Industry Op-Ed

Festivals & Philanthropy: It’s Time To Do Better

Sep 25, 2020

5 min read

SalmonFest in Alaska is a shining example of how music events can make real change in the world.SalmonFest in Alaska is a shining example of how music events can make real change in the world.

SalmonFest in Alaska is a shining example of how music events can make real change in the world. Photo by Simon Rust Lamb, Esq.

“What can we do to make our festivals better?” Great event producers, artists and fans obsess over this question, and the magic of festival production sparkles in each creative answer. 

The art of events lies in the tangle of imagination and reality. Budget limitations exist, but when everyone involved has an amazing time and the show generates enough cash to do it again - that’s a feeling money can’t buy. It’s also the metric for “success” and has been for years, but I believe we can do better. 

In this summer without festivals, it’s time to reflect and ask ourselves: What can we do to make the world better?

Like every other aspect of life, music culture responded to the dual triggers of COVID-19 and the police killing of George Floyd and so many black Americans. There were many charitable livestreams aimed at raising awareness and funds for both causes. For example, Global Citizen’s ‘One World: Together at Home’ televised concert raised $128 million, RWQuarentunes livestream series raised more than $8 million, and Beatport’s two ReConnect DJ livestreams raised $265,000. 

Significant results are possible in part because of the strong, trusted line of communication artists and festivals have with their fans. If the festival or artist cares enough to talk about a cause, to volunteer a performance, and to ask others to care and help, fans respond. 

Festivals did not seize the opportunity this summer to invite their ticket holders into action. More than 10 million citizens in the United Kingdom responded to their government’s call for volunteers around the coronavirus crisis, while U.S. festivals missed a chance to step into the gap domestically and call their communities to some kind - any kind of action.

Festivals could have asked people to volunteer on the weekend of cancelled events, and the collective result would have been impressive. In the face of unprecedented need, the festival community needs to do  more and establish themselves as leaders of their communities. If leaders in the festival industry put more energy into making their festivals and the world a better place, everyone else will come along for the ride and increase their contributions.

Crisis shouldn’t have to trigger philanthropy, and festivals need not take a political stance to make the world a better place. There are more than enough needs locally and globally to find pathways that resonate with every festival’s ethos.

For decades, music has brought awareness to social issues and raised money to help people impacted by war, famine, disease and more, but music activism can do more than just raise dollars. Rock the Vote’s 30-year effort to activate young people claims to have registered 12 million voters. The success of the progressive non-profit’s outreach relies on artists and promoters to share access with their audiences at concerts and festivals.

How many times have you walked from one stage to another at a festival, and met a long line of organizational booths? Smiling attendants lure fans with free goodies, then invite them to sign petitions, register to vote or volunteer. Many festivals include information on these organizations on their websites and apps. Some dance music festivals charge fans an extra dollar on the ticket price and allocate the aggregate to various organizations.

Still, if a fan pays an extra dollar for a ticket, it’s the fan that really donated to the charity, just as it’s the artist who “donates” a free set to a livestream which then asks fans to donate hard-earned cash. The festival gets the publicity while often benefitting from a tax write-off.

Fundraising should not start and end with the fans’ money. If a festival asks their fans to give a dollar for each ticket purchased, the festival can match the final amount and double the result. To triple the figure, festivals can invite sponsors to match again as part of their partnerships. Festivals could even invite production partners to math, further maximizing the donation. 

A simple addition to contracts could drive impact. Hollywood production contracts use an “inclusion rider” to provide a certain amount of diversity in casting and production staff. Festival producers could use a similar provision to drive talent and partner participation in charitable initiatives. Adopting this into even a handful of agreements would promote philanthropic discussion. Many artists often have their own charitable goals and partnerships. If festivals partnered with these artists, they’d create the capacity to deliver even stronger results.

SalmonFest 2019 main stageSalmonFest 2019 main stage

SalmonFest 2019 main stage. Photo by Simon Rust Lamb, Esq.

Salmonfest in Ninilchek, Alaska, is an incredible example of a festival that leads fans toward a positive cause. Funded in 2001 by Bob Gillam, a wealthy Alaskan conservative with a love for salmon (and salmon fishing), the non-profit event raises awareness around efforts to protect the world’s most productive sockeye salmon fishery in Bristol Bay. 

Salmonfest’s name celebrates the species, while tickets raise money for a variety of salmon preservation initiatives. The event offers complete integration of non-profits with on-site booths and on-stage speeches, as well as salmon and environmental-themed art installations. Most notably, Salmonfest flipped the fight against the proposed Pebble Mine, one of the biggest environmental issues today, into a fight for something that stirs even more passion. Pebble Mine appears to be a local issue, but salmon is a global one.

Not every festival can or cares to stake its existence on a single issue, but Salmonfest showcases what can be accomplished when a festival elevates philanthropy on the priority list. 

While some festivals thrive as alternate realities, a place to escape the “real world,” there is always a way to incorporate philanthropy. As the west coast hangs under a cloud of smoke and protestors clash with police nationwide, it’s time to raise the standard. Festivals, their producers and guests are capable of much more.