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'It's a battlefield': how Canadian music festivals have survived an unstable decade

2019 has already claimed Roxodus, Rifflandia and Woodstock 50. Why do some festivals fail while others triumph?

2019 has already claimed Roxodus and Woodstock 50. Why do some festivals fail while others triumph?

Yukon Blonde crowdsurfs during the band's set at the 2017 Halifax Pop Explosion. (Chr!s Sm!th)

Starting a music festival isn't for the faint of heart. It's a high-risk, high-reward endeavour that everyone could talk about for years if it goes well, but could also drop you into the hands of heavy debt or bankruptcy if it doesn't — and we've seen more and more of Canada's music festivals lean toward the latter lately.

Southern Ontario alone saw the disappearance of major festivals like Wayhome, Bestival, TURF and Field Trip in the last two years. Vancouver Island has suffered two festival losses in just the last handful of months (Rifflandia and Rock the Shores). It's all been underscored this year by the on-again, off-again updates from the States as to Woodstock 50's unstable status (final word: it's off). 

So it wasn't overly surprising when news broke in July that Canada had another cancellation to add to the list: the splashy, inaugural Roxodus Music Fest in Clearview Township, Ont., would never happen, cancelled just one week before it was set to take place. 

The lineup was big and pyrotechnic-filled, touting Aerosmith, Kid Rock, Alice Cooper and Nickelback as headliners. The cancellation was originally blamed on wet weather that ruined the venue earlier this year, but it soon came out that MF Live Inc., the company behind Roxodus, had filed for bankruptcy and owed more than $18 million to creditors, according to Global News. Global also reported that Roxodus organizers are under investigation for "allegedly destroying protected forest, wetlands." 

It can take years to prove a music festival sustainable, but we've been losing festivals both new and established over the last half decade at a rate that feels alarming. In addition to the previously mentioned Bestival and Wayhome — which both started strong in 2015 with headliners like Frank Ocean, Solange and Florence & the Machine, but only lasted two and three years, respectively — B.C.'s Pemberton Music Festival folded two months before its 2017 (and 10th) year. Field Trip had been operational since 2013, before its 2019 hiatus. 

Everyone is operating in a volatile climate that includes competing resources, increasingly unpredictable weather, an expensive exchange rate and inflated headliner prices.

So how does one stay afloat? 

There's no one answer to that question. But there are festivals across the country that have survived — and sometimes thrived — despite the unpredictable music climate. We talked to people working with Festival d'été de Québec, Halifax Pop Explosion, Venus Fest, Elora's Riverfest and Shambhala to find out what challenges they've been facing — and how they're keeping things going.

Weathering the headliner price bubble

Booking headliners during the heat of the summer is prime time for competition, and with such high population and festival density in Ontario and Quebec — plus European and American markets competing for many of the same big names — it can be tough to afford the lineup you want.

"During the summer, it's a battlefield," says Arnaud Cordier, talent buyer for Quebec City's Festival d'été de Québec, a non-profit, 11-day festival whose headliners this year included Imagine Dragons, Mariah Carey, Alt-J and Blink-182.

When Bestival showed up and Wayhome … we had challenges booking our lineup for us, because a lot of bigger festivals were offering — their offers were so much higher than what we could afford.— Spencer Shewen, artistic director of Elora's Riverfest

Cordier points to big-name festivals like the defunct Wayhome and Bestival as one factor in the rapidly rising headliner prices in the mid-2010s, estimating that prices have jumped 20 per cent in the last four years. And he's not alone.

"When Bestival showed up and Wayhome… we had challenges booking our lineup for us, because a lot of bigger festivals were offering — their offers were so much higher than what we could afford," says Spencer Shewen, artistic director of Elora's Riverfest. 

Shewen adds that Wayhome radiused out everybody else in southern Ontario — meaning bands couldn't play any other festival around that time — and bands were waiting for offers from Wayhome because they knew they'd get paid twice as much as somewhere like Riverfest. 

It was a three-year crunch that seems to have plateaued, though the price effects remain. Halifax Pop Explosion takes place in October every year, but even the festival's fall placement hasn't protected it from festival oversaturation and a sustained headliner price tag. 

"Anytime you have anything kind of blow up the way [this] does, [it's] almost like a bubble," says James Boyle, executive director of Halifax Pop Explosion. "Same thing with housing, you see the rise in housing costs; you see a rise in band costs. I think the biggest thing we've seen is the fact that artists have so many options to play means that their price has gone up. And I think that kind of general rise for the mega festival has forced festival prices to continue to increase for bands, which then has an effect on every festival whether they're a giant outdoor event that runs for three days with million-dollar headliners or a local community kind of festival that has headliners that aren't nearly as big ... I think a rise in [headliner] artist fees is the biggest impact that that's had on the industry."

Boyle estimates he's seen headliner prices rise at least 50 per cent more — "if not double" — since 2015, with prices evening out recently, though not going down. He's optimistic that the bubble is ending — or at least no longer expanding.

I've always had it in mind that festivals that are working at that scale are kind of inherently unsustainable.— Aerin Fogel, director of Venus Fest

Aerin Fogel started the not-for-profit Venus Fest in Toronto as a small, one-day festival in September 2017 to focus on women and non-binary artists, and which has now grown to a three-day festival with headliners the Vaselines and Charlotte Cardin. While Venus Fest operates on a completely different model than something like Wayhome or Bestival, instead aiming to improve gender disparity on stages across the country, Fogel feels it's all connected.

"I've always had it in mind that festivals that are working at that scale are kind of inherently unsustainable," says Fogel. "I think when something is that big, it's very hard to look at it in a long-term context, because the risk factor is so much higher. And there's also less ability to account for all the individuals that are in the space. So there's less kind of safety in implementation and all those pieces. So part of me wasn't surprised that some of them had started folding around that time."

She points out that 2017 was also the year that Keychange launched, an international campaign working toward gender balance at music festivals and conferences by 2022. While some things were folding, others were just beginning.

Friends of the festival

So what's a festival to do with rising headliner prices, increased competition for billing and ticket prices that don't rise to match? Sometimes you have to sweeten the deal — and stick together.

"You need to have friends around you, [to be] able to put an offer on the table," Cordier says. Ottawa and Milwaukee are two markets where he unofficially partners with festivals to make offers, as well as smaller towns in Quebec. 

Putting together a package of offers for a regionally specific circuit is more lucrative than a one-off bid, and it makes Festival d'été de Québec more competitive compared to circuits in Europe that can offer festival after festival within such a small radius, resulting in more money for less travel time. It's something he's been doing for the last few years.

"I'm a talent buyer, but also an agent sometimes," Cordier jokes. 

Shewen says 2019 is the first year Riverfest has made a concerted effort to bring artists to Elora in tandem with other festivals.

"We actually ended up putting in a few joint offers with Up Here festival [in Sudbury]," he says. "So we were able to get Hubert Lenoir to come and we were able to get Reykjavíkurdætur from Iceland, and that's because both of our festivals offered on them to make it worth [their] while to make the trip."

There are also more official ways festivals show their friendships: Riverfest and Halifax Pop Explosion host stages at each other's festivals, and Riverfest partners with Guelph's Kazoo! Fest each year for the same reason.

"We present a show at their festival, they present a show at ours; we like to show those relationships," says Shewen.

While Fogel doesn't officially partner with other festivals to get artists to Venus Fest (though bumping up against Pop Montreal's September dates has helped), she has a unique selling point: a focus on women and non-binary artists.

When [artists] get it and when they love what we're doing, they're totally on board.—Aerin Fogel, director of Venus Fest

"We're working with artists who are on the same page and share the same kind of passion that we do for pushing for change in the music industry," she says. "So in some ways that makes it more challenging for us because it might narrow the scope of how many artists we have to work with, but at the same time it makes some things like booking certain headliners a little bit easier. Because when they get it and when they love what we're doing, they're totally on board."

Fogel singles out Scotland band the Vaselines as one act the festival may not have gotten were it not for its mission. 

"I don't know, necessarily, that they would come for a small one-off festival across the pond ... so it means that, for not a massive-budget festival that might still be OK for them because they're just interested to work with us," she says.

When asked if she approaches artists who are out of Venus Fest's budget on the off chance that they'll get them anyway due to their mandate, Fogel laughs.

"Oh yeah, all the time," she says. (It hasn't really worked out much, though.)

If you (slowly) build it, they will come

Shambhala Music Festival near Nelson, B.C., began in 1998, eventually making a name for itself as Canada's biggest electronic dance music festival. Jimmy Bundschuh, co-founder of Shambhala, says the key was to take it one year at a time. 

"We had relatively slow growth, you know, maybe 10 or 15 per cent [for] people a year for a lot of those years," says Bundschuh. "So we really took the time, were able to develop the infrastructure, the systems and you know, sometimes [festivals] can also be a victim of their own success. You get too big too fast and fail that way."

Bundschuh and the Shambhala team have been developing the festival's property since its inception, which makes for a completely different setup than a festival that only gets access to a venue right before it kicks off.

"[Shambhala is] on the family farm," he says. "So we have year-round access, and we can really think long-term and [have] been working on those kind of things since the start, so a cumulative effect.

He notes that the festival's first 10 years were tougher — small budget, remote location, rising DJ rates — but the base they've built allows them the financial freedom to make decisions that are right for them, like not using corporate sponsors and keeping Shambhala's status as a dry event.

Festival d'été de Québec celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, and Cordier says the fact that it's a non-profit festival has allowed the board to put money back into it at a rate that makes them competitive in terms of attracting headliners.

The festival's board opened up its lineup to international acts in 2004, and now Festival d'été de Québec is known for its big-name performers, filling the 90,000-capacity Plains of Abraham on a night that could include Neil Young or Lorde. Six years after that decision, they turned in a banner year with a "massive, sold-out festival," billing Arcade Fire, the Black Eyed Peas, Rammstein and Rush.

"It was a bit of a surprise," says Cordier. "And then what are you going to do? Invest more money in the talent budget." While he says people assume the festival gets significant public funding, that money realistically makes up between 14 and 16 per cent of the annual budget. The majority still comes from ticket and drink sales. 

The 'big-little festival'

You don't have to be giant to make it work, though. The three-day Riverfest can see between 5-6,000 people each day, and Shewen says its picturesque location and community is key to its appeal to artists and fans alike.

"We continue to luck out because artists really like playing our festival," says Shewen. "They actually get to go swimming in the quarry and go in the gorge and stuff like that, it's more of a vacation for them as well. So I think that actually kind of buffered us a little bit [during the Wayhome years] as far as that goes ... I think the artists requested that [they] want to play our festival."

Riverfest grew out of a backyard festival a decade ago (a fundraiser to turn an old gas station into a green space in downtown Elora) with what Shewen guesses was 250 people in attendance. Every year they've grown a little bit bigger, and this year their Canadian-heavy lineup included City & Colour, the Sheepdogs, Alice Merton and A Tribe Called Red.

"We call ourselves a big-little festival," says Shewen, noting that he thinks more and more people are gravitating toward "that kind of experience." More laid back, smaller scale.

We've always been a festival of discovery. And despite the bubbles and changes in the sector, we try not to lose sight of that.— James Boyle, executive director of Halifax Pop Explosion

"There's an ease to coming to our festival, that I think helps," he adds.

"We've always been a festival of discovery," says Halifax Pop Explosion's Boyle. "And despite the bubbles and changes in the sector, we try not to lose sight of that. That's the core of what drives our programming."

He cites Arcade Fire playing Halifax's the Marquee in 2004, within two months of dropping their stratospheric debut album, Funeral. Daniel Caesar, now a Grammy-winning R&B artist from Oshawa, Ont., played a small bar in Halifax during HPX's 2016 festival; two years later he played to thousands at the Halifax Jazz Festival and this November he'll be playing the city's arena, Scotiabank Centre.

"That's our focus ... to bring bands to Halifax that otherwise haven't been here or can't come or aren't able to on their tours, and focus on that first," says Boyle.

"And don't try to focus on the bubbles or the changes in the sector and try not to allow that to dictate us because obviously chasing those things are what I think would make it harder on us to survive."

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story included the misquote "So we didn't have bands that wanted to play a festival" from Spencer Shewen. We regret the error.
    Aug 26, 2019 12:33 PM ET

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