Why are music festivals facing so many challenges on the West Coast?
An indefinitely cancelled Folk Fest would mark the end of an era—and an enormous loss for the community.
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It’s been just over a week since the Vancouver Folk Music Festival (VFMF) announced that it was forced to cancel this year—and perhaps indefinitely—and Mark Zuberbuhler, the VFMF’s board president, is feeling “really sad.”
“You take your responsibilities as board members seriously and you do that to the best of your ability and you have to balance it off with your own passion for the festival—and it's heartbreaking to see it come to an end,” he tells the Straight. “So, it’s been a tough, exhausting week from that perspective.”
When it comes to West Coast music festivals, this turn of events is, unfortunately, nothing new. Though none have quite enjoyed the Folk Fest’s longevity, countless other local festivals over the years have struggled to move forward, despite successful and well-attended runs. Just hours after Folk Fest made its announcement, a similar one was made by Squamish Constellation Festival.
“For many of the same reasons behind Vancouver Folk Music Festival’s tragic and heartbreaking demise, Squamish Constellation Festival is contemplating the viability of producing its annual event in 2023. Decreased attendance, escalating operational costs, and upfront payments and deposits–without start-up resources after many challenging years–will make it next to impossible to launch the multi-genre, three-day event without a substantial and immediate influx of funds and support.”
So why are music festivals facing so many challenges on the West Coast? The answer is complex.
In the statement released on January 17, VFMF cited rising production costs and a lack of resources that contributed to an unsustainable post-pandemic event landscape as reasons for the event’s cancellation.
“There's two significant things that happened,” Zuberbuhler further explains. “One was the absolutely astronomical increase in costs, about 40 to 50 per cent, and that was not anticipated. And the other issue that came up is the suppliers demanding to be paid upfront before the festival, and we just do not have the cash to do that. A lot of our money comes after the festival ticket revenue and that comes in July—it doesn't come in May or April when you're booking a stage.”
VFMF says it needs at least $500,000 in funding every year to keep going. Zuberbuhler emphasizes how the board debated for months and considered many other alternatives—including changing location, reducing festival size, and increasing ticket prices, as per the festival website—before settling on cancellation as a last resort.
“We just felt that we had no choice, considering the circumstances,” he says. On February 1, the board is set to hold a vote to dissolve the VFMF.
An indefinitely cancelled Folk Fest—which, founded in 1978, is the longest-running outdoor festival in Vancouver—would mark the end of an era and an enormous loss for the community.
Paul Runnals, partner and senior VP of BRANDLIVE, the Vancouver-based event production agency behind the Squamish Valley Music Festival, Skookum Festival, and many others, says this is not a problem unique to the city—it’s actually relative to the festival industry everywhere.
“There's all sorts of variables that you don't control, and that's probably one of the biggest takeaways from the festival business.”
There’s a lot of uncertainty, starting with booking the lineup: is it compelling enough? Will those artists even be available? Will headliners conjure enough interest from fans when the time comes? Plus, with many artists finding touring to be more and more unsustainable—financially, physically, and mentally—that also makes it tough to book acts.
“The margins are quite thin on festivals to begin with,” Runnals continues. Factor in other uncontrollable elements and “it becomes a very risky proposition.”
This is especially true with young festivals trying to establish themselves, Runnals notes. “If [investors] don't see a path to profitability, then that might cause them to not go forward.”
Launched in 2010, Squamish Valley Music Festival initially did extremely well. It grew steadily and organically, attracting some of music’s biggest names including Eminem, Drake, and the Tragically Hip, and 125,000 people by its fifth year. The festival was cancelled in 2016—the result of, Runnals says, New Orleans promoters Huka Entertainment running a poorly-managed Pemberton Music Festival just a few weeks apart from the Squamish Valley event.
“A lot of people who go to festivals don't necessarily have thousands of dollars at their disposal to go to multiple festivals, so they ended up picking one or the other,” Runnals says. “And that hurt both festivals, because now you've got neither one of them attracting enough people to pay the bottom line. [Huka] splintered the market and, by doing that, it took down both festivals.”
Pemberton was cancelled in 2017, before filing for bankruptcy.
Skookum first ran in 2018. Set up in Stanley Park and featuring headliners like Florence + the Machine and the Killers, it was also well-received. BRANDLIVE announced in early 2020 the event would be cancelled, stating “cost projections for continuing the event are unsustainable.” Runnals explains that the plan had always been to skip 2019, reassess what worked and what didn’t after the inaugural event, and re-launch in 2020—but then a business partnership soured and, of course, the pandemic happened.
Whether or not Skookum returns in the future is still to be determined, Runnals says. Right now, the event industry is still “quite volatile,” and, as emphasized by Zuberbuhler, there are issues with supply chain and lack of labour, and the prices of everything has shot up. Not to mention, audiences have also been greatly impacted financially by the pandemic.
“Once again, your market is compromised because of factors that affect your ability to sell tickets and then that undermines the artists’ ability to make money,” Runnals says. “It's kind of like a domino effect.”
While the event landscape has changed dramatically since the height of the pandemic, things weren’t exactly great for the Folk Fest pre-COVID either. “I don't think it's any secret that the festival always was on a fine line,” Zuberbuhler says. “It was a struggle every year.”
Like with booking acts, there are many costly factors that go into physically assembling a festival, including staging, power, sound gear, port-a-potties, and fencing. For the Folk Fest, not having festival grounds with permanent infrastructure added up. “Every year that all has to be brought in,” Zuberbuhler says. There is also, he notes, competition for obtaining those resources, particularly from Vancouver’s film industry.
Corporate support can help mitigate these costs. But, Zuberbuhler says it can be difficult to secure large corporate sponsorship for music events—and the Folk Fest didn’t want corporate involvement anyway. “It’s part of their values…And so, unfortunately, you just don't have that potential revenue source, and there's not a lot of well-sourced companies headquartered in Vancouver.”
So, what needs to change? What do organizers need to run a successful annual music festival in Vancouver nowadays?
“Truthfully, we need the market to stabilize,” Runnals says.
And there needs to be more financial investment. The B.C. government introduced the Fairs, Festivals and Events Recovery Fund in late 2021, which offered nearly $30 million dollars in one-time grants to all corners of the province to help resurrect the industry. The fund, which indeed gave events a boost back on their feet, has not continued this year—and Runnals emphasizes just how much the money is still needed.
“We're not yet at a point where the industry—where the machine—is running at full efficiency. There's still this discrepancy between what things cost because there's still elevated expenses, and taking away that funding has destabilized a lot of operators.”
And it’s not just organizers, artists, and fans who are impacted. The lack of investment ripples far and wide to all the people who work in the ecosystem connected to these events, from caterers and security guards to technicians and music media.
Runnals continues: “Were there to be additional support contemplated from the government to be able to help get that sector to where it needs to be in order for these events to go forward, that would be game-changing.”
The Canadian Live Music Association submitted a letter in September 2022 requesting the fund’s renewal in B.C.
If the Folk Fest does dissolve after February 1 into a “clean spot,” Zuberbuhler says it offers a glimmer of hope.
“It at least allows the opportunity in the future for someone to resurrect it, if they come up with a different model and a new approach to it. That's still based on if we can accomplish this with the funds that we have. I think there’ll probably be a growth in very small, intimate types of performance opportunities—small stage, very minimal equipment—because musicians need to play, and people love to see musicians play, and there needs to be some place for that to happen. I think, as humans, we have that need in our lives. So, we will find a way to make that happen. Whether the future includes large festivals like the Folk Fest as the way it used to be, I don't know.”
Vancouver’s not ready to give up just yet. There is currently a letter circulating, signed by “a group of longtime festival goers, board members, staff, volunteers and artists,” calling to save the Folk Fest. It states:
“Devotees of the festival—audience members, former staff, performers, and volunteers—feel that it is a mistake to dissolve the society and are prepared to help it survive. The first step is for those who are members of the society in good standing to attend the annual general meeting on February 1st and vote against the resolution to dissolve.
“The next step is to elect a new board ready to look at holding a festival and carrying on other activities as described in the society’s mission of disseminating folk music. There are experienced people ready to undertake these responsibilities. Dissolving a healthy organization with a strong track record and large, devoted audience is not part of our plan. We say NO!”
As for Runnals, he, too, is hopeful the festival industry will eventually get back on track.
“I’m an eternal optimist and I wouldn't be in the festival business if I wasn’t,” he says.
“I do think it's going to find its way. It's just a challenging time right now and it does need a little bit more time and space for things to settle and people to get back on board, and investors to want to put their money into some of these projects.”