Listen to this article
Rock festivals are at the frontline of a shrinking youth market. When Glastonbury began in 1970 the UK’s median age was 34. It is now nearly 40.
The traditional diversions of the rock festival – loud music, intoxicants, primitive sanitation, heat stroke or trench foot – still find willing takers (Glastonbury sells out in hours). But there is a dwindling pool of young people for competitors to fight over.
“I think the general rock-type festival has peaked,” says Harvey Goldsmith, one of the UK’s leading concert promoters, the man behind Live Aid and Led Zeppelin’s 2007 reunion.
His latest venture is OnBlackheath Festival, a weekend event launched in London in September featuring Massive Attack and Grace Jones alongside cookery demonstrations from Michelin-starred chefs, a farmer’s market and craft beers.
The sponsor was middle England’s favourite retailer, John Lewis. Here was one rock festival where you were more likely to score wild mushrooms rather than the magic variety.
“There’s a more discerning audience,” says Mr Goldsmith. “You have to give value-plus.”’
OnBlackheath, which sold 25,000 of its 30,000 tickets over the two days is part of a trend towards targeting an older, richer festival-goer.
VIP areas and viewing zones you pay extra to access have become commonplace. Festivals offer caravans or luxury yurts for those unwilling to take their chances in a pop-up tent.
According to an annual festival industry survey, almost 40 per cent of festival goers in the UK in 2013 were over 30.
As the proportion of older music fans grows events such as the Henley Festival will multiply. Founded in 1983 as an offshoot from the Thames Valley town’s annual regatta, it began as a classical music festival but moved to pop in the mid-2000s.
Bryan Ferry, the suavest man in rock, was among this year’s headliners. There are champagne bars, meals cooked by celebrity chefs and a strict black-tie rule – a dress code that even Status Quo observed when they headlined in 2006.
“It’s one of the things that makes the festival absolutely unique in a very crowded market,” says the festival’s artistic director Stewart Collins. Those turning up in the traditional festivalwear of shorts and T-shirt are tactfully persuaded to brush up.
Live music increasingly depends on older fans. Heritage acts such as Bon Jovi and the Eagles have mounted among the highest-earning tours of recent years, each band grossing more than $250m in ticket sales. Veteran hard rockers Kiss are headlining a festival on a Caribbean cruise ship this month.
A widening demographic reach, from young to old, should mean good times ahead for record labels. But in the short term labels must persuade older consumers to move from CDs to digital music.
“It’s like a demographic time-bomb ticking,” music analyst Mark Mulligan forecasts. He cites the disappearance of CD players from new cars and computers, and of music shops from the high street.
“There’s going to be possibly a five- or 10-year gap of older music buyers who are still a crucially important part of revenue but they will have fallen out of the habit of buying CDs. There’s going to be this gaping hole.”
There is also the issue of whether labels, in an era of shrinking sales, can create the kind of bands required to fill the heritage circuit in 20 or 30 years’ time.
“There’s a very vibrant live market for older music fans right now but there are real concerns about whether the music industry is creating the sort of band to sustain it,” says Mr Mulligan.
“When sales are much smaller how many bands will be like the Rolling Stones, still going in their 60s or 70s? Is it possible now to create a big enough fan base to be a successful live artist in 20 years’ time?”
Mr Goldsmith says: “One of the dangers we have in the industry is that we’re not developing enough new global rock bands. The industry itself needs to put some effort into that.”
While the rest of the world is getting older, the chance of a band enjoying a long life is diminishing.