Summer festivals have become far more sophisticated since first conceived as craft/art fairs supplemented with a small band, a warbling singer, and a few lawn chairs. I got an early taste playing jazz on the back porch of the Dupont family, who were patrons of the arts in Louisville, Kentucky. It was about the splendid setting; old brownstones, vast backyards, manicured greens, bright color- drenched abstract art, food, and constant flow of outsiders – the curious, the arts types.
It was Jazz at Newport in the late 50’s that basically birthed the contemporary festival. Sixty years down the road and it’s become a populous event crossing all genres of music.
In my ongoing series conversing with festival promoters/visionaries, I center on Ryan Howes of Republic Live, a Canadian owned live entertainment company founded in 2011 - the force behind the Boots and Hearts Music Festival, Canada’s largest camping and country music festival, and WayHome Music and Arts Festival. Here are his thoughts.
With twenty-two years staging live music events is this something that interested you early in life?
Yes. I have had a passion for live music ever since 1995, where I was lucky enough to work my first festival; Lollapalooza at Molson Park in Barrie, Ontario. Working on the grounds festival weekend and being able to see all the various parts of a multi stage festival come together instantly piqued my interest, and pushed me to focus on learning more about this industry.
Canada has long been a world leader in concert productions. Did you study the path to success of Michael Cohl and Arthur Fogel?
Absolutely. Canada has had some of the most passionate and successful live music promoters and business operators over the past 35 years. Michael Rapino has really grown the domestic and international touring and live music model in recent years and made better use of ticketing, venue and sponsorship deals to grow his company Live Nation. There are several best practices and case studies from all three pioneers in this industry that everyone within the industry can learn from.
What were your duties when you landed at Molson Park in 1995?
1995 was my first year in this industry and I was lucky enough to stand outdoors for twenty hours straight in the east parking grounds of Molson Park on festival weekend. Prior to and post festival, I was part of the conversion team that helped build a lot of the front of house areas, like the entrance gate areas, box offices, beer gardens etc. During the '90s at Molson Park, I ended up working full time during the summer months and working my way up to Site Manager for the grounds.
How were you able to both manage Molson Canadian Amphitheatre and House of Blues Concerts Canada simultaneously?
While at House of Blues Concerts Canada, I managed the day to day operations at Molson Amphitheatre which included overseeing staffing, operations, cleaning, food and beverage operations and working closely with the ticketing, marketing and sponsorship departments. When Live Nation purchased House of Blues, I began to help the company develop and produce outdoor music festivals as well as launch the summertime beach venue Echo Beach.
What were your studies in university that equipped you for establishing your own entertainment company, Republic Live?
I studied commerce as well as marketing and professional sales. While certain courses during these studies helped, me grow within the business world, a lot of the knowledge I make use of today I learned while working summer months as a teenager and in my early twenties alongside a few well known venue managers and production managers within the industry.
With so much on the go, are you able to enjoy the music – the bands you put in place?
I always make a point to watch 20-30 mins of one or two sets during a festival weekend. These bands are usually smaller acts that you would see perform at 500-1000 capacity downtown venues. So, it is great to see them on large outdoor stages performing in front of thousands of fans.
Your flagship events are Boots and Hearts Music Festival and WayHome Music. How did both evolve?
Boots and Hearts Music Festival evolved six years ago under the ownership of Stan Dunford. It really filled a void in the Ontario music market and launched at the right time when country music was becoming more mainstream than previous years. With the success of Boots and Hearts, Stan needed to find a larger venue to host more people and purchased Burl’s Creek Event Grounds. Now owning a venue and realizing there was another void in the marketplace with no multi-day, multi-genre, camping music and arts festival, WayHome was born. Having the ability to own and operate your own venue has many benefits that help the festivals become more successful.
What are greatest hurdles you face each season?
Always keeping the talent line-ups and the experience onsite fresh. It takes nine to ten months to put together these festivals so a lot of thought, design, coordination needs to be worked out in advance to make sure fans have the experience they expect when they show up festival weekend. In addition to this, building outdoor festivals you always must plan for the worst-case scenario for weather systems/storms. So, all elements of the festival have to be built in a safe and efficient way. Basically, we are building a small temporary city for 40,000 people for a five to six-day period.
Such events can face political resistance from local municipalities and up. Have you had any serious battles that could have threaten staging an event?
Anytime a large development or special event comes to a rural area such as Oro-Medonte there is always going to be cause for concern on what the developer or promoter is going to do short term and long term. We have experienced some battles over the past 30 months, however this is no different than what other major festivals at times face in the United States or Europe.
After months of planning and every detail addressed, weather can still be a soul-crusher. Have you ever had to shut-down an event through the years?
Yes. There have been several single day and multi-day festival event days where I have had to shut down the grounds for a short or extended period and at times even handle evacuations. Warped Tour, Kenny Chesney, and Nickelback events in Toronto are just a few that come to mind in recent years.
The latter part of July through mid-September seem to be the more predictable times of the summer season for staging an event – the odds of wet-cold days are slim. Was this a consideration in choosing the final days of July for WayHome?
Yes. In Ontario, you only have a solid 60 days for producing amazing camping festivals. For non -camping single day outdoor shows the window is a bit larger and you can run events from late May until mid September.
Festivals have grown to be much more than a music event. There are organic markets, arts & crafts, art installations etc. What have you determined that adds that extra shine to your festivals that seem to catch the public’s attention?
Festivals are becoming competitive in all markets. I always look at festivals as small cities. So, what would you see and expect from a small city? Food and beverage, markets, art, merchandise, general stores, various accommodation offerings, late night entertainment etc. Every year we look to add more and more elements to meet all of our patrons needs and desires.
How is pricing done for your events?
A lot of costs go into building and marketing festivals. During our forecasting and budgeting period we land on the preferred festival pass resale price points to ensure we have all costs covered and are still making a profit per head. There is always a higher break-even point with these types of major events due to the large overhead costs. We also take into account ancillary revenue from food and beverage, showers, sponsorship for our overall projections.
What makes Burl Creek Event Grounds the optimum event site?
Several elements such as proximity to a major highway, three separate township roads that feed the camping and parking fields, proximity to two major hospitals, sheer size of the grounds to accommodate a number of types of events and layouts, as well as a wide-open sky that goes on for miles, and being surrounded by beautiful forests and neighbouring farmlands.
How have the many international artists warmed to the events?
All the artists since we opened our doors at Burl’s Creek have loved the events. From fan interactions to the behind the scenes where artists have a beautiful artist forest to spend their day and night in and tasty food from some of Toronto’s top chefs, artists have really warmed up to the events.
How far do attendees travel? How far does your advertising outreach extend?
For Boots and Hearts, we have fans all across Ontario as well as every province. For WayHome the reach is much further. While the majority of our fans come from the GTA, we also sell tickets in over twenty states and over eight international countries.
What do you find gets people’s attention and better informs them of the events – radio, social media etc?
All platforms are strong and should be used but some festivals receive more attention than others on social media. Boots and Hearts for example makes use of social media for our marketing more then WayHome. Also, hosting pop-up events during the year for festival helps keep the brands fresh and in people’s minds.
What do you do off season – have a mad passion?
In the off season, I like to travel to California and Nevada for some down time. While there I try to take in art events and other cultural events to get some inspiration and fresh ideas for the following year.