When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
The phrase could easily be the rallying call of post-pandemic music fans who are exhibiting an unexpected exuberance these days by packing concert halls, amphitheatres and stadiums to commune with their favourite artists.
For event promoters, this fan euphoria for live music shows has salved the many problems they grapple with in this post-pandemic economy, particularly so the many independent festival organizers who went into summer pre-sales with a severe case of the jitters.
But the demand for tickets is there, even making headline news when online ticket presales for the Taylor Swift tour overwhelmed Ticketmaster’s website, first in the US and later in France.
Veteran manager Ron Kitchener (Tim Hicks, Hunter Brothers among his RGK client list) suggests fans want that ultimate communal experience of seeing a live show by a favourite act and that many seem willing to pay for tickets even when if it means cutting back on other purchases, such as clothing, and even grocery items.
Veteran festival attendee and generally famous music champion Richard Flohil suggests post lockdown “people just want to go out and have fun.”
This ephemeral indulgence perhaps explains why ticket demand for live music events parallels the renewed popularity of travel and tourism–along with the growing industry marketing VIP destination concert and excursion packages.
Uncertainty about the world tomorrow, killjoy newscasts, and perhaps a societal knowledge that something’s just not right these days, all coming after the masked lock-down and attendant social restrictions, has perhaps fueled a desire to live for the moment and as Kitchener says, “enjoy things you can’t hold in your hand.”
“Ferocious” is how Live Nation VP Joey Scoleri describes ticket demand for concerts at Toronto’s almost 17K-capacity Budweiser Stage amphitheatre. This pent-up lust to attend and hear live music has led the concert company to schedule a record number of concerts this summer, including back-to-back sell-out nights in late August – Friday through Sunday respectively – for Dallas Green, Blue Rodeo, and a co-headliner bill with ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Scoleri places emphasis on City and Colour's Green's sell-out as he sold out the amphitheatre with his band Alexisonfire in June.
Freshly recovered from a summertime swing of folk festivals, Flohil gives the summer folk sector an A-plus for resilience and bouncing back with earned loyalty from festival fans and musicians alike.
A former Mariposa Music Festival artistic director, Flohil has been attending the summer circuit for decades and, recently, has become a marquee attraction hosting workshops or guest-interviewing musicians he’s known since the days when LPs and 45s were king. All of which tells us he’s in the know when it comes to the health of this plucky industry.
This year’s folk pilgrimage included Mariposa (a sell-out 3 weeks before, with a capacity of 10-12K a day). Headlining were Feist, Tegan & Sara, Rufus Wainwright, and “Judy Collins, who sang a duet with him that was the highlight of the whole festival for me,” he confides.
“The next festival I went to was Calgary Folk, well attended and not sure if it was a sell-out, meaning I don’t know. This one is a bit like the Hillside here in Guelph. It’s a folk festival, but it really expands the definition of the “F” word. They haven’t hired a heavy-metal band yet, but…. “
This year’s 4-day event included Emmylou Harris and Tanya Tucker in its list of mainstage headliners, and his pick for the best merch item on sale was a T-shirt spelling out 3 words in big bold letters over the top of each other that read:
For him, the Calgary standout surprise was the songbird-sweet Southern twang of Sierra Ferrell who spins a legacy of female Grand Ole Opry torch singers into her voice and often has a wardrobe to match.
Salmon Arm Roots & Blues held in the city’s scenic Fairground had Blue Rodeo headline the first of three nights – but sadly, the band was also the festival closer as a fire safety evacuation led to the cancellation of Saturday and Sunday events. Attendance is pegged at around 30K daily in usual years and, per Flohil, Blackie & the Rodeo Kings’ bassist John Dymond “wrote the funniest disaster story” in a Facebook post about the headaches that come with a festival gig cancellation.
It wasn’t the only annual cancellation. Merritt BC’s Rockin River went dark due to “economic obstacles" and Canada Rock Fest in Grand Forks, BC, was cancelled due to wildfires in the area. The 3-day bill included Our Lady Peace, Big Wreck, 54-40, Bachman/Cummings, Darby Mills, and Theory of a Deadman. Its website promises a return in 2024.
Defying the odds, Vancouver’s Jericho Beach-based Folk Festival rose like Lazarus – after it was said to be dead – with an eclectic lineup that included French Cameroon singer Blick Bassy, Iranian-Canadian trio Kayhan Kalhor, and more familiar names such as Jim Byrnes, Jill Barber, The High Bar Gang, William Prince, and NL’s Rum Ragged.
Back to Flohil, he didn’t plan on attending Roots & Blues and had presumed Vancouver was out, but he did attend the much smaller 3-day Canmore Folk Festival (capacity 21K daily), which “punches way above its weight in terms of artists,” he says. Held over the August long weekend in the city’s Centennial Park, with the Rocky Mountains as its backdrop, headliners this year included Serena Ryder, Allison Russell, (Jayhawks lead singer) Gary Louris, and Richard Thompson.
His advice about and in particular the “F word” festivals: “The weather. You can’t do a thing about the weather, and in Canmore, there was a thunder and hail storm the like of which I have never seen. This wasn’t ice pellets. This was chunks of ice, and if you didn’t know, you can’t get car insurance for a hail storm in Alberta. It’s just not available.”
Another summer mainstay is the Winnipeg Folk Festival, which, organizers have said, had sellouts for all four days. The overall attendance was 74.5K, marking the second-highest attendance record, only behind 2019 when WFF recorded 76K at Birds Hill Park. Marquee names included KT Tunstall, Rufus Wainwright, Charley Crockett, (the aforementioned) Sierra Ferrell, Faye Webster, and William Prince.
Other returning festivals such as Shambhala held at BC’s Salmo River Ranch, VELD in Toronto’s Downsview Park, and Calgary’s Chasing Summer had upward of 20K and 30K daily attendances with EDM stars such as Tiësto, Zedd, Gryffin, and deadmau5.
Montreal’s Osheaga music festival in Parc Jean-Drapeau reported a record-breaking weekend attendance of 155K with Billie Eilish, Kendrick Lamar and Rüfüs Du Sol (video below) headlining.
In Quebec City, Festival d’été de Québec, July 6-17, was expected to attract pre-pandemic audience attendance numbers over 12 days that stand at 1.5M–with daily attendances for all stages at 123K. Headliners included Foo Fighters, Imagine Dragons, Lana Del Rey, and Green Day.
In Gatineau over the August long weekend, Aug. 29 through Sept. 4, the 36th annual FMG Hot Air Ballon Festival sported three stages this year with a line-up featuring 600 acts and artisans. According to organizers, the five-day event attracted 107K festival attendees and an overall attendance of 225K. Headliners included Ne-Yo, Banx & Ranx, Rêve, Claude Dubois (promoting a career-spanning 51-song boxed collection), and the still popular and revered Quebec chansonnier Richard Sequin.
In Calgary, Stampede attendances are close to 1M with 100K people visiting the grounds daily for the multi-event annual. Featured attractions this year included Zeds Dead, Mother Mother, Cypress Hill, and James Barker.
Boots and Hearts, August 10 to 13 in Oro-Medonte, ON, was headlined by Nickelback, Keith Urban, and Tim McGraw. The popular annual attracts about 40K a day over 4 days, this year Aug. 10-13.
In the Maritimes, YQC Country’s festival in Dieppe, NB attracted about 20K fans daily for three 3-days and included a major downpour on the second night. Big ticket draws included Morgan Wallen, Keith Urban, and Thomas Rhett. Despite rain, the campground was packed. In PEI, the three-day Cavendish Beach Music Festival pulled in as many as 20K daily with Kane Brown, Jake Owen, and Chris Stapelton headlining.
Another sign of these sunny days is a seven-day Blue Rodeo Rhine River cruise in November that sold out fast late last year with 164 fans signing on for packages that ranged between $6K and $10K. The ducats come with a private concert and other personalized experiences as per the bundle fans purchased. It’s Jim Cuddy and friends’ first cruise offering, and the response suggests it's likely not the last.
So, all in, 2023 has been a big relief for most music event promoters as fans have returned in numbers few had banked on. On the surface, festival and concert attendances paint a picture of sunny days again–but there are underlying stress marks that have insiders worried that this could be a bubble waiting to burst. Further reading on FYI: Cost Increases Have Event Promoters Under Pressure