Death of a music festival


You could say the writing was on the wall, if that wall was the rock face along the Sea-To-Sky Highway. Ask anyone in the music business (not that I could find a single one who would speak on the record) but it was apparently just a matter of time before one of BC’s two major rock festivals, geographically located just an hour or so apart, and separated by just a few weekends in the summer, could no longer afford to continue.

The festival that sadly fell suddenly and resoundingly last week was the Squamish Valley Music Festival (SVMF), which typically occurred in early August for the past five summers. The festival that continues is Pemberton, which occurs in mid-July. Pemberton is expected to announce their line-up very soon. Something tells me they’re either breathing a little easier, or kicking themselves for outbidding SVMF for Huey Lewis and the News to the tune of $3M. I kid. I hope.

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But something had to give. Ever since the European-style, mixed genre, destination-style festival arrived on our shores about 15 years ago, they’ve exploded, growing exponentially every year. They’ve yanked the festivalgoer every which way, especially here in the Pacific Northwest (besides SVMF and Pemberton, think Sasquatch, Rock the Shores, Shambhala, Keloha, Tall Trees, and on and on; there is literally a music festival in BC every single weekend of the summer of 2016).

According to some, it’s the city music festivals that are back in black. The out-of-town festivals that involve camping are the ones that face the challenges. What many fans may not realize is that just because the SVMF drew a jaw-dropping 100,000+ fans last summer, doesn’t mean it’s making money, so much so that is likely cheaper to cancel the 2016 SVMF than to go forward. The cost infrastructure you need to host the equivalent of the entire population of Guelph showing up in Squamish for one weekend is stratospheric.

And then there’s the talent. The plunging Canadian dollar has been blamed. I spoke to one diehard SVMF-goer who said, “If they can’t afford to pay the international bands, why not go for an all-star Canadian line up?” That’s an interesting point: two of the SVMF’s biggest headliners in the past two years have been Drake (Toronto) and Arcade Fire (Montreal). According to another expert who wouldn’t be quoted, just because a headliner is Canadian, playing in Canada, at a Canadian festival, doesn’t mean they’re paid Canadian dollars. The American greenback is the currency for the biggest acts of the mega festivals. The math hurts. Another source told me that some bands ask for five times their regular salary to play events like SVMF. For headliners that’s millions, for sub-headliners, hundreds of thousands. American. Yet another trusted insider told me they saw a band play at one of the festivals, allegedly getting paid $200,000, only to draw 1,500 people to their stage.

Look, I’ve been a promoter and I’ve overpaid bands. Not to date myself, but for every Nirvana there is a Love Battery. Sometimes I wouldn’t wish the job on my worst enemy. It’s a very tough gig. The promoters of SVMF have offered what I believe are heartfelt apologies and a sincere disappointment for cancelling. They built the SVMF from the ground up. They cared. The decision to not move forward must have been excruciating. Dozens of acts were allegedly already booked. But the mega-camping-festival in 2016 could now officially be considered very risky business, which calls for hard business decisions.

In other words, see you at the 39th annual Vancouver Folk Festival.

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