British Columbia·Analysis

Beleaguered Canadian music festivals struggle to fill fields

Blame cutthroat competition from a booming international live music festival industry for crushing big-ticket outdoor Canadian events — like B.C.'s Pemberton Music Festival, industry experts say.

Industry insiders say festival bubble has not burst yet, but organizers aim for smaller events

Pemberton Music Festival in B.C. was supposed to run from July 13 to 16, 2017, but was cancelled in May. (Rob Loud)

Blame cutthroat competition from a booming international live music festival industry for crushing big-ticket outdoor Canadian events — like B.C.'s Pemberton Music Festival, industry experts say.

Pemberton Music Festival announced bankruptcy this week, a year after the Squamish Valley Music Festival, also in B.C., was cancelled for 2016, and a few months after Victoria's Rock the Shores announced a year-long hiatus.

"We are heartbroken," said organizer Huka Entertainment, in a press release about the bankruptcy.

Organizers say a low Canadian dollar, and the huge amount of choice available to festival-goers played a role in the misfortune that left 18,000 Pemberton ticket-holders out $300 to $900 for the weekend of live music and camping, which had been scheduled for July 13-16.

The event attracted 40,000 people in 2016. 

"The hope was we were now getting to critical mass," said Pemberton Mayor Mike Richman, who admitted the festival was struggling financially. Still, Richman was shocked it failed.

High-risk events

Fans were hurt and production suppliers and hotels and businesses in Pemberton, a village about 160 kilometres north of Vancouver, may not get paid.

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 festival dollar — there's a lot of competition for that dollar — so unfortunately there are casualties," said Erin Benjamin, executive director of Music Canada Live in Ottawa.

Big headliners are expensive and it's a struggle to attract the bigger names that will fill fields.

Regardless of weather, there are fixed costs

Then, once organizers have booked security and organized setting up, it's a gamble whether they'll get enough ticket sales to pay the talent and break even.

There is also the astronomical cost of insurance, security and just setting up the event.

No matter if there is lightning, rain or weak ticket sales — those contracts must be honoured.

"It's a crapshoot," admits Benjamin.

The artist Bassnectar performed at the 2016 Pemberton Festival in British Columbia. (Huka Entertainment)

Smaller Canadian festivals do not have the budget for headliners they could afford a few years ago, but Canadian consumers still expect them.

So festival-goers wait until the last minute to see where big names land before they book, sometimes heading to Seattle or Los Angeles if the playlist is sweeter there.

"Live music stakeholders in this country take a monumental amount of risk every time they put on a show," said Benjamin.

But show is not over

Luckily for music lovers, choices abound in B.C.

"I feel like B.C. has an incredibly strong festival market," said Robert Calder, of Do604, a Vancouver company that books talent.

Smaller festivals, such as music events based in campgrounds and beer markets, are thriving.

While running a 30,000-50,000-person festival is "extremely risky," akin to building an entire city, Calder said "there are festivals that are surviving with different models." 

Chance the Rapper, left, and Muse with Matthew Bellamy, were supposed to headline the 2017 Pemberton Music Festival in B.C. (Getty Images)

More modest events are selling out fast to different crowds by skipping the competition for expensive headliners, said Jenna Earnshaw, who has done music marketing, booking and ticketing in Vancouver for music festivals and live venues.

"These are people who want to have an experience rather than just go to a music festival," said Earnshaw, who says smaller events draw more than the drunken set. These guests tend to leave less waste in their campsites.

"It's a different crowd," she said.

So it appears if people want outdoor music events in B.C., they'll buy what's on offer — or they'll take their dollar to the U.S. or even Europe, and give their cash to names too big for the small circuit.

B.C. will get the music the market will bear — and the hot sticky summer festival's fresh-air stage will live on, despite the loss of Pemberton..

Garbage left behind after the Pemberton Music Festival in 2015. (Keith Harasymiw)