Organizers at Canada’s summer music festivals say that even as pandemic restrictions are lifted and live concerts return to some semblance of normality, it’s anything but normal behind the scenes.
As concertgoers flock to outdoor events, the people who run the nation’s biggest music gathering face a long list of anxieties — from travel delays to the COVID-19 illness — that make putting on a festival even more tumultuous, costly and unpredictable.
Todd Jenereaux, executive vice president of Republic Live, said it’s impossible to narrow down his concerns ahead of the Boots & Hearts country music festival in Oro-Medonte, Ont., on Aug. 4. He is confident that the weekend will pass without any problems. , but getting to showtime won’t be easy.
“Things are as worrisome from an industry perspective as they have been in the past [height of the] pandemic, it’s just different,” he said.
“It’s not like a normal year. All of our games were things we’ve never dealt with before.”
‘Strive to find a solution’
In recent weeks, festival leaders have been meeting via text messages and phone conversations to share the obstacles to a successful event in 2022. They talked about rising costs linked to inflation, problems with the supply of stage equipment and a shortage of skilled workers.
Every music festival has its own unique mix of challenges to overcome, but common among them is the fear that something will stop top performers from taking the stage.
That’s what happened earlier this month at the Bass Coast Electronic Music Festival in Merritt, BC, when flight delays left about half of their Sunday lineup stranded.
Despite a contingency plan that called for musicians to arrive a day early, about seven acts were stuck at airports before the shows started, festival co-founder Andrea Graham said.
“Flights have been completely canceled or postponed to another day, which doesn’t really work if you’re playing that night,” she said.
“We had to try to find solutions like picking them up in other cities (with drivers).”
The emergency backup plan worked. According to her, only one of the acts did not make it in time. And yet it doesn’t necessarily ensure more music festivals on the calendar.
A roll-with-the-punches world.
Talal Farisi, who helps organize Velda’s music festival in Toronto, recently called a private airline and put them on standby for the weekend of his event.
“I was like, ‘Listen, I’ve got a really good tip for you. Try to have some planes on standby … they’re all Lollapalooza, Osheaga and Veld on the same weekend, in the same vicinity,'” he said.
“I’ve been thinking about it with Air Canada … we’re aware of the delay and that’s a very big problem.”
Elsewhere, musicians help in the most difficult situations.
At Calgary’s Sled Island festival in June, a case of COVID-19 prevented the bassist of Los Angeles rock trio La Luz from performing, so Jenni Roberts of Edmonton’s Faith Healer stepped in as a stand-in.
Other events have not been so lucky with COVID. The Regina Folk Festival announced earlier this month that Buffy Sainte-Marie is canceling her Aug. 6 headline show after contracting the virus.
“We’re in a much more ‘pie world,'” said Nick Farkas, co-founder of Montreal’s Osheaga Music and Arts Festival, which begins later this month.
“Everyone is MacGyvering solutions to make everything happen.”
Lack of workers
Some obstacles are easier to remove than others, said an executive at concert promoter Evenko, which also organizes the Montreal Jazz Festival.
For example, a shortage of workers can throw everything out of balance. A few years ago, the festival could hire 50 people to move equipment, but now only 40 will be available.
“That means those 40 people have to work harder, later and longer – and will they be back the next morning?” he said.
“I’m hearing it across North America, that’s the reality right now. The unemployment rate is super low and it’s harder to attract people and keep them.”
Think of any music festival as a duck swimming across a pond, suggested Farkas, who recently heard the analogy from a colleague. On the surface, the duck appears calm, cool and collected, but underwater the animal “kicks like hell” to move forward.
“This is what is happening now in our production and creative teams,” said Farkaš.
“Our people are very used to looking for solutions… and unfortunately there are more problems this year than ever.”
However, not everything can be contained below the surface. Several festivals report that inflationary pressures, along with high demand for clothing trailers and tents, have driven up costs.
Debbi Salmonsen, artistic director of the Vancouver Folk Festival, said that in British Columbia, several industries — music festivals, film production companies and developers of the Trans Mountain pipeline — are all vying for the same facility.
“We’re talking fences, stages, equipment, backline (also known as concert equipment), porta-potties. You know, all the things you need to have a safe event,” she said of organizing the mid-July festival.
“Nothing has remained stagnant – some things have increased by 75 percent, some by 10 percent.”
How festivals deal with these higher costs varies. Some have raised ticket prices, while others say the spike in inflation came after they put tickets on sale, making it nearly impossible to adjust their packages.
“You have two choices: either do a really good festival or cut a lot of costs and the customer will feel it,” said Farisi, who oversees Veldo as managing director of Ink Entertainment.
Festivals that focus on their bottom line at the expense of the experience will “pay for it” once word of mouth gets around and ticket sales start to decline in a few years, Farisi said.
So this year, the organizers added an extra day to the lineup, which made it possible to sell more tickets and spread the costs over a longer period.
The strategy has paid off, Farisi said, because young people who were 17 at the start of the pandemic are now 19 and ready to party.
“We had our best year,” he said.
“There’s pent-up demand; there’s a need for people to come back together. You can’t deny the human instinct to gather and that’s what festivals are really about.”
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