Tomorrowland, Sónar, Lollapalooza, Creamfields and now Electric Daisy Carnival: more and more major music festival brands are setting their sights on the space between Bogotá and São Paulo. US giant Lollapalooza established itself in South America long before it ever made it to Europe, and in April 2015 Tomorrowland Brasil became only the second edition of the world's biggest dance music festival outside of its native Belgium.
With the first Sónar Bogotá just around the corner, I spoke to organiser Gabriel García, Tomorrowland Brasil's Edo van Duyn and Brazilian DJ ANNA, to find out how South America's festival landscape is taking shape.
Developing the Festival Scene
Talking with both Van Duyn and García, it is striking how much they each talk about the need to "develop the market." To you and me, that means getting people excited about music festivals as we know them in the US, Europe and elsewhere.
"What we've been doing all these years with Estereo Picnic in Bogotá is showing people that festivals are much more than just a bunch of bands playing on a few stages," explains García. "It's an experience where you have a lot of things to discover and a lot of things to do. People know Sónar Barcelona and they’re really happy to have this experience here in Colombia."
"Tomorrowland Brasil is part of an evolution"
Alongside the international brands, smaller, more local events have so far played an important role in that development process. At festivals like Skol Beats (also run by Van Duyn's company, ID&T) music fans get a chance to taste the festival atmosphere while supporting and strengthening the local music scene at the same time. "When you talk about Tomorrowland, it’s part of an evolution – it says a lot about the maturity of the market, that you can even hold a festival as complex, and as big, and as ambitious as Tomorrowland," says Van Duyn. "So it’s really the culmination of 15 years of doing a lot of stuff – getting a lot of stuff right, making a few mistakes."
Brazilian-born artist ANNA grew up amidst this developing scene, going on to set up base in Europe. "The first time I attended Skol Beats I was so afraid I wasn’t going to get in, because I was still underage and had a fake ID! It was an amazing festival, with every style of electronic music, drum and bass, techno, house, trance…"
Crowds with an Appetite
Inevitably, a growth in music festival culture has made South America an irresistible new market for US and European heavyweight brands; Electric Daisy Carnival is the latest to grab a slice of the action, with a date set for Interlagos, São Paulo, early next month. And on the other side of the coin, there is a live music audience all over South America that is hungry to see bands, artists and DJs that don't often tour in that area of the world.
Right now we're now at an interesting tipping point: the groundwork has been laid and festivals are beginning to flourish but – given the size and populations of the countries concerned – there still aren't all that many festivals around. For García and Sónar Bogotá, that represents a massive advantage: "Colombia is in the middle of several countries that don’t have shows regularly, and some of the bands that are coming to Sónar are never coming to their countries. So we're expecting a lot of people from Panama, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ecuador, Peru, even Venezuela."
Van Duyn highlights the fact that the sheer power of interest and social media attention made Brazil an obvious host for Tomorrowland's next move. "It was just really clear that there was a huge and very keen and excited fanbase, desperate for this event to come here."
More Than a Music Destination
So is it lazy stereotyping to wonder whether there is something about South American cultures that makes countries like Brazil, Argentina and Colombia ripe for large-scale parties, or is there some truth in it?
"Yeah, certainly," says Van Duyn. "Not just Brazilians but South Americans in general: the energy and enthusiasm, and the way that South Americans are famous for partying. That’s a very special trait and something that really gives a festival a special dimension. No doubt about it."
This energy is also something that artists respond to. "I can talk about Brazil, people there are really passionate," says ANNA. "I have been to Argentina this year and I was so impressed with their openness and passion, they are one of the best crowds in the world. Also Chile has a fantastic scene, Colombia as well."
"It's the same kind of behaviour you get when there's a World Cup – people really make the most of the trip"
Meanwhile, beyond the local market, the profile of US and European festival brands to attract a global audience could also be a decisive factor. On a continent where a powerful tourism industry stretches from coast to coast, some of the world's most iconic attractions are giving the music festival market an extra helping hand.
"I met people from all over the world," says Van Duyn of Tomorrowland Brasil 2015. "New Zealand, Canada, USA – you name it, they were there. And most of them made a big trip out of it. They went to the festival for four days and they went to Rio for a few days – it’s the same kind of behaviour you get when there’s a World Cup. People go to watch the games, but really they make the most of the trip and get to know the countries."
Onwards into an Uncertain Future
If all of this sounds unerringly positive, then it might come as a surprise that Van Duyn raises concerns over the financial future of large-scale festivals across South America.
"At risk? Most certainly. The problem is artist fees – plus, the taxes involved when you bring artists from abroad are very high. Most of South America is also in the middle of a currency crisis, and so some festivals are going to have a hard time."
The Brazilian government imposes a 50% tax on foreign performers' fees, while in Colombia there is a flat-rate 10% tax on every ticket – even those given away for free. "As for the bands themselves, it’s more expensive for them to play here," says García. "So obviously we have to pay more for them to come."
If A-list international artists – from Muse to Martin Garrix – ever become simply too expensive for more than one or two festivals to host, then the consequences for the South American scene in general are clear. But for now, at least, it seems the signs of growth remain promising.
"I think in 4 or 5 years this is going to be a very interesting market," says García. "So what we have to do now is survive."
And for anyone worried for the future of Tomorrowland Brasil, Van Duyn has some reassuring words. "Thankfully we're still fine – but even successful events have to make some changes. Tomorrowland Brasil is kind of off the curve, I think it’s hard to compare with pretty much everything else. The brand is so strong and the economics are a bit different because of that."