How one sold-out music festival thrives while others go bust in BC

May 26 2023, 7:37 pm

BC is losing some of its beloved music festivals to post-pandemic cashflow crunches, and the organizer of one sold-out event in Merritt, BC, says success won’t be as easy after closures that upended the industry.

Skyrocketing costs and tightened rules from payment processors are some of the challenges BC music festivals have to deal with following years of COVID-19-related closures. The difficulties are so harsh that some popular BC festivals have folded while others teeter on the brink.

First, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival announced it would be cancelling this summer’s event and that future events were in jeopardy due to financial difficulties. The festival was ultimately saved after a government grant and additional support from partners.

Then, Surrey fixture FVDED In the Park announced it was cancelling this year’s event, and future editions were on pause. FVDED typically draws crowds of around 50,000 and features big headliners. Jack Harlow, Odesza, and DJ Snake were supposed to play this year.

These post-pandemic difficulties come on top of other festivals that already struggled. Popular Squamish Valley Music Festival (with 120,000 attendees) and Pemberton Festival (180,000 people) both ceased operations pre-pandemic. Skookum Music Festival in Stanley Park had a strong debut in 2018 with Florence + the Machine and the Killers headlining but never returned.

Even the provincial government is paying attention to the losses in the industry and providing $30 million in grants through its Fairs, Festivals, and Events Fun as organizers “adjust to new market realities.”

“The last three years have been incredibly challenging for people in the tourism and events industry,” Corinna Filion, communications director for the Ministry of Tourism, Arts, Culture, and Sport, told Daily Hive. “We know festivals and events are facing many challenges, including the loss of staff, volunteers and attendees, increasing costs, supply chain shortages and other operational complexities.”

Andrea Graham, founder of Bass Coast who also DJs under her stage name The Librarian, is no stranger to the difficulties festivals are facing in a post-pandemic world. She says organizers may have to adjust their strategy to thrive amid these challenges, and relying on fans of a few big names in the lineup may not cut it anymore.

The most striking difference is how much more expensive suppliers have gotten. Graham said many are charging 40% to 100% more than what they were in 2019.

“Suppliers — anything from audio-visual equipment to your toilets, your water, the power providers, the staging rental, security, first-aid. All of these companies that are part of every festival, their expenses have gone through the roof. And that’s because they’ve faced their own challenges during the pandemic,” Graham said.

What’s more, it’s getting harder to collect payment when attendees buy tickets.

Bass Coast is happening in Merritt, BC, from July 7 to 10 this year, and tickets went on sale on September 27, 2022, for $419 each. But Bass Coast won’t see that total from every customer right away, Graham told Daily Hive in early April. Much of the balance won’t be dispensed to festival organizers until the event occurs.

“There’s a percentage that is deposited ahead of the event, but the majority of funds are deposited after the event,” she said. “It depends on the festival and their agreement with their payment processor, which is underwritten usually by a major bank.”

And now, contract terms in the event space are much stricter.

“It was something that really changed post-pandemic,” Graham said. “There was a lot more flexibility prior to everybody having to cancel in the world. And now, rightfully so, there’s a nervousness around that.”

These changes are industry-wide, and Graham believes they’re contributing to the struggles of large events and festivals around the province.

the librarian bass coast

Andrea Graham, one of Bass Coast’s founders, plays a set as The Librarian at the festival. (@basscoastfest/Instagram)

But it’s not all bad news for Bass Coast. In fact, despite the industry difficulties, Bass Coast appears to be pulling out ahead. It sold out in early April this year, earlier than it has in recent memory. Graham believes part of that may be related to the cancellation of other festivals, pushing buyers to hers, but she also says it’s a testament to the trust attendees place in Bass Coast.

“People look at it not as something they attend but as something they belong to,” Graham said. “We’re not just an event you go and watch. It’s an experience people come and participate in.”

Bass Coast has kept its crowds relatively small, leaning into being a boutique festival and capping ticket sales at 6,500 attendees. Graham says people come for the all-encompassing experience of a weekend of creativity and open-mindedness, not just for a popular headliner.

“You’re in an environment surrounded by art … it’s a curated event and our community seems to trust in the programming … That’s different from events that base their sales on one specific artist meant to attract their fans because that can change from year to year.”

As well, Graham is encouraged by the “micro-festivals” she sees emerging after the pandemic. After two years of having to provide our own entertainment, Graham loves seeing people build their own platforms and community. She also saw more than 700 applications to play at Bass Coast, including local artists she’d never heard of — perhaps DJs who honed their craft during the pandemic.

She also gave a nod to Shambhala, another electronic music festival near Nelson, BC, that sold-out this year. She believes it shows how much that event inspires its guests. Daily Hive has reached out to Shambhala for an interview.

Graham doesn’t see an easy solution to the post-pandemic cashflow problems plaguing BC’s festivals but knows she wants to see improvement because she knows first-hand the joy they bring to people.

“We all have our own niche in the calendar of festivals, but I think we all support each other,” she said. “We are an ecosystem; we share some of the same challenges.”

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