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Competition For Bands, Fans Heats Up With Growth In Music Festivals

It's that time of year when hordes of 20-somethings start sharing rides to remote locations -- music festival season.

The Sasquatch Music Festival happens this Memorial Day weekend in Washington, but Sasquatch is one of many -- many -- festivals yet to come.

Forget shows in clubs and concert halls. Some bands now spend long stretches of their summer just hopping from one grassy lawn to another.

Take the Northwest's homegrown indie rock band Modest Mouse.

If you miss them at Sasquatch over Memorial Day weekend, you can catch them later this summer at the Sloss Music festival in Birmingham, Alabama. Or at the Forecastle Festival in Louisville. Celebrate Brooklyn. HomeAway Music festival in Ontario, Canada. Mo Pop in Detroit. Maha Music Festival in Omaha. Music Fest Northwest in Portland.

And … you get the idea.

Woodstock goes mainstream

“We do live in a culture right now that is heavily saturated with festivals,” said Nashville-based talent agent Jonathan Levine. “And that, if someone has a plot of land and a checkbook, they can suddenly find themselves in the festival business.”

Levine's roster includes the Black Eyed Peas and Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead, who of course played one of the most iconic music festivals.

But a lot has changed since Woodstock.

Music festivals have gone mainstream and they’re making hundreds of millions of dollars. Millennials, it seems, are willing to shell out for multi-day music experiences. And deep-pocketed corporate sponsors are willing to shell out to reach them.

And it's all come none too soon for musicians.

Two singers from Sandpoint, Idaho, Katelyn and Laurie Shook, are the front-women of the Shook Twins, now a Portland-based indie folk pop group. They recently played to a packed room in Spokane, but this is actually the group’s downtime, before festival season.

“Been sitting around. We’re saving up our vegetative state so we can just keep going, nonstop, all summer,” Katelyn said.

The growth in the number of music festivals over the last decade and half has coincided with a big shift in how people buy recorded music -- if they buy it. And now streaming services like Spotify, Pandora and, soon, Apple Beats are reinventing the model again.

“I think the whole industry, the whole scenario -- all of it -- is changing so much,” Katelyn said.

Music festivals, by comparison, seem relatively easy.

“It’s so good for an up-and-coming band because when we go to a new territory, we don’t have to have the pressure of filling the club all by ourselves,” Laurie said. “We’re just part of this huge thing and they’re promoting it and they’re doing all the cool stuff for it.”

Weeding out weaker festivals

Both up-and-coming artists and some big name headlining bands now plan their tours around festivals. But is there a ceiling on all this growth?

“The problem that we’ve got is that everyone is competing for the same pool of talent. And it’s not just in North America. It’s worldwide,” said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert business trade publication Pollstar.

He said there aren’t enough really big names to go around and predicts a “market correction that weeds out weaker festivals.”

Even well-established players are feeling the pinch of competition. The 52-year-old Britt Festival in southern Oregon -- which is actually a summer-long concert series -- has found it tougher lately to book some country acts because of new nearby festivals.

This year, at least two new music festivals are launching in Idaho. And Washington's pot economy bred this year's “Hempapalooza.”

But the rush to get in on the action doesn't bother Drew Lorona too much. He's one of the founders of the fledgling Treefort Music Festival in Boise. Lorona said organizers have been careful to grow Treefort slowly and put the emphasis on discovering unknown bands.

“I think the festivals that will struggle are going to be the ones that don't have that differentiation,” Lorona said. “And that seems to be what's popping up the most -- is kind of branded as like a party-in-the-desert type of thing.”

By his prediction, the Coachella-copycats aren’t going to be the ones to make it in the long run.

But here’s a good sign for festivals like his that aren’t trying to compete for big-name established bands: Lorona said for the first time, after four years, Treefort broke even.