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'Everybody is at risk': Why can't Vancouver keep a music festival going?

There will be more cancellations, predicts industry expert.
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Why does Vancouver struggle to maintain music festivals long-term? An expert and executive producer of the one-time Skookum Festival weighs in.

A landmark arts and culture event in Vancouver is at risk and it’s not the only one, according to an industry expert.

Earlier this week, the Vancouver Folk Fest -  which has been held at Jericho beach for the last 45 years (aside from a two-year COVID hiatus) - announced it is cancelled this year and may never come back.

It’s a loss felt by music lovers across Vancouver but is also symptomatic of a larger problem that the event industry is facing.

Hosting a music festival requires “a shit ton of money and a slight twinge of insanity," says Paul Runnals, co-owner of BrandLive and executive producer of Squamish Valley Music Festival and Vancouver's Skookum Festival.

Skookum, which took place at Stanley Park in 2018 with headliners like The Killers and Florence and the Machine, was short-lived. The event took a break for 2019 due to acts booking on 18-month cycles and then cancelled the planned 2020 return due to "cost projections" that made continuing the event "unsustainable.” Incidentally, the cancellation announcement was made in February, a month before the world shut down.

BrandLive is responsible for many of the major events in Vancouver, including the annual Honda Celebration of Light fireworks displays, and Runnals says that music festivals are risky undertakings and always have been. 

For every successful and established Coachella or Glastonbury, there are countless others that have failed, something that Vancouverites know well.

In addition to Squamish and Skookum, Pemberton Festival, Constellation, and Rock Ambleside are all examples of events that have faced challenges or called it quits entirely. 

Why can't we make a festival work long-term?

Music festivals only happen once a year and as Runnals points out, that means they only have one weekend to pay the bills for a year of work. 

So many things can affect your ability to have a successful event, he explains, such as bad weather to bands cancelling. Plus, organizers may not actually know who the acts are going to be when they start making commitments.

As far as business models go, music festivals are bizarre.

Organizers often start with zero money and have to commit to holding the event as they raise funds. After raising the money they have to shell out large quantities before they know how the public will respond. 

There’s a "whole ecosystem of people involved in these events," says Runnals. According to him, acts are the biggest expense for most festivals, sometimes taking up to 50 per cent of the budget.

It’s a very delicate balance and the slightest upset could send the whole thing toppling down.

He gives the example of the Pemberton Music Festival which was cancelled due to the 2008 financial crisis. While it was dormant, Squamish Valley Music Festival took its place in 2010 and was starting to gain success and momentum until Pemberton was rebooted by a team from New Orleans. Runnals says having the two fests in tandem split the audience.

The greater Vancouver area was not a big enough market to support two major music festivals a few weeks apart, he says, and when the dust settled and it was revealed that Pemberton lost over $47M in three years the damage was already done and both festivals were cancelled.

Despite the risks, pre-COVID there was a "bullish sense" of organizers having a try-it-again-next-year attitude but he says that people are warier of six-figure losses. "The reckless bravado of 'we'll make it work' has been tamped down," he tells V.I.A. over the phone, describing event organizers these days as “risk averse.”

How COVID changed the game for B.C. festival organizers

Vancouver Folk Fest cited rising costs and challenges with suppliers asking for up-front payments as the cause for cancelling the 2023 event -- a sentiment echoed by Runnals.

He says across the board suppliers have upped their rates and changed their policies since COVID because "they were on life support as well."

"Everyone needed a more aggressive payment schedule.”

Many events were able to come back in 2022 because the B.C. government introduced a $30+ million fairs and festivals recovery fund. Runnals says that most of Vancouver’s signature events received around $250K of that money, which allowed them to continue operating.

But this year "the government has wound back support for our industry," he says.

He thinks that a lot of events wouldn't have happened if not for that fund and now that it’s gone, “it’s a perfect storm.”

The City of Vancouver and Park Board also have little involvement in the success or failure of such events. In an emailed statement to V.I.A., the City of Vancouver says they are “steadfast supporters” of the Folk Fest and have been for many decades. They say, “the news of its cancellation and the possible dissolution of the society came as a surprise.”

“Folk Fest has been a beloved part of the community and has brought joy and cultural enrichment to many residents and visitors,” reads the statement. “This is a significant loss to the arts and culture sector in Vancouver, and we are deeply saddened by this news. We encourage organizers and stakeholders to explore all possible options to keep the festival alive in hopes that it will return in the future.”

They add that the City and Park Board, “recognize the value and importance these types of events have on our communities and remain committed to working with BIA’s, event organizers and arts and culture groups to ensure the continued success of events in Vancouver.”

Runnals hopes that things will stablize in 2024 as new people are attracted to the industry. 

"Everyone is trying the best they can," he says but "everybody is at risk…If [Vancouver Folk Fest] can't make it work that's a very telling, unfortunate reality"

He suggests that the Honda Celebration of Light, which is a non-profit organization, would also be at risk if it didn’t at least break even this year.

"The industry is still in restart mode," he says. "We're not there yet."

With files from The Vancouver Courier and Maria Diment.

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