Peak season for music festivals is upon us.  Each year, despite the threat of punishing heat and the likelihood of steep ticket prices, masses converge on festival grounds around the globe for multi-day events featuring live performances.

50 years ago this month, one such event seized the world’s attention as a defining moment of a generation and the standard bearer for live music events to come.  Woodstock, a three-day rock festival that took place in August of 1969, exceeded all expectations for turnout when it drew between 300,000 and 500,000 music fans to a dairy farm in Upstate New York. 

In a New York Times interview published on August 16, 1969, John Roberts, a Woodstock promoter and investor, revealed his bewilderment and dismay at the overwhelming festival turnout.  Having planned for attendance of about 100,000 on each day of the festival, Roberts reported, the venture’s partners were caught desperately unprepared.  

Understaffed and unable to complete the setup of entry gates, organizers abandoned their attempts to control mass entry onto the site and to collect money for admission, which was priced at $7 per day or $18 for all three days.  Attendance at Woodstock, for most who showed up for a slice of rock history that weekend, ending up being free.    

Given the gross underestimation of turnout at Woodstock, some less than favorable conditions greeted people both on site and in the surrounding community of Bethel, NY.  The New York Times reported food and water shortages, strains on police and security resources, and widespread traffic jams extending for miles.  According to an article in Consumer Reports News, there were only 600 portable toilets available the festival grounds, equaling one toilet for every 833 people on the 600-acre festival site.  

Decades after Woodstock, despite the rampant availability of personalized digital playlists to be enjoyed in air-conditioned comfort, the popularity of live music festivals shows no sign of waning.  23 percent of the US population—up from 18 percent in 2017—attended a music festival in 2018, according to a Billboard article citing Nielsen Music’s 2018 Music 360 Report.  The same report estimates that 52% of Americans go to at least one music festival each year.  

Many major music festivals have eclipsed Woodstock in crowd size, if not in popular sentiment.  According to a Statista.com data report of 2018 festival numbers, Pol’and’Rock, which originated as Woodstock Festival Poland, drew an audience of 750,000; Milwaukee’s Summerfest boasted attendance of 770,000 people; and Morocco’s Mawazine took top place globally last year with its collective audience of 2,500,000. 

In contrast to the scenario at Woodstock, some recent festivals have turned to data science to create a much different audience experience for the masses in attendance.  For example, organizers of the 2018 production of Skanderborg Music Festival (a.k.a. Smukfest)—an eight-day musical extravaganza that draws more than 50,000 revelers each August to a Danish beech forest—invited volunteers from IBM set up shop amidst the crowdThe IBM team gathered and analyzed audience data throughout the course of the festival, transforming the insights they gleaned into useful services for the audience and the event staff alike.  They provided such tools as a chatbot that attendees could query for information and technology for monitoring crowd concentrations, sales, and wait times for food and beverage vendors.    

In an age of social media, mobile devices, and advanced data science technology, the music festival industry has unprecedented access to insights into the people behind the numbers.  

Organizers of major events tap into these insights to gauge important metrics, enhance audience experience, and maximize opportunities for profit.  

Before the first eager fans step foot on the festival grounds, it’s now possible that event planners already have a pretty good sense of their backgrounds and preferences.  What age range do they represent? How far did they travel to attend the event? Which particular acts are they coming out to see? These profiles, of course, inform such decisions as what types of vendors to bring on site and how to stock food, beverages, and merchandise.         

Today’s festival-goers can take advantage of apps available at many venues to schedule their activities and locate vendors of interest to them.  The data these apps collect provide organizers with information about how the audience will move throughout the site, how to staff and stock vendor booths, where to position security resources for monitoring of heavily crowded areas, and how to distribute amenities throughout the site.  

Since it is likely that digital marketing played a hand in many ticket purchases, event marketers might also know which campaign captured the most interest, what channel proved most effective for promoting the festival, and how to market to a given individual in the future.  

Once the crowd has arrived and the festival is underway, today’s organizers can also exploit widespread cell phone usage and interactions with festival apps to gather data about audience behavior.  Information collected through these engagements is useful in tracking individual movements on the festival grounds, offering opportunities for promoters to deliver targeted, location-specific offers via push notification.           

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) wristbands, substituting for old-school tickets at many venues, facilitate speedy admission into festivals.  As RFID wristbands can also serve as surrogates for cash on the festival grounds, they can collect transactional data for reference during and after the event.

When the festival has come to a close, organizers can analyze the wealth of data collected throughout the course of the event.  This information can tell them where on the site individual audience members spent most time, what they purchased, and what offers would most likely appeal to them in the future.   

Today’s data-driven approach to festivals doesn’t guarantee an end to unpleasant incidents, unsafe conditions, and disappointment.  Ultimately, a great festival experience still relies most on the merits of the performances and the spirit of the crowd—the unquantifiable qualities that algorithms still can’t capture.  However, data science technology does offer new opportunities to make large-scale events safer, more efficient, and more personally engaging.