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When the show can't go on: Extreme weather puts a damper on music festivals

There's a lot to stress about when you're running a music festival. Stagnant ticket sales. The poor Canadian dollar. Increased competition. But festival organizers can also face the unexpected challenge of extreme weather.

Outdoor music festival promoters are at the mercy of the elements. Prepare they must

A devastating thunderstorm rolls into the site of the Big Valley Jamboree in Camrose, Alta., on Aug. 1, 2009. The storm topped the concert stage, killing one person and injuring 15 others. (John Ulan/Canadian Press)

There's a lot to worry about when you're running a music festival. Stagnant ticket sales. The poor Canadian dollar. Stiff competition. But festival organizers can also face the unexpected challenge of extreme weather.

Last weekend alone, several music festivals were evacuated because of severe weather, including Field Trip at Toronto's Fort York National Historic Site. Others, including New York City's Governors Ball, cancelled portions of their festivals.

In Germany, more than 70 people were injured after lightning struck the Rock am Ring festival, headlined by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Black Sabbath — whose show was cancelled.

Torrential rain and intense thunderstorms have caused many evacuations and cancellations during Canadian festivals over the past few years. High winds have also led to festival stage collapses: one in 2011 at Ottawa Bluesfest; the other in 2009 during Alberta's Big Valley Jamboree where one person was killed.
The main stage at the Ottawa Bluesfest collapsed 20 minutes into a performance by Cheap Trick after a sudden thunderstorm blasted the area on July 18, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Maud Salvi, the executive director of Calgary's Sled Island music festival, said bad weather can be grim news for festival management. Her festival is still partially recovering from 2013, when it was cancelled halfway through because of the Calgary floods. 

Salvi said calling off the festival off was a tough decision. At first, they tried moving shows to different venues.

"As time was going by, more and more areas were [being] touched by this flood," she said. "At some point, we just had to accept that it was like … an act of God and there's nothing to do about it." Many of the show venues were in the evacuated zones; the festival staff were eventually evacuated from their own office.

Financial damage

Cancelling a festival means lost money. Depending on the contracts, musicians and suppliers still need to be paid, even if the show doesn't go on. Some festivals decide to refund their ticket buyers. Others are non-refundable, rain or shine events.

In 2013, Sled Island gave its festival pass holders the opportunity for a refund. Fortunately, 70 per cent of pass holders didn't ask for their money back.
Rock am Ring music festival attendees wade through mud after a heavy downpour in Mendig, Germany, on June 3, 2016. More than 70 people were injured after lightning struck the festival. (Thomas Frey/AFP/Getty Images)

And Salvi said a "very big majority" of musicians didn't want to be paid, even though their contracts required it.

"Most people were like, 'Keep the money, we know you're going to need it,'" she said. "If these people were all willing to play their part, there was no way that we were not going to continue on for sure."

Other festivals have been washouts as well. Calgary's X-Fest, which is presented by Live Nation, was cancelled last year due to heavy rain.

Ian Low, Live Nation's president for Alberta and Manitoba, told CBC News that he didn't expect it to affect this year's show.

"Fans are generally very understanding when an event is cancelled or postponed due to weather conditions," he said in an email.

'Let me finish this song'

The Hillside Festival in Guelph, Ont., has had its fair share of extreme weather. In 2014, the festival had to cancel shows and close a few hours early after a tornado touched down about an hour away from the festival site.

But the festival's most memorable weather moment came in 2009, when multi-instrumentalist Owen Pallett performed.

 

As Pallett shredded away on his violin, a violent storm hit the festival — with lightning in the sky and sheets of torrential rain soaking the rowdy crowd. Pallett continued to play, while the stage crew ran around him trying to cover the equipment with tarps.

When a crew member told Pallett to get off the stage, he replied, "Let me finish this song" to cheering from the crowd. A video of the performance has more than 180,000 views on YouTube.

Marie Zimmerman, who is now Hillside's executive director, was in the crowd that night as a ticket holder.

"I was extremely worried, of course, that, you know, something would short or blow up," she said. "It struck me at the time as extremely dangerous, because the rain came down so quickly that people had barely time to respond."

Later that weekend, there was another close call with a lightning strike, which was captured on video.

 

When Zimmerman was hired by the festival later that year, she decided to install two lightning rods at the festival site and refined the emergency protocols. That means tracking weather patterns, informing festival goers about the possibility of bad weather well in advance and preparing for calm and controlled evacuations if bad weather strikes.

"There are storms, though, that appear to come out of nowhere. Almost like Zeus arrives and decides that he's going to throw a few thunderbolts down," she said.

"You know what, better safe than sorry."

Extreme weather growing

The risk of extreme weather is growing, said Jeff Kienapple, a vice-president with Arthur J. Gallagher in Ontario who specializes in risk management and commercial insurance.

"Severe weather has become a major problem," he said. "The insurance industry is reeling with extreme weather patterns … this is a new reality for festivals really across the country and across the world."

Kienapple said the best way a festival can tackle the weather is to be prepared. 

Festivals can buy event cancellation insurance, which compensates the festival if it can't run due to bad weather. He also said that many festivals, like Hillside, have adapted emergency plans and evacuation procedures should extreme weather should strike.

He said it is important for festivals to practise these plans, just as you would during a fire drill. 

It can be difficult to get people's attention during a festival. "There's a band on stage, people are excited, they are enjoying the day. They have no idea that a potential weather pattern is developing," he said.

"[Evacuations] need to be done so people are not alarmed, they don't feel threatened and it doesn't become a chaotic situation."

And that comes with practice. 

"This is a relatively new phenomenon, but it's a phenomenon that's going to be with us for a while."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Haydn Watters is a roving reporter for Ontario, primarily serving the province's local radio shows. He has worked for CBC News and CBC Radio in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and the entertainment unit. He also ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont.

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