From travel woes to inflation, music festivals are poised for their most unpredictable summer yet

Organizers of Canada’s summer music festivals say things are far from normal behind the scenes, even as pandemic restrictions are lifted and live concerts return to some semblance of normality.

As concertgoers flock to outdoor events, leaders of the country’s biggest music events face a long list of fears – from travel delays to COVID-19 outbreaks – that have made organizing a festival even more tumultuous, costly and unpredictable.

Republic Live executive vice president Todd Jenereaux said it was impossible to narrow his concerns ahead of the Boots & Hearts country music festival in Oro-Medonte, Ontario. on August 4th. He’s confident the weekend will go smoothly, but getting to showtime won’t be easy.

“Things are just as worrying from an industry perspective as they were during the (height of) the pandemic, it’s just different,” he said.

“It’s not like a normal year. Our struggles have all been things we’ve never dealt with before.”

Over the past few weeks, festival leaders have met over text messages and phone calls to share the hurdles to running a successful event in 2022. They talked about rising costs related to inflation, supply problems for stage equipment and a shortage of experienced workers.

Every music festival has its own unique mix of problems to overcome, but what they all have in common is the fear that something will stop high-profile artists from reaching the stage.

That’s what happened at the Bass Coast electronic music festival in Merritt, BC earlier this month when flight delays left about half of their Sunday line-up behind.

About seven acts got stuck at airports ahead of the show, despite an emergency plan that asked musicians to arrive a day early, said Andrea Graham, co-founder of the festival.

“Flights have been canceled altogether or rescheduled to another day, which really doesn’t work when you’re playing that night,” she said.

“We had to struggle to find solutions, like picking them up in other cities (with drivers).”

The emergency backup plan worked. Only one of the acts didn’t make it in time, she said. And yet that hasn’t necessarily ensured the other music festivals on the calendar.

Talal Farisi, who helps organize Toronto’s Veld Music Festival, recently called a private jet company to put them on alert for the weekend of his event.

“I was like, ‘Listen, I have a really good tip for you. Try to keep a few planes on standby…there’s Lollapalooza, Osheaga and Veld, all on the same weekend, in the same area,'” he said.

“I’ve been thinking about this with Air Canada… we’re aware of the delays and that’s a very big issue.”

Elsewhere, musicians have helped out in the worst situations.

At Sled Island Festival in Calgary in June, the bassist for Los Angeles rock trio La Luz was unable to perform due to a COVID-19 case, so Jenni Roberts, member of Edmonton band Faith Healer, stepped in as a substitute.

Other events have not been so lucky with COVID. The Regina Folk Festival announced earlier this month that Buffy Sainte-Marie was canceling her August 6 headlining performance after contracting the virus.

“We’re in a world where there’s a lot more to playing with the beats,” said Nick Farkas, co-founder of Montreal’s Osheaga Music and Arts Festival, which begins later this month.

“Everyone’s kind of MacGyvering solutions to make sure everything happens.”

Some of the obstacles are easier to fix than others, said the executive director of concert promoter Evenko, who also runs the Montreal Jazz Festival.

For example, a labor shortage can throw everything off balance. A few years ago a festival might have hired 50 people to haul gear, but now only 40 will be available.

“That means these 40 people have to work harder, later and longer – and will they be back in the morning?” he said.

“I’m hearing it all over North America, that’s the reality right now. The unemployment rate is extremely low and it is harder to find and employ people.”

Think of any music festival like a duck swimming across a pond, suggested Farkas, who recently heard the comparison from a colleague. On the surface, the duck appears calm, cool, and collected, but underwater, the animal “kicks” to move forward.

“That’s what’s going on in our production and creative teams right now,” Farkas said.

“Our people are very used to looking for solutions … and unfortunately this year there are more problems than ever.”

However, not everything beneath the surface can be contained. Several festivals say inflationary pressures combined with high demand for dressing room trailers and tents have pushed up costs.

Debbi Salmonsen, artistic director of the Vancouver Folk Festival, said that in British Columbia, multiple industries — music festivals, film production companies and developers of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline — are all competing for the same equipment.

“We’re talking fences, stages, gear, backline (aka concert gear), porta-potties. You know, all the things you need for a safe event,” she said of organizing the festival in mid-July.

“Nothing is flat — some things are up 75 percent, some things are up 10 percent.”

How festivals deal with these higher costs varies. Some increased ticket prices, while others say the inflationary spurt came after they put tickets on sale, making it almost impossible to adjust their packages.

“You have two options: either deliver a really good festival or cut a lot of costs and the customer will feel it,” said Farisi, who oversees Veld as an executive at promoter Ink Entertainment.

Festivals that focus on their bottom line at the expense of experience will “pay for it” once word of mouth gets around and ticket sales wane in a few years, Farisi said.

So this year the organizers added an extra day to the programme, allowing for more tickets to be sold and the cost to be spread over a longer period.

That strategy has paid off, Farisi said, as young people who were 17 when the pandemic began are now 19 and ready to party.

“We’ve had our best year,” he said.

“There is a backlog; there is a need for people to come together again. There’s no denying the human instinct to gather, and that’s what festivals are really about.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 19, 2022.

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