If you build it, they will come. But what if they don’t?
With the cancellation of the Roxodus Music Fest in Edenvale, Ont., last month, the extended hiatus of the WayHome Music & Arts Festival north of Toronto and the recent collapse of Michael Lang’s Woodstock 50 reboot in upstate New York, the hard realities of the modern multiday, campsite-and-concert affairs are being laid bare.
It wasn’t long ago when major music festivals were popping up here, there and in every milk-cow pasture. But the boom has gone bust, and the vision of peace, music and port-o-potty paradise is going down the drain.
“It’s a brutal business,” says Stan Dunford, president and co-founder of the Toronto-based live-entertainment company Republic Live. “The costs are staggering, the profit margins are low and there are so many variables."
There’s nothing to show that the appetite for music festivals is lessening. And yet, cancellations are becoming more common as new festivals and unprepared promoters struggle to emulate Coachella, Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, whose success has driven up performer fees substantially.
In a crowded field of competing festivals, curating an attractive enough music lineup to lure fans to the events is only half the equation. Today, it’s all about the 360-degree festival experience – the ease of ingress and egress, the upscale camping options, the food-and-drink possibilities and proper RV sites.
Millennials are fine with sitting or standing in a field, but will the fogies coming to see Neil Young want a grandstand? Hundred-yard lineups for over-priced beer and wine will earn social-media scorn, and god forbid the Purell dispensers run dry. State-of-the-art sound systems are one thing, but having shuttle buses run on time is another. What’s the right price point for tickets? And what’s the budget for staff and security, not to mention the defumigation costs associated with Kid Rock’s hospitality trailer.
“It’s complicated and stressful,” Dunford says, "even when everything goes right.”
When I sat down with Dunford at a downtown coffee shop, he was scanning his phone for the latest developments in the Roxodus affair. The first-year festival was to be a classic-rock colossus in cottage-country Ontario, not far from Dunford’s own permanent Burl’s Creek Event Grounds festival site in Oro-Medonte, near Barrie, where his successful Boots & Hearts country music gathering is annually held, and where his in-limbo WayHome pop-and-rock mega fest once did.
Headliners at Roxodus were to be Aerosmith, Kid Rock, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blondie, Nickelback, Alice Cooper and Billy Idol. Just more than a week before Roxodus was to begin on July 11, festival promoters MF Live posted a notice on its website that blamed the cancellation on “tremendous rainy weather” that had rendered the rented venue at Edenvale Airport, north of Toronto, unusable.
The reality was that promoter MF Live Inc. ran out of cash. According to bankruptcy court filings, nearly 200 creditors are owed $16.5-million, almost 100 times more than MF Live has left in its pockets.
“Looks like they’re not going to get their money,” Dunford says of the creditors, who, unlike the rock stars who were scheduled to perform, were not paid up front. “Well, I could have predicted all of this.”
What Dunford is talking about is the folly of the first-year festival. Because there’s a history of promoters going broke, agents for A-list artists now demand cash on the drumhead. Roxodus organizers banked on 40,000 Nickelback believers and Aerosmith enthusiasts, but records show that only some 10,000 tickets were sold in advance. The $5-million generated from those sales didn’t come close to offsetting the $15-million paid up front to performers, suppliers and contractors.
“The idea of organizing a music festival is sexy, it’s exciting,” Dunford says. “The promoters are optimistic people and they’re passionate about music, but many of them don’t have the financial resources to weather the storm or accommodate the time it takes to get the festival to a point where it actually starts to work.”
Before forming Republic Live with his wife, Eva, Dunford made a fortune in the trucking business. Boots & Hearts, which takes place Aug. 8 to 11, has been popular since its inception in 2012 in Bowmanville, Ont. But Dunford says he began turning a profit only in the past couple of years, when he moved the event to his bucolic, custom-designed Burl’s Creek grounds. “I could afford the losses to build a brand and build something that people would come back to year after year,” he says.
Dunford has struck the right formula for his single-genre Boots & Hearts, this summer to be headlined by Miranda Lambert and Jason Aldean. So much so that Republic Live debuted another event for country music fans last month. The Big Sky Music Festival, headlined by Alabama and Travis Tritt, caters to an older crowd.
Dunford had less success with WayHome, an ambitious event of multiple stages and genres. The cost of bringing in headliners Neil Young, Kendrick Lamar and Sam Smith in 2015 or LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire and the Killers in 2016 wasn’t offset by ticket sales, even though attendance was fairly healthy. Dunford wants to revive WayHome, but not as it was. "If we bring it back, it will need to be in a different form,” he says.
“If I were to advise anyone starting a festival today, I’d tell them to start small with a pop-up stage, sell some beer and hope to come away with $50 in your pocket.”
That business plan was pretty much the one followed by Virginia Clark for her Wolfe Island Music Festival, a non-profit, indie-rock annual for more than two decades now. “It was a party on a dock, with a hay wagon,” says Clark, who saw her event, a ferry-ride away from Kingston, grow to a three-day camping affair. “But back then, I wasn’t competing against much. If the New Pornographers were playing Lollapalooza, I’d say fine, I’ll find another headliner, no problem.”
Rising costs and an over-saturated festival market has led to the demise of many festivals. Even Field Trip Music & Arts Festival, which record label Arts & Crafts can stock cheaply with its own acts, has been put on hiatus after six years of bliss, bouncy castles and beer lineups at Fort York Garrison Common.
The beloved Wolfe Island festival (set for Aug. 9 and 10) has scaled back this summer, from an overnight camping event to a boutique small-hall gathering headlined by the Sadies and Born Ruffians. The move is in honour of the late Canadian music publicist Darryl Weeks, who passed away earlier this year. “He was a big part of this festival,” Clark says. “The last time I spoke with him, we talked about last year’s show by Weather Station at St. Margaret’s Hall here on the island. It was special for him.”
That sense of camaraderie is important to the livelihood of annual festivals, and it’s something the bigger ones find hard to cultivate, if they even bother to try at all. “Sometimes the Goliaths just sort of bulldoze their way in,” Clark says. “Communities get nervous.”
Bulldozing is something that Dunford and Republic Live literally did in 2014, when it moved into Oro-Medonte to construct Burl’s Creek. Roads and a natural turf amphitheatre were built. “If you don’t have your own venue, you have to literally build a city and then tear it back down and send it back when it’s over,” Dunford says. “The cost of putting these things on is far greater than anyone ever expects.”
If Republic Live can’t make money with WayHome – it was named the major music festival of the year at the 2017 Canadian Music Week Industry Awards – what are the prospects of fledgling promoters with their first-year festivals?
“So many things can go wrong,” Dunford says. “I hate to say this, but some of them don’t stand a chance.”
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