Faster Than Sound: I Subscribed to the Austin-Based festivalPass and Felt Confused
Few discounts and few Austin options on new NFT-dabbling concert ticket marketplace
For a carefree few months in 2018, I went to the movie theatre as many times as I could manage. A subscription service offering unlimited movies for just $9.95 a month seemed too good to be true, and it was. Now a memed tech fable, MoviePass bled cash in a slow decline to shutter and bankruptcy. (The company actually recently relaunched with a slightly terrifying new concept ensuring users watch ads by utilizing eyeball-tracking AI technology.)
A similarly named service, festivalPass, appeared in my inbox this month promising a money-saving membership for concerts. Offering access to live events and hotel bookings, the new Austin-based company positions itself in opposition to tacked-on ticket fees – which have become rampant enough to inspire recent regulating legislation in New York state. Founder and CEO Ed Vincent moved to Austin to develop festivalPass, attracting local investors Shelli Taylor of Alamo Drafthouse, Brian Sharples of HomeAway, and Jason Dorsey, who all also serve on the advisory board.
I thought of lessons from yesteryear: Get in early, and maybe just cancel later. I went ahead and paid $19 for one month of entry- level membership. After going down the rabbit hole of festivalPass' system to little avail, I found few discounts and few Austin options overall. Unlike MoviePass' storied unlimited access, which used a prepaid credit card, the festivalPass subscription doesn't ensure a free ticket to anywhere – just access to shop.
I would only recommend it to those with specific plans to attend high-dollar events happening in the next month, as you can check out ticket prices before becoming a member, or people really jonesing to buy tickets with cryptocurrency. You can't buy more than two tickets to any event.
It's kind of like planning a trip with credit card travel points – not the most intuitive system, inviting head-scratching calculations to ensure you're making back what you're paying monthly. The only way I managed to find a longer listing of local shows was to type "Austin" into the search bar and again into the location filter. Current area offerings are very limited, listing only around 35 Austin events through the end of July across a dozen local venues including the Moody Center, Paramount, Emo's, and Empire Control Room.
I was most confused by how to tell what's actually a discount. The ticket prices are largely the same as those offered on mainstream ticketing platforms used by venues, like Ticketmaster, and some are even higher. Because tickets are sourced directly from the resale market, prices for say, an all-general-admission sold-out Keshi show this week at Emo's, can vary widely from $39 to $124.
On a Monday phone call, Vincent explained I wasn't supposed to be looking for deals in dollars, but rather the price in festivalPass' in-house currency of "credits." He broke it down that my $19-per-month membership includes 15 credits, so I'm paying $1.27 per credit. The upper-tier $99-per-month members get 90 credits, so they're only paying $1.10 per credit. "So what happens is, the more you commit to [paying] on a monthly basis, the less you end up paying for the tickets," he said.
Surprised that Vincent pointed out these numbers, I went on to compare festivalPass' listed ticket costs in credits versus dollars. Sure enough, the conversion is pretty consistently around $1.27 per credit. Basically, because I'm paying at the same rate the app is pricing, there's not many ways to land a discount in the bottom-tier $19-per-month subscription. I'll probably buy a lawn seat for 5 Seconds of Summer at the Moody Amphitheater with my 15 credits – literally the only local event I could find that my credits would cover in many hours of clicking around the site – and then cancel my subscription.
Vincent said the company is expanding their inventory of concerts through partnerships with music venues as well as secondary ticket-selling markets – also used by big industry names like StubHub or SeatGeek. Rather than competing with these major platforms, festivalPass actually gets most of their tickets from the same sources. Vincent says they're able to pass the ticket along to customers without the typical fees at checkout.
"For us, we're happy to give most of those fees back to our members in order to have them commit to being a member," says Vincent. "I'd rather have lower margins and predictable monthly recurring revenue, which usually will turn into a bigger enterprise value for the company overall – versus a transactional business model, which might have higher margins, but doesn't have an ongoing relationship with the member."
For example, he's working on landing a stash of ACL Festival tickets, but hasn't worked out a partnership with the Austin-based concert promoter yet. "Hopefully we'll have a direct placement of the tickets through [C3 Presents] themselves, but in a worst-case scenario we'll have tickets through the secondary market without the additional fee," he explains. Despite a press release mentioning passes to ACL and Bonnaroo (and choosing the name festivalPass), neither are available on the platform yet.
Among various entrepreneurial ventures, Vincent previously ran a data analytics company where MoviePass was a major client. The CEO says he spent a lot of time digging into the company's data as a sort of "de facto chief data officer." I asked if festivalPass' model would rely also on harvesting consumer habits, as MoviePass sold user data to theatres and studios.
"MoviePass had a lot of issues in the terms of their business model that didn't allow them to truly grow a stable, ongoing company, but the answer is yes," he said. "As we continue to build more and more primary relationships we're happy to share some of that data. It's something that we're looking at.
"Over time as we [get] millions of members, we'll have a good idea of how people act across different locations. Because, the same festivalPass member may have gone to an independent venue ticketed by TicketWeb, and then a Ticketmaster or an AEG venue."
Like many current events ventures, festivalPass also looks to Web3 as a source of revenue. The company plans to launch NFTs offering lifetime membership to the highest-tier plan, alongside a "University" tab on their website offering crypto education. The copy describing their first NFT character, a stoic man named Legend, packs an impressive number of aspirational rock stereotypes.
"Legend is a talented guitarist and front man, who has toured in rock bands his entire adult life," the festivalPass website reads. "He exudes confidence and sex appeal… He is wild and carefree. Everyone that meets him can't help but want to be him. He is the rockstar persona that dominates Tranche 1 of the Festival Family."
Pleasure Venom, high-voltage Austin punk act, appears on the new NBC reboot of 2000s series Queer as Folk. The band performs their 2018 song "Hive" on episode 5 ("Choke") of the drama – streaming now on Peacock. The series flew the Texans out to New Orleans for filming in January. Lead singer Audrey Campbell posted: "As a queer person tryna figure it out, I really fucked with OG Queer As Folk, so this was such a trip to be a part of."
South by Southwest Music 2023 applications open up this Tuesday, June 28, and go through October 7 for all artists interested in partaking in the annual monolith. An initial application fee of $35 increases to $55 on August 12. The fest takes place March 10-19 of next year. Apps also open up for panel proposals, as well as SXSW's art and pitch programs.