In 1978, at a San Francisco show that marked the end of the Sex Pistols, singer Johnny Rotten looked out at the audience before exiting the stage and mockingly sneered: “Ha-ha-ha. Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
No need to ask Pemberton Music Festival fans that this year—the mess left by the cancellation of the three-day event speaks for itself.
Now that we’ve got a week or so separation, what stands out is the way that organizers shamelessly rogered B.C. music fans. Without lube. Or a simple “thank” you once the deed was done.
You probably know the back story, especially if you were one of the over 8,000 people who shelled out hundreds of dollars for what was supposed to be the fourth edition of the festival.
If you don’t, it goes something like this. On May 18 Pemberton Music Festival organizers suddenly changed up the event’s website. For months fans had logged on to see a promo poster promising a weekend with headliners Chance the Rapper, Muse, and A Tribe Called Quest, and an undercard featuring the likes of Haim, Run the Jewels, Diplo, Big Sean, and Ween.
Then, at around 4 p.m. on May 18, follow a day of rumours which organizers refused to address, a notice went up on the Pemberton Music Festival website. The list of performers was replaced by a statement announcing that the event was in bankruptcy, and that tickets purchased wouldn’t be refunded by the festival.
Within the hour all PMF social media accounts were deleted. A spokesman for New Orleans-based Huka Entertainment—which first brought the PMF to B.C. in 2014—sent media outlets, including the Georgia Straight, a statement arguing the Big Easy concert promoter wasn’t to blame.
The statement read: "For the past four years Huka Entertainment has worked to create a one-of-a-kind experience in the most beautiful place on earth. We are heartbroken to see the 2017 Pemberton Music Festival cancelled.
As a contract producer, Huka did not make the decision to cancel the Festival. That decision was made by the Pemberton Music Festival, LP. We are extremely disappointed for our fans, artists and all of our partners who have supported the festival over the years."
The official explanation, then, was Huka had been contracted to oversee Pemberton by a company called Pemberton Music Festival LP. (which, by the way, lists its legal address as 1835 Highway 99 in Pemberton, but actually seems to be headquartered in New Orleans at the same address as Huka Entertainment.). It’s since been revealed by various media outlets that Pemberton Music Festival LP is also a registered partner of a numbered company called 1115666 B.C. Ltd.
Industry insiders like Marc Geiger of the high-powered William Morris Agency have since described those companies as nothing but a shell. He also described the actions of all involved in the cancellation as "gross", suggesting that the folks behind the PMF are anything but bankrupt.
Geiger—whose company represents Haim, Tegan and Sara, and Chance the Rapper—told Billboard, "These guys are declaring bankruptcy, but none of them are actually bankrupt. Their shell company is bankrupt. And now they want fans to pay the price."
Pemberton Music Festival fans, vendors, and lenders are owed $16.7 million.
Geiger deserves massive props for calling out the organizers of PMF. Huka is still running major American events this summer like Tortuga Music Festival in Ft. Lauderdale and BUKU Music + Art Project in New Orleans and Los Angeles. And that's where things really seem to stink.
Right from the point Huka first entered the B.C. mega-festival market, the company positioned Pemberton as a Huka Entertainment event.
Five years ago I found myself in the Georgia Straight boardroom when one of the company’s major executives was sent up to the backwater of Vancouver to spread the initial word about Pemberton. Said executive—whose name unfortunately escapes me—spent an hour educating a bunch of Straight staffers on what Huka was and was all about.
The number-one order of business was making it crystal clear that whatever interest Huka would be showing in advertising with the Straight moving forward would be directly related to how much advance support Pemberton could expect from the paper. It was condescending, presumptuous, highly unusual, and kind of bizarre. Having sat in on meetings for other high-profile fests like the (now-cancelled) Squamish Valley Music Festival, I can honestly say I've never seen anything like it.
He also repeatedly drove home the point that the Pemberton Music Festival was going to work for one simple reason: Huka built its brand Stateside by focusing almost exclusively on big festivals. “This is all we do,” was the message.
Fittingly then, right up until the cancellation of this year’s festival, Pemberton was billed as a weekend brought to the paying public by Huka Entertainment. If you logged onto the PMF website, even on the morning of the cancellation day, you saw an all-caps promise of “A WORLD-CLASS EXPERIENCE FROM HUKA”
The key words there were “FROM HUKA”. Not from “A WORLD-CLASS EXPERIENCE FROM PEMBERTON MUSIC FESTIVAL LP”. Or “A WORLD-CLASS EXPERIENCE FROM 1115666 B.C. Ltd.”
Where the grossness gets even more gross is the way music fans were treated as a bunch of rubes.
Word was out the Pemberton Music Festival was going to be cancelled before the bankruptcy notice went up on late-afternoon on May 18. Around noon media outlets started reaching out to Huka on Twitter, asking, to no response, if the festival was going to be cancelled.
The public rumours actually started on the afternoon of May 17, a full day before the official cancellation, when Pemberton residents who’ve worked the festival in past years started posting on Reddit.
Those postings included ones like this: “I work for a company that has done rentals the past few years for the festival. My manager just informed me that we are not working the festival this year because it is being cancelled. Announcement will be made tomorrow.” And “My company was informed that the festival will be cancelled, not that we are not being hired.”
But even though vendors in Pemberton seemed to have been tipped there would be no festival, the message continued to be that everything was just fine.
Yet on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, it was still all systems go for what Huka liked to bill as “The best weekend of your life”. It was obvious Pemberton was being cancelled, but tickets—later announced as non-refundable—were still being sold.
On the Huka website, the Pemberton Music Festival was still being spotlighted aggressively on the day of the cancellation; a rotating ad showed Bassnectar throwing the devil horns in front of a throng of thousands, that accompanied by the quote “Can you please tell Pemberton personally that I am so f***cking excited to play this event?”. The ad continued to run even after PMF website posted the bankruptcy notice.
The push to move tickets didn’t stop there. On May 17 the Pemberton Music Festival Twitter page sent out a Tweet about how there was only 52 days to the festival.
Here’s betting that some of 73 rubes from B.C. who liked the Tweet thought that the idea of blowin’ bubbles at basscamp sounded pretty good. And that they perhaps bought tickets, to the tune of hundreds of dollars, for an event that was destined to be cancelled.
Tickets that were being marketed to the public even as the whole thing was about to collapse. At the time of its cancellation, Pemberton Music Festival had collected $8.2 million in revenue for a festival that was budgeted to cost $22 million.
The only thing missing is Johnny Rotten standing on stage in the middle of a Pemberton field, sneering “Ha, ha, ha—ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”