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Music

SXSW, Reading, and Glastonbury: What festivals actually pay artists

@TylerGolsen

Late in March, a Twitter thread from the American indie rock band Wednesday shed some unflattering light on the realities of touring in the modern-day. If you’re in a band that is only a mid-level independent act at best, there’s a certain expectation of having to slum it: sleeping on floors, eating gas station food, scraping enough gig money to buy gas and get to the next show. But that’s all supposed to lead to some kind of profit, right? Well, not according to Wednesday.

The band compiled all of their profits from the shows they did leading up to the 2022 edition of Austin’s South By Southwest Festival. They also showed a side-by-side comparison of the expenses that piled up in getting there. All told, Wednesday actually wound up losing money during their tour to the tune of about $100.

One of the bigger revelations of the Twitter thread for the general public was that SXSW doesn’t actually pay most of the artists that play at the massively popular festival. Instead, artists have to choose between getting paid a relatively paltry sum or taking advantage of the artist’s package that gives them access to backstage areas and other amenities.

“All official showcase artists are offered a registration package which gives them access to the conference, showcases, and artist-only areas,” an SXSW spokesperson told Stereogum around the time that the thread began to get traction online. “Domestic artists are given the option to receive a cash payment in lieu of the registration package. The cash payment for a solo act is $100 and $250 for bands. Most artists take the registration package.”

A “festival fee” as most artists refer to it, can range from Lady Gaga’s reported $4 million per show or Radiohead’s $3 million all the way down to pennies or, in the case of SXSW, free tickets to the festival. A lot of things can affect these fees. Attendance of the festival and its capacity, the cultural significance of the festival itself and the number of sponsors attached, all of which can provide a decent payday. But for smaller artists, trying to negotiate with the big boys while fully understanding the promotional leg-up they may provide is a difficult dance to be a part of.

For big-name acts, festivals tend to be the major moneymakers in their calendar. But for one of the UK’s most popular attractions during festival season, the Glastonbury Festival, top names like Paul McCartney and Coldplay have reportedly only been paid around £200,000. The Rolling Stones were said to have actually lost money at their legendary 2013 headlining appearance at the festival, but the cultural impact of playing at Britain’s biggest festival often outweighs the costs for top-tier bands.

“We’re not in the same bracket as everyone else when it comes to paying artists massive fees,” Glastonbury organiser Emily Eavis told NME in 2017. “That’s another thing to consider when we get a lot of scrutiny about the line-up. Glastonbury relies completely on goodwill. We’re not in the situation where we’re able to just give people enormous amounts of money. It’s probably less than 10% of what they’d get from playing any of the other major British commercial festivals.”

The Reading Festival is a bit more generous, with payments ranging from around £1 million for headliners down to £25,000 for artists who appear lower on the bill. That’s a solid payday, but the fees from booking agents, managers, hotels, and other expenses tend to make that money dwindle quickly.

Even though there are more festivals than ever before, there are also more artists trying to scramble for the slots. Not everyone can be The Rolling Stones playing Glastonbury: the average payout for Coachella performers allegedly ranges from about $10,000 to $15,000. While that is far more than a standard bar or nightclub gig, the competition to get onto the bill is fierce and the expenditure to accommodate the performance likely to also rise. The other option is for a more indie-friendly festival, but then we’re back to SXSW.

For a litany of small-scale bands and artists who are simply trying to survive, a massive festival gig can represent more than the exposure of being on a massive stage. The payout for a large festival can account for some of the biggest profits that they see – that is when the festival actually decides to pay them. There is a fair amount of literature around if you’re part of a small group or act that is embarking on their first run of festival dates via the Musicians Union. However, the main instruction seems to be knowing your own worth as an artist and setting out expectations of payment as quickly and clearly as possible.

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