KAABOO is back, as number of music festivals explodes (and some implode)


When KAABOO Del Mar debuted in 2015, its focus on ritzy amenities - gourmet food and drinks, concierge service, Mercedes-Benz car service, private cabanas, surfing lessons, massages, a Las Vegas-styled “day club,” and a swimming pool overlooking one of the main stages - made it seem like a high-stakes gamble.

While the attrition rate for new music festivals can be high - including this year’s disastrous Fyre Festival in the Bahamas (more on that in a moment) - the three-day KAABOO appears to be building momentum.

It returns next Friday through Sunday, Sept. 15-17, for its third annual edition. Pink, Muse, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Red Hot Chili Peppers, David Guetta, Jackson Browne, Alanis Morissette, Patton Oswalt and at least 60 other music and comedy acts will perform.

KAABOO is the brainchild of Bryan E. Gordon. He is chairman of The Madison Companies, LLC, a Denver-based private investment holding company with multi-billion-dollar holdings.

“People like the mix we have between legendary rock ‘n’ roll heroes, up-and-coming new artists and acts in between, who are all part of the journey at KAABOO,” Gordon said.

“We have a diverse lineup, with something for everybody, and that’s what I’ve always thought is the right formula.”

One of Gordon’s goals, he told the Union-Tribune in 2015, was to help fill the void left by San Diego Street Scene, the pioneering festival that started here in 1984 and thrived for decades, before going belly up in 2009 after mounting financial losses.

“While it’s obviously too bad for the city and the producers of Street Scene that it fell by the wayside,” Gordon said, “it’s encouraging for us that there is an appetite for such an event in San Diego - and for an event that will be uniquely for, and about, Southern California. And, hopefully, we can take that legacy and build on it.”

Gordon’s deep pockets are an advantage that few independently produced new festivals have. KAABOO is part of a constantly growing, albeit volatile, industry that now draws an estimated 32 million people annually to music festivals in the U.S. alone.

‘20 festivals on the same weekend’

“In December of 2016, we came up with 2,000 festivals, worldwide, that we already had confirmed 2017 dates for. It was nowhere near as many only a few years ago, when - in December - we knew of 200 events in 70 countries set for the following year,” said Gary Bongiovanni, the editor-in-chief of the leading concert industry publication Pollstar.

“If you look at some of the summer months now, there are 20 different festivals on the same weekend, many of which draw from the same talent pool of artists.”

At least 60 of those annual festivals - including Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits - are produced or co-produced by Live Nation, which owns and operates Mattress Firm Amphitheatre in Chula Vista and House of Blues in downtown San Diego.

At least 11 more festivals are produced each year by AEG/Goldenvoice, including Coachella and Stagecoach, both of which are held in Indio and draw 20 percent of their respective audiences from San Diego County.

Coachella earned $94 million in ticket sales alone in 2017, a $10 million jump over 2015, after increasing its attendance from 99,000 to 125,000 this year.

Last year’s six-day Desert Trip festival, at the same location in Indio, grossed a record $160 million for AEG/Goldenvoice, which owns a controlling interest in San Diego’s Valley View Casino Center and exclusively books the Humphreys Concerts by the Bay series. With only two acts a night, Desert Trip marked the first - and, presumably, last - time fans could see Bob Dylan open for the Rolling Stones, Neil Young open for Paul McCartney, and The Who open for Roger Waters.

Yet, in a reflection of just how high-stakes world of festivals is, Goldenvoice lost so much money after Coachella’s 1999 debut that the festival was dark the next year. It did not return until 2001, after AEG had acquired Goldenvoice and pumped in a significant amount of cash. Even then, Coachella did not break even until 2003 or sell out for the first time until 2005.

“We never dreamed we’d have a 10th anniversary, because it didn’t seem like there’d even be a second Coachella,” Goldenvoice honcho Paul Tollett told the Union-Tribune. “We went a year thinking it was over.”

Shifting the paradigm’ with Kaaboo

After a slow start, which is often the case for new festivals, attendance at KAABOO jumped visibly last year. A capacity audience of 40,000 was on hand for the second of its three nights, when Aerosmith and The Chainsmokers performed concurrent sets on the event’s two largest outdoor stages. Jimmy Buffett & The Coral Reefer Band drew an overflow crowd to their opening day headlining slot at KAABOO, which is held at the Del Mar Racetrack and the adjacent fairgrounds.

This year, both of the festival’s three-day VIP pass options - the Hang Ten ($3,499) and Hang Five ($899) - both sold out in advance.

“The event appeals to a wide demographic, from a younger to a more mature age group,” said KAABOO’s Chief Brand Officer Jason Felts. He is also the CEO of Virgin Produced, the entertainment division of Richard Branson’s worldwide Virgin business empire, which includes Virgin Airlines, Virgin Hotels and Virgin Money credit cards.

“There are a lot of great festivals, however we really feel that KAABOO is shifting the paradigm to offer guests a different experience,” Felts continued. “The experience and amenities that guests find at KAABOO are very different from what guests experience at most festivals, from the quality and magnitude of our contemporary art work ... to the quality of gourmet culinary offerings and diversity of our lineup, down to offering all flushing toilets for public use.”

KAABOO is riding a lucrative wave with other annual music-fueled festivals that cater to audiences willing to pay more to be pampered.

Just how much more was demonstrated in April, when the inaugural edition of the two-weekend Fyre Festival debuted on Great Exuma Island. Despite ticket prices of up to $12,000 apiece and VIP packages as high as $250,000, a reported 10,000 or so tickets were bought by the boutique festival’s target audience of affluent millennials.

Billed as “Coachella in the Bahamas,” Fyre promised a host of amenities, including private planes, yachts, villas, celebrity chefs and more. The event’s producers hired Kendall Jenner and such supermodels and top social media “influencers” as Bella Hadid and San Diego’s Emily Ratajkowski to promote the festival on social media.

But Fyre failed to deliver on even basic infrastructure, let alone any of its high-priced amenities. The festival imploded before a note of music could be played by the Poway-bred punk-pop band blink-182, Major Lazer, or any of the other acts.

Billy McFarland, the 25-year-old Manhattan entrepreneur who launched Fyre in a partnership with hip-hop star Ja Rule, has since been arrested on wire-fraud charges. Several class-action lawsuits are pending, one for $100 million.

But Fyre isn’t the only festival to fall by the wayside.

Festivals can be a risky business

In April, New York’s four-year-old Mysteryland USA festival was abruptly canceled, “due to unforeseen circumstances.” Its June lineup was scheduled to include LCD Soundsystem, Major Lazer and Run the Jewels.

In May, British Columbia’s Pemberton festival was canceled, just weeks after the announcement of a lineup that featured Chance the Rapper, San Diego’s Slightly Stoopid and 2017 KAABOO co-headliners Muse. The producers of Pemberton, which debuted in 2008 but did not return until 2014, have declared bankruptcy. As yet, they have not provided refunds to ticket-holders.

June saw the cancellation of the debut edition of Pennsylvania’s Karoondinha Music Festival, whose lineup included Chance the Rapper, Paramore, John Legend and 2017 San Diego Blues Festival headliner Mavis Staples , who performs Sept. 9 at that seven-year-old festival at Embarcadero Marina Park North, across from Seaport Village.

The reason?

Low ticket sales.

On Sept. 4, Apple announced the end of its decade-old London Music Festival, which debuted in 2007 as the iTunes Festival. No reason was given for the cancellation of the monthlong September festival in England, whose lineup in past years has included Elton John, Adele, Paul Simon, Lady Gaga, Coldplay, Ed Sheeran, Kendrick Lamar, One Direction and Britney Spears.

Then there is the dormant Rock in Rio USA, which was scheduled to take place every two years in Las Vegas, after debuting in 2015 with a lineup headed by Taylor Swift, No Doubt, Bruno Mars and Metallica. Budgeted at $75 million, it lost an estimated $20 to $28 million, after drawing just 144,000 attendees. That was less than half of the 328,000 people Rock in Rio’s producers had banked on attending.

“The Fyre festival was a scam from the start,” said Pollstar editor Bongiovanni. “The more worrisome one is Pemberton, because that was done by an established promoter. For Pemberton to cancel, and not give fans refunds, was a wake-up call for the industry, because we’re not protecting the public.

“There are more festivals than ever, and it’s become a bit of a hit-and-miss game. Plus, the talent pool hasn’t grown any, so there are more festivals booking the same amount of talent. And it’s a global situation, with festivals in Australia, Austria and San Diego bidding for the same acts.”

Growing the KAABOO brand

And what does Bongiovanni think about the acts booked to perform at KAABOO next weekend?

“That’s a very impressive talent lineup,” he replied. “Especially when you consider that AEG and Live Nation would have been climbing all over each other to get San Diego dates for Muse, Pink, or any of the other KAABOO headliners.”

Yet, while Pollstar ran a story on KAABOO earlier this summer, Bongiovanni apologized for knowing very little about the festival.

“I’m not sure how extensively it’s promoted outside of the Southern California market,” he said.

KAABOO’s plan is for steady growth, according to Chief Brand Officer Jason Felts.

“While the majority of marketing is centralized in San Diego and Southern California, we do have promotions running in several other states,” he said.

“We are continuing to grow the KAABOO brand in the industry, as well as the general community, with organic, word-of-mouth. ... It is our goal that KAABOO becomes a household name, attracting guests locally and from outside of the region.”

To do so, KAABOO will need to compete with several nearby festivals, two of which were launched in its wake.

Today marks the conclusion of the second annual Ohana festival in Dana Point. Its headliners include former San Diegan Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and tropical troubadour Jack Johnson, who headlined KAABOO’s third day last year.

Meanwhile, June saw the launch of the AEG-produced Arroyo Seco Weekend at Brookside Golf Course, adjacent to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. The lineup for the music and food extravaganza included at least two major acts that are also playing this weekend at KAABOO, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and Weezer.

“It’s a big concern - the number of festivals keeps growing, but the number of proven headliners has remained pretty much the same,” said Pollstar’s Bongiovanni.

“Age will take its toll on the ‘heritage’ acts, like Paul McCartney and Elton John. Will younger acts that are selling tickets today still be selling tickets in 20 years and be able to replace the ‘heritage’ acts? That’s the big question for festivals, and the concert industry, and nobody knows the answer.”

In the meanwhile, expect more new festivals to compete for that talent, as KAABOO continues to grow.

“This has been our easiest year to book acts yet,” KAABOO mastermind Gordon said. “There is more talent that would like to play for us than we have space for in our lineup, and I think that puts us in good stead.”


When: 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday, Sept. 15, 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 16, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17

Where: Del Mar Racetrack and Fairgrounds, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar

Tickets: $129 daily; $259 two-day ticket; $299 three-day ticket

Phone: 855.798.5995