Organizers at Canada’s summer music festivals say even as pandemic restrictions lift and live concerts return to some semblance of normalcy, it’s anything but normal behind the scenes.
While concertgoers descend on outdoor events, the people leading the country’s largest music gatherings are facing a long list of anxieties — from travel delays to COVID-19 illnesses — that have made putting together 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’s confident the weekend will go off without a hitch, but getting to showtime won’t be easy.
“Things are as troubling from an industry standpoint 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 that we’ve never dealt with before.”
In recent weeks, festival leaders have convened through texts and phone conversations to share the hurdles of running a successful event in 2022. They’ve talked about rising costs tied to inflation, supply issues for stage equipment and a shortage of experienced workers.
Each music festival has its own unique blend of problems to overcome, but common among them is the fear that something will prevent top-billed performers from reaching the stage.
That’s what happened with the Bass Coast electronic music festival in Merritt, B.C. earlier this month when flight delays left about half of their Sunday lineup stranded.
Despite having a contingency plan that asked musicians to arrive a day early, about seven acts wound up stuck at airports before showtime, said festival co-founder Andrea Graham.
“Flights were cancelled altogether or postponed to another day, which really doesn’t work if you’re playing that evening,” she said.
“We had to scramble 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 on time, she said. And yet, that hasn’t necessarily assured other music festivals on the calendar.
Talal Farisi, who helps organize the Veld Music Festival in Toronto, recently made a call to a private jet company, putting them on alert 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 … there’s Lollapalooza, Osheaga and Veld all in the same weekend, within the same vicinity,’” he said.
“I’ve been thinking about it with Air Canada … we’re conscious of the delays and that’s a very big issue.”
Elsewhere, musicians have been helping out in the direst situations.
At Calgary’s Sled Island festival in June, a case of COVID-19 left the bassist of Los Angeles rock trio La Luz unable to perform, so Jenni Roberts, a member of Edmonton band Faith Healer, stepped in as a substitute.
Other events haven’t been so lucky with COVID. The Regina Folk Festival announced earlier this month that Buffy Sainte-Marie was cancelling her Aug. 6 headlining gig after contracting the virus.
“We’re in a much more ‘roll-with-the-punches’ kind of world,” said Nick Farkas, co-founder of Montreal’s Osheaga Music and Arts Festival, which kicks off later this month.
“Everybody’s kind of MacGyvering solutions to make sure that everything happens.”
Some of the obstacles are easier to fix than others, said the executive at concert promoter Evenko, which also runs the Montreal jazz festival.
For instance, a shortage of workers can throw everything out of balance. A few years ago a festival might’ve hired 50 people to move equipment, but now only 40 will be available.
“That means those 40 people have to work harder, later and longer hours — 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 get and keep people engaged.”
Think of each music festival as 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 beneath the water, the animal is “kicking like hell” to move forward.
“That’s what’s going on in our production and creative teams right now,” said Farkas.
“Our people are very used to trying to find solutions … and unfortunately, this year there are more problems than ever.”
Not everything can be contained below the surface, however. Several festivals say inflationary pressures, coupled with high demand for dressing room trailers and tents, have sent costs soaring.
Debbi Salmonsen, artistic director at the Vancouver Folk Festival, said in British Columbia several industries — music festivals, film production companies and developers of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline — are all jostling for the same equipment.
“We’re talking fences, stages, gear, backline (also known as concert gear), porta-potties. You know, all the things that you need to have a safe event,” she said of organizing the mid-July festival.
“Nothing has remained stagnant — some things have gone up by 75 per cent, some things have gone up by 10 per cent.”
How festivals are handling those higher costs varies. Some increased ticket prices, while others say the surge of inflation came after they put tickets on sale, making it nearly impossible to adjust their packages.
“You have two choices: 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 event organizer 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 begin to slip a few years down the road, Farisi said.
So this year, organizers added an extra day to the lineup, which allowed for more tickets to be sold and costs spread across a longer period.
This strategy has paid off, Farisi said, as young people who were 17 years old at the start of the pandemic turn 19 and are ready to party.
“We’ve seen 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 together and that’s really what festivals are all about.”