The financially bust Pemberton Music Festival in BC is just one more sign that the summer music festival scene in Canada may have reached saturation point.
It certainly seems that way in BC, as the province’s Squamish Valley Music Festival was abruptly cancelled in 2016, and, in March this year, Victoria's Rock the Shores announced a year-long hiatus.
On its website, Rock the Shores explains that "this year, in particular, has presented multiple challenges that threaten to undermine the future and viability of Rock The Shores.
“These include the limited availability of suitable headline talent, coupled with increasing market saturation and competition in a year of national celebration. Rest assured, the journey is far from over and we will keep everyone posted as we shape next year’s festival."
Toronto-based agent Rob Zifarelli heads UTA’s North American festival team, and he reflected upon the Pemberton situation to FYI yesterday. He terms it “very disappointing news but not entirely surprising knowing the level of ambition that was set. This model wasn’t one of slow steady growth."
UTA had artists from developing to headliner levels booked at the fest, and Zifarelli explains that the company “approaches all new festivals with a thorough vetting process to ensure we feel confident in the viability of the event. When dealing with long-standing festivals we do our very best to negotiate terms that will best protect the artist.”
There have been casualties in the Toronto area as well.
The Chicago-born Riot Fest exited the market last year, and, early this month, Bestival announced it was taking a year off while expressing hope for a return in the future.
It also appears that TURF (the Toronto Urban Roots Festival) will take a pass this summer. Founder Jeff Cohen admitted to the Toronto Star recently that the fest has lost “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in its first four years.
In the feature, Star scribe Ben Rayner decisively declares “the [festival] gold rush is over.”
Meantime, reporting on the Pemberton debacle, the CBC notes that “running outdoor live music events is a tough gig across Canada, especially with the dollar hovering at 74 cents against the US dollar over the past two years, making bargaining for headline bands difficult in a world where the festival circuit is booming both in and outside Canada.”
The story quotes Music Canada Live ED Erin Benjamin stating, “there's a lot of competition for that festival dollar — so, unfortunately, there are casualties."
Warnings about the festival scene certainly aren’t new.
A CBC story in June 2015 was headlined, “Summer music festival frenzy has begun, but is the bubble about to burst?”
That piece quotes Shannon McNevan, organiser of Ontario's successful country music fest Boots & Hearts, stating that 80 percent of first-year festivals fail.
"I do think there's a bubble," he says. "But I think the bubble only bursts when people don't have an original idea or aren't building a community."
The cost of acquiring the big-name talent necessary to launch a major festival or keep an existing one afloat continues to rise.
The Star feature quoted Ryan Howes, creative director of WayHome, one of the country’s biggest fests, stating that talent budgets have been around 30 percent higher in 2017 than in the past three years.
There’s also the fact that Canada 150 celebrations have seen government money being funnelled into a large number of festivals across the country, and this has presented a challenge to fest organisers not benefiting from the taxpayer-funded largesse.
Veteran music promoter, publicist and journalist Richard Flohil remains a close observer and attendee of Canadian festivals, especially on the roots and folk music side. He notes that the current competitive nature of the festival scene “means that it is harder for the folk fests to come up with good (marquee) names. It is a field day for the agents right now.”
He adds that “the ridiculous cost of the American dollar is a very serious situation. That has an impact on who the Canadian festivals can get, so you do find more Canadian artists in the lineup.”
He praises festivals like Hillside and the Calgary Folk Festival for branching out from a folk music base and incorporating artists from other genres (he once hosted a workshop with Kid Koala at the Calgary fest). A former artistic director of the famed Mariposa Folk Festival, Flohil observes that “it has its mojo back now. This year’s lineup with Bruce Cockburn, Barenaked Ladies, Matt Andersen and The New Pornographers is its strongest in years.”
In the wake of Pemberton, Kerry Clarke, artistic director of the Calgary Folk Festival, forwarded a telling quote from Dominic Lloyd, former head of the Dawson City Music Festival. It reads: “So maybe the lesson here is that music festivals driven by people who love music and supported by volunteers and intelligent audiences are a better model than music festivals driven by corporations intent on making profits without giving a rat's ass who comes as long as they bring money."
UTA's Zifarelli declares “I am confident that there will always remain an appetite for festivals, but there needs to be a conscious effort to identify where a festival is actually needed rather than adding another event into a market with many options already. That is a recipe for failure, which has been proven many times over in the last few years.”
More summer festival casualties can be expected, but there are still plenty of options available to festivalgoers.
Festival and Events Ontario (FEO) lists over 1400 festivals in the province this year, a great many of them being music-oriented. Then there’s Music Festival Wizard that points to more than 40 major music fests across the country between June and November.
Want to really dig down and find out what’s going on nationally? Canadian Association of Fairs and Exhibitions offers an exhaustive national list of events on its website.