How did our festivals do?
Imagine you’re on the fence about going to Sonic Boom, Edmonton’s last proper outdoor festival happening Sept. 3-4 in Borden Park. Maybe you’re festival-ed out. Maybe you’re sick of summer. Maybe you’re tired of life. Then you find out Twenty One Pilots is playing – and that’s the deal maker. Sure, OK, let’s have one last rock marathon in the great outdoors and get way too drunk and filthy and exhausted before school starts proper.
So you plan to buy tickets at the gate, but then at the last minute it’s announced that instead of Twenty One Pilots, it’s going to be, oh, let’s say Our Lady Peace. Would you still go? They still have the Lumineers, Vance Joy, and Halsey. Is it the “festival experience” you’re after or the bands?
Now imagine a similar scenario: instead of a line-up change, sunny days in the forecast suddenly become rain with a chance of flurries and a low of 2. Do you still go?
No, you can’t overstate the effect of weather on Edmonton’s festivals. Some events are immune. Many others are very vulnerable and have been broken by bad weather – literally and figuratively washed out. One looks back at Rockfest ’99 near Leduc, which was a perfect shitstorm of bad organization and terrible weather. Teaching moment.
One never knows how the chaos goes until the numbers are in – and maybe not even then.
Here are some of Edmonton’s brave festival producers weighing in on the Summer of ’16:
Edmonton Folk Music Festival
Attendance: 52,000 paid, 95,000 total (four days)
Along with the usual sniping from the cool kids – proving this thing is as entrenched in the Edmonton psyche as K-Days, love it or hate it – there was minor consternation over the fact that the folk fest did not sell out for the first time in 19 years. This is possibly due to the lack of a huge name among the headliners. The over-exposed Nathaniel Rateliff was about the biggest – and his appearance in the recent KIA commercial (top picture) officially marks the point where the folk-pop crossover boom has jumped the shark.
So how bad was it?
“Our box office was down only 1% in the end,” reports folk fest festival producer Terry Wickham. He says it a very good year “on all levels,” and they even made a profit.
The goal for next year is a modest one: “To eliminate waiting times for the beer tent.”
Attendance: 803,087 (10 days)
No hockey, no ponies, and now Northlands says it needs $200 million for refurbishing or K-Days might not happen again, and apparently the price is a bit higher. Would you miss K-Days? Bet you would.
Taste of Edmonton
Attendance: 480,000 (10 days)
Not only did the weather “cooperate phenomenally” for this annual foodie festival in Churchill Square and its environs, according to event manager Shannon Armstrong – but our notoriously tough food critics were kinder, too. Hicks liked it, saying the quality was “way up” from last year. It’s about time. Edmonton’s gastronomic reputation has fattened up nicely with lots of great restaurants opening in the last few years, and Taste of Edmonton is working hard to reflect it, Armstrong says.
Fun fact: Taste of Edmonton is run by a group called Events Edmonton, which used to be called the Klondike Days Association until it was cut out of all things Klondike when Northlands took over Klondike Days – which used to be city-wide – and renamed it Capital Ex in 2006. Then they re-re-named it K-Days in 2012. Clear?
Maybe it’s time to cut Northlands out of the picture and resurrect the Klondike Days Association – and let them run Klondike Days the way it used to be. Consarnit.
Edmonton Rock Music Festival
Attendance: 5,700 (two days)
“Stellar” weather helped classic rockers like Randy Bachman and Kim Mitchell draw big crowds to Hawrelak Park. The event came out in the black, says Todd Crawshaw, president of the Rock and Roll Society of Edmonton that produces the event. It’s a registered charity, and profits go to musical education for underprivileged youth.
For the future, “I want to skew a little bit younger,” Crawshaw says, by booking not just your 1970s and 1980s rock stalwarts, but something from the 1990s, too – like, say, Our Lady Peace.
Edmonton Blues Festival
Attendance: 7,800 (three days)
Producer Cam Hayden says they were at about 85% capacity this year, “not bad considering the economy.” And not bad for such a niche event whose performers are largely unknown outside of the blues scene. No plans to tinker with the format next year, but a new feature of “bonus sets” – this year featuring Morgan Davis and Bobby Cameron – “went over very well with the crowd and will definitely happen again,” Hayden says.
Servus Heritage Festival
Attendance: 300,000 (three days)
Also known as the “meat on a stick” festival because meat tastes better on a stick, the first day of this culture and food-lover’s event in Hawrelak Park had to be shut down early due to storms – a crushing blow to the bottom line, even with what may turn out to be a record Monday attendance. This is one event where you just come on down and eat. You know there’s going to be meat on a stick. Executive director Jim Gibbon says they haven’t made a profit in several years. “We’re supposed to,” he says, “But the city bill is bigger than our net.”
It’s doubtful anyone’s going to threaten to cancel Heritage Days unless they get $200 million, of course. The people of Edmonton wouldn’t stand for it.
Of the future, Gibbon says, “We’re looking forward to our standard organic growth.”
Beaumont Roots and Blues Festival
Attendance: 4,500 (three days)
Despite the best weather the event has seen in its nine-year history, everything was “a little down” this year, according to artistic director Jeremy Dan Kornel. Sponsorships were down, grant funding was down, attendance was “lower than expected.” The reasons are sketchy. The big draw was supposed to be Sloan, neither roots nor blues and part of an attempt for the festival to break the bounds of its name – and the band was just in Edmonton opening the Needle in March. A more likely culprit may be the town of Beaumont itself and the decision to stage its “Town and Country Days” on the same weekend. Kornel says they’re going to try to work together more next year.
Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival
Attendance: 850,000 outdoor, 122,000 indoor (10 days)
“We shattered records!” says artistic director Murray Utas on the massive theatre local festival that in theory doesn’t require good weather because the money is in the indoor plays.
In practice, there’s a lot of spillover. You can only stand to watch Australian buskers for so long before you get curious what’s happening indoors. More than 200 plays in close proximity is an amazing enticement, an adventure for $13. People who never see theatre the entire rest of the year will come for Fringe plays. Festival experience.
With a third of the funding from sponsors, a third from grants and a third from earned revenue, the Fringe will probably come close to breaking even this year, Utas says. Moving forward, the plan is simple: “Refinement over revolution.”
Fancy way of saying if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Attendance: 9,500 (estimated, three days)
The fifth year was “one of the best years yet” for this no-longer-fledgling mini folk fest, which had a sell-out on Saturday with the headliner Sam Roberts in Hawrelak Park. Did they make a profit? None of your business. This festival is run by a private company. But probably.
Event publicist Aimee Hill says the main plan for next year is to stay the course.
“Five years and it’s a pretty well oiled machine,” she says. “For us, we’re always trying to get the undiscovered acts that you never get to see anywhere else.”