Producer AEG gives notice it won’t continue to run the annual Bumbershoot festival
Fifty years ago things weren’t going so well in Seattle. The Boeing Bust had devastated the local economy. Though the Seattle World’s fair a decade earlier had given the city some swagger, the flagging aerospace manufacturer’s fortunes had killed the sense of civic momentum – the perils of an economy dependent on a major employer that falls on hard times.
In 1971, the city of Seattle, looking for strategies to revive the city’s fortunes, decided to make a small bet on culture, investing the grand sum of $25,000 in a festival – Festival ’71 – to be held mid-August at Seattle Center, site of the 1962 World’s Fair that had been so transformative. It was a success, and by 1973, it moved to the Labor Day weekend and took the distinctive name Bumbershoot. By 1974 attendance for the free event reached 325,000.
Bumbershoot’s origin story isn’t unusual, as it turns out. A few years ago I was hired by a group in Miami to explore creating a major new festival there. As part of my research I spent 14 months looking into the operations of and traveling to festivals all over the world. I discovered that a surprising number of iconic festivals were created in response to hard times: The Salzburg Festival to rebuild Austrian identity after World War I. The Edinburgh Festival in the wake of World War II. The most recent major North American arts festival – Luminato in Toronto – came out of the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the desire to “reclaim” the city’s tourism reputation.
Bumbershoot would actually be the third attempt to define Seattle’s fortunes with culture. In 1909, on the site of the present University of Washington, the summer-long Alaska–Yukon–Pacific Exposition attracted 3.2 million visitors and changed how the world looked at the Northwest. And in 1962, the 21st Century Exposition world’s fair, which attracted 10 million visitors over six months, created Seattle Center on Lower Queen Anne and spawned new arts organizations, including Seattle Opera and the Pacific Science Center.
Festivals can help create a sense of place, of community, of shared experience. They help articulate identity and they promote creativity, excellence and civic pride.
Over the past 20 years there has been an explosion in the number of festivals around the world. Thousands of them sprang up, some becoming giant franchises. Miami’s Ultra dance music festival bred editions on three continents. Coachella, Bonaroo, Glastonbury, Outlands, SXSW, Governors Ball, Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, Burning Man and others have become aspirational destination events that sell out within minutes and cost hundreds of dollars to attend. California’s Coachella, one of the biggest, earned $114.6 million over two weekends in 2017. Sydney, Australia’s annual festival takes over the city and attracts 1.4 million participants. Billboard reported two years ago that 32 million people attended festivals in the US that year, and Nielsen says 23 percent of Americans attended a festival in 2018.
So what explains the flagging fortunes of Bumbershoot, which has over the past 20 years become less and less distinctive, spectacularly more expensive to attend, and has suffered diminished attendance and an increasingly unsustainable business model?
Festivals have become popular as generic arts experiences have faded and online culture has become ubiquitous. Numbed by endless screens that scroll by on their devices, audiences are increasingly willing to pay for unique, physical, analog experiences. Festivals, with their enthusiastic crowds, unique ambience and sense of occasion have filled the bill. But ironically, as they became more successful, they also became more generic and corporate.
Artists, earning less from recordings and eager to play bigger venues rather than endlessly touring, commanded bigger fees, which put pressure on festival ticket prices. Increasingly, the same artists were booked at marquee festivals, making those events less distinctive. Two years ago, critics of the New York Times decided among themselves to skip the big festivals because they had lost their individuality.
Locally, festivals have felt the pressure. Sasquatch, born in 2002 at the Gorge in Central Washington, folded last year. Bumbershoot, always financially precarious, has reinvented itself a number of times since the 70s. Though the festival was free for its first couple decades, it began charging admission in the 90s, $2.50 at first, then climbing to $40 in 2010. In 2014, bad weather and poor attendance led to a loss of nearly a million dollars, and the next year the national music producer AEG took over production in hopes its national network and deep music business connections could turn things around.
AEG tried to beef up the lineups, but this was expensive, and, by 2018, weekend festival passes cost $220 and only 48,000 came. Bumbershoot had dropped most of its arts events and quirky experiences that had made it uniquely Seattle and had become just another big generic festival. On top of that, construction on Key Arena and a crumbling Memorial Stadium made Seattle Center unpleasant and uncomfortable. It’s not a surprise that AEG wants out after its five-year contract is up. In its current configuration, Bumbershoot has trapped itself in an unworkable model, stripped of the unique personality that once made it a favorite annual event.
The City of Seattle says it’s committed to finding a way to continue Bumbershoot, particularly since 2021 marks the 50th anniversary. But how? Not that anyone’s asking, but as someone who’s attended a dozen Bumbershoots – many as a journalist reporting on it – and as someone who’s studied the workings from the inside of more than 100 other festivals of all shapes and sizes, I offer some observations:
- Successful festivals usually have to have some combination of these three elements to be successful: 1. A “destination” venue ( there’s a reason festivals are often in spectacular settings: people want to be there for the experience of being in a space), 2. unique performances, experiences or artists ( the internet promised to liberate us from the drudge of generic mediocre one-size-fits-all experiences, and now we expect our experiences to speak directly – individually – to us or we quickly click out), and 3. a strong community that has an opportunity to express itself (we increasingly see ourselves in conversation with the artists/art/experiences we invest in, and we want to share them with others as a way of defining our creative selves).
- Successful festivals are OF a community, not just IN it: Why this festival at this time for these people in this place? Festivals build community because they express something about the people and places they’re in. Burning Man, SxSW, Coachella – they could only be in they places where they are, and they define specific ideas and culture. Bumbershoot in its early days, with its weird culture, haphazard creativity and audience that came as much to celebrate itself as it did to hear music captured some of that. It didn’t look like anything else.
- Successful festivals need an animating idea: If a festival is merely a collection of wares for sale like products on a shelf, decisions to attend are calculated, transactional and fickle. People buy ideas over products, and no festival that fails to capture the imagination with a compelling idea will be around for long. Seattle Theatre Group has been exploring this approach with its new Thing festival in Port Townsend last summer, which by all accounts was a successful first outing.
- The higher the cost of attending, the less open the audience: Pricing an event isn’t just a matter of economics, it’s also a matter of culture. The higher the cost, the greater the expectation and the less tolerance for experimentation. The culture and expectation for a festival with a $200 admission is very different than for a free festival. Not to mention – and this is important – the demographics of an expensive festival are less inclusive or representative of the city.
- Successful festivals are bigger than themselves: They play a leadership role in their community beyond the event itself, beyond selling tickets or presenting artists.
So what would a renewed Bumbershoot look like?
- Return to its eclectic roots, updated for the 21st Century: Bumbershoot in its original form expressed the spirit of the region. It wasn’t just a music festival. It was aspirational, forward-looking, optimistic, art in its many forms. New Seattle, with its thriving tech sector, is one of the most creative cities in the world. A new Bumbershoot ought not to be just about music or the arts, but celebrate all forms of creativity found here. The first Bumbershoot spent half its $25,000 budget on a laser show – futuristic for the time. What’s the equivalent wow factor in 2021?
- Make Bumbershoot affordable again: Bumbershoot’s city charter says the festival should be affordable. Let’s just say that in recent years that wasn’t the case. Bumbershoot has always struggled with its business model. Non-profit festivals don’t work unless government is fully committed, and even rich festivals like Salzburg are battling over their subsidies. For-profit festivals like the mega-music festivals become more corporate and less creative over time. But there are a number of hybrid models which seem to be doing well. Time to check them out.
- Try decentralizing the Festival: Centralized institutions that are the vision of a single entity are less and less viable. One of the lessons of the internet is that networks and open-sourcing are almost always more powerful than closed systems. Festivals such as SxSW and Edinburgh and Art Basel Miami are actually clusters of festivals which interact and find their own character. They’re more nimble and they better reflect the personalities of their communities.
- Bumbershoot ought to be a year-round presence: Art is a process not a product. Bumbershoot ought to support other arts organizations and tech creatives rather than compete with them. It ought to be a place for experiments and collaborations. It could be a vehicle for connecting our creative sectors for projects that couldn’t happen anywhere else. Bumbershoot’s public showcase would be the Labor Day weekend but it acts as infrastructure the rest of the year to connect creativity.
- We need Bumbershoot more than ever: Seattle is losing its distinctive edge. It’s expensive. Arts organizations are struggling. Artists are moving out because they can’t afford to live here. We have fewer community events where we can all gather and interact. Old Seattle is fast disappearing under a new glass and steel skyline. How are we going to define what it means to live here? Events like Bumbershoot can play an important role, as has been proved with our world’s fairs and with the original Bumbershoot. Time to try it again.