival offers an almost uninterrupted musical experience over more than three days by the light of the midnight sun distinctive of the northern summer solstice. In the case of the Glastonbury festival in England, held in late June in Somerset, it has to cope with some very wet weather, transforming Worthy Farm, where it takes place, into an enormous field of mud. This has become a strength: rain is part of the festival’s identity, and each year thousands of photos and videos of mud-covered attendees are posted on social media sites.
2-The Product: A Multiple Offer
Core offer: Quantitative and qualitative artistic program
What underpins a festival is its organizers’ ability to define a high-quality program that makes the gathering a celebration of an art form. In a context of fierce competition, the official program (line-up) is traditionally a key feature of differentiation, a driving force for attracting audiences.
To characterize it, one must understand the promise made to attendees through the artistic positioning of the festival: some events focus on a clearly defined musical style; others mix music genres and yet others open up more widely to non-musical forms of artistic expression, multiplying the core cultural offer.
Programming may, then, be examined quantitatively in terms of the number of concerts and performances offered. It must also be understood in qualitative terms, as festivals have to define their reputation and their diversity. Of course, in a climate of fierce competition, the first reflex in offering a strong and attractive product is to gamble on “star billings.” But the impact of this strategy may be weakened or even jeopardized when competing festivals end up signing the same performers and presenting similar programs. To avoid this “copy and paste” effect and consolidate their difference, some events (those with the biggest budgets) negotiate exclusive contracts.
In contradistinction, some festivals try to set themselves apart with niche programming for an expert audience, position themselves as talent spotters (following a strong logic of discovery) and/or booking only so-called independent performers (produced outside of conventional commercial circuits). Many aim for a balanced program featuring both established artists and young talents and both local and international performers.
Peripheral offer: Festival within a festival
While programming is a key feature of the visitor experience, it may be reinforced and differentiated through multiple peripheral services following two separate but complementary orientations in terms of content (Pulh et al. 2005).
1-The offer of “voids”
Peripheral services can enhance the experience on offer by providing a “void” – that is, a place to fall back, a place to rest without any intrinsic cultural or musical content. Some festivals offer very eclectic visitor accommodations. Some opt for a quality catering offer, celebrating the local cuisine or cuisines from around the world, which may also be theatricalized depending on the festival’s theme(s). Some offer activities on the fringes of the official festival program, from the most standard to the most scripted (in accordance with the festival’s DNA). Some also stick to the basics.
In all these instances, time-out is part of the experience, but the spectator is kept immersed (without triggering immersion outside of the overall narration).
2-The offer of “fullness”
A festival may also strengthen and diversify the experience by offering “fullness” through its peripheral services – that is, a cultural/musical supplement of the core offer: autograph sites, meetings with performers, fringe shows (live performances off stage) in bars or in the open air, karaoke, workshops, etc.
Some festivals develop activities directly related to their structuring values and therefore the narrative of the festival like those that include spaces for associations to meet and debate in conjunction with the event’s values of social and ecological solidarity and responsibility.
However, as shown in the figure below, although some festivals invest heavily in reinforcing the “peripheral experience,” others settle for a minimum of services or even provide none at all, so as to concentrate solely on the artistic experience.
3-Actions of the Festival-Goer
Encouraging co-construction of the experience through multiple and decompartmentalized offers
It should be noted that most of the festivals studied are highly de-compartmentalized and open-ended cultural offers because of the wide amount of choice left to attendees within their central and peripheral programming. The profusion and diversity of the concerts and activities on offer may be viewed as essential levers of appropriation given to festival-goers: the more performers, stages and musical styles there are on offer, the more freedom visitors have to co-produce their own experience and festival menu; they may have a choice of accommodation, catering and events to take part in. Hence, the festival experience they have may vary greatly with the peripheral ingredients they opt for. Events offer a high degree of what Bronner and Hoog (2019) call “configurability,” enabling spectators to shape their own experience. All of these levers of interaction and participation contribute greatly to a festival’s unique and memorable positioning.
Thinking in Terms of Targeting and Objectives
While attendance figures for major musical events attest to their drawing power, theatricalization may well entail a change in the audience. As Morgan (2006) observes, fringe events becoming a festival’s main attraction is not necessarily negative if the objective is simply to attract new audiences. Some music trends concerned with renewing their audience may resort to exaggerated scripting strategies to attract those who come for the atmosphere and the activities more than for the music. A change in audience may be either desired or imposed. Thus, it is a matter of not just creating a positive, unique and memorable experience but doing so while keeping in step with the objectives of the festival (Morgan 2006). In putting the experience first at all costs, festivals run the risk of looking like musical versions of US spring-break events – simply an excuse for friends to travel and party. Cohabitation by regular and new attendees can become difficult, with the former even being ousted.
Asserting Identity and Avoiding “McFestivalization” (Finkel 2004)
Before defining and implementing an experiential differentiation strategy, organizers must put some thought into positioning and targeting the event. If this is done properly and then guides any experiential reinforcement, each event will forge its own distinct identity.
When tools and ingredients are used without reflection on any specific state of mind or authentic DNA, the risk is that all events will end up alike.
Towards a New Festival Model?
The catastrophic effects of Covid-19 on culture and entertainment, with activity being halted for much longer than in other sectors, seem to confirm the need for festivals to reinvent their structuring model. Should major festivals, which play the card of over-theatricalization to the fullest and draw in tens or even hundreds of thousands of spectators, remain examples to be followed? Might it not be better to approach these staging possibilities from a logic of slow culture, of proximity, an ecologically and socially responsible logic in the context of festive events, but on a more human scale and truly rooted in the local area? A new festival model may be redefined on the basis of these levers of experiential reinforcing, of course, but in response to renewed cultural, economic and social objectives.
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