Reporter's Notebook

The Return of Festivals

Beyond intangibles such as community and cultural enrichment, the return of festivals has serious economic consequences as well

By Myers Reece

My parents came of age during the rise of major American music festivals such as Woodstock, beginning in the 1960s and extending through the 1970s. As a child, I imagined that they attended them all, relishing the image of tie-dyed mom and dad living their best van life, bouncing from venue to venue across the country as their own stories of young adulthood tracked alongside those of legends.

The truth, however, is closer to most people’s truth, aside from hardcore Dead Heads and festival fanatics: My parents attended periodic live performances, and even saw a handful of icons, but they also led day-to-day lives whose details didn’t always mesh with the free-spirited folklore I had crafted in my mind.

But it can’t all be chalked up to childish imagination. My parents played a role in feeding that mythology, in part by taking me to countless music festivals and live performances, small and large, beginning basically at birth, and peppering me with nostalgic tales of bygone concert days from their youth.

Those outings, from sold-out amphitheaters to picnics at the park with local aspiring artists, imbued me not only with a love for music but also an appreciation for its power to bring people together, to transcend and unite. Of the pandemic’s many casualties, the loss of live music isn’t among the most important. But it’s still significant: Many felt the absence deeply, because they missed the music but especially because they longed for the sense of community, of shared experience.

Now, as COVID-19 cases tick down and vaccinations ramp up, festivals are coming back online in Montana and other states, and a relatively sparse rotation of week-to-week live shows at local venues is filling out more robustly. The biggest news is the revival of Under The Big Sky in Whitefish after a one-year hiatus.

Beyond intangibles such as community and cultural enrichment, the return of festivals has serious economic consequences as well. Festivals are often situated outside of smaller towns, and their impacts reverberate throughout local economies.

The Bonnaroo festival, for example, draws more than 80,000 attendees annually to a farm in Manchester, Tennessee, a town of barely 10,000 people. A 2013 study found that an average attendee spends $35 per day outside of the festival in the surrounding community, equating to about $36 million in direct sales and $15 million in indirect sales, income and jobs. 

South by Southwest in Austin, Texas generates more than $200 million for the local economy each year, and a 2018 study found that the music industry is responsible for $1.4 billion annually in Colorado, with live events such as the annual ARISE music festival accounting for $489.8 million of that revenue. 

Of course, a festival generates ample revenue within its borders as well. Coachella grossed $114.6 million in 2017, a record for a recurring festival franchise.

In Montana, the state office of economic development released a study in 2013 that showed “$2.8 million exchanging hands” during the three-day Red Ants Pants Music Festival, “not including secondary and tertiary economic activity.” The agency noted that the “economic impact extends beyond Meagher County,” and the festival has only grown since then. 

Under The Big Sky employed 400 locals in 2019 and heavily utilized local businesses and products. As for indirect financial ripples, no hard numbers exist, but businesses reported a significant spike in activity.

Live music is good for business, and it’s good for people. For those who feel comfortable attending events this summer, a large void in their lives will be filled.

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