Seattle’s beloved music and arts festival is back, thanks to the deep pockets of the concert promoter. But will the bottom line alter its quirky character?
In Seattle, complaining about Bumbershoot — which starts Saturday, Sept. 5 — is a spectator sport. The lineup, the ticket prices, the fine-arts programming — nothing is ever quite right, especially for baby boomers who grew up with this 45-year-old arts spree.
But before you start complaining, there are three things you should know. First, after last year’s losses, it was very likely that there would not be another Bumbershoot.
Second, the reason there is a 2015 edition is that AEGLive, one of the two largest concert promoters in America, has taken financial responsibility for the $4 million-plus event.
And third, despite what in some ways represents the privatization by a national corporation of a local public event, almost everyone close to this issue is optimistic that 2015 marks the beginning of a fruitful new chapter for the festival.
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Why did Bumbershoot have to be bailed out? And what is AEGLive, anyway? Are they going to ruin the festival by aiming only for the bottom line, or preserve its quirky character? And what about those boomers, who probably don’t recognize a single musical act on this year’s program?
A couple of weeks ago, at a coffee house near Seattle Center, three representatives from AEG — Rob Thomas, Pacific Northwest vice president; Chad Queirolo, vice president of talent; and Andy Roe, regional marketing director — offered some answers. Follow-up interviews with the city council, One Reel and Seattle Center helped flesh out the picture.
“It was a very difficult process to get to this point,” said Thomas. “We had hours and hours of discussion and debate. My office was Seattle Center, basically, from September through January.”
The upshot of all that debate was “a new business model,” as One Reel interim executive director Heather Smith put it. Under the new agreement, the city allowed One Reel to sub-license the festival to AEGLive, which would henceforth take all financial risk, though One Reel would continue to program the non-music side. A one dollar surcharge on tickets would go to a fund to pay off the debt to the city. AEG offered from 30 cents on the dollar to full payment to vendors who had been stiffed.
“Somebody needed to take the risk … It was too much for One Reel,” said Smith. “[AEG] honestly deserves a big pat on the back, in my book.”
Just breaking even would probably be satisfactory for the deep-pockets producer, at least for the first year. The live-entertainment division of Anschutz Entertainment Group, AEGLive has 14 regional offices worldwide and produces 5,400 concerts a year, including everyone from Paul McCartney to Kenny Chesney.
AEGLive is not new to the festival business. Its Southern California-based division produces the hugely successful Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, and AEGLive also produces the fabled New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
But those are moneymakers. Why take on a local headache like Bumbershoot?
“We all felt that it was a heartbreaking scenario for this thing with such a legacy, history and that was part of the fabric of the city,” said Thomas of last year’s debacle.
Thomas — who used to run AEGLive’s Denver division — moved to Seattle when the Bumbershoot deal came through. Queirolo, born and bred in Seattle, has been the talent buyer for the Showbox for 15 years, as well as WAMU Theater and the concert series at Marymoor Park. Roe, originally from England, worked at Moe (now Neumos) in the ’90s and has worked for AEGLive Seattle’s office the past nine years.
“These aren’t interlopers from somewhere outside that came in with a checkbook and we immediately hugged,” said Robert Nellams, director of Seattle Center. “We’ve had a long-term relationship with AEG. They help us run KeyArena.”
From 2007-09, AEGLive also underwrote Bumbershoot’s musical acts but wound up paying the bills without having any control. Not surprisingly, the higher-ups at AEG were skeptical when the Seattle office expressed interest in taking on the festival again.
Bumbershoot through the years
1971: The free “Mayor’s Arts Festival” begins with a $25,000 city budget.
1973: Festival is renamed Bumbershoot.
1980: The city of Seattle, which still owns the festival today, hires One Reel Vaudeville (now called One Reel) to produce Bumbershoot. The city and Seattle Center continue subsidies, but admission fee begins. Tickets, $3.
1995: The city licenses Bumbershoot to One Reel, which takes full charge of the festival, including all financial responsibility; the city discontinues subsidies.
2007-09: AEGLive underwrites music booking and suffers significant losses due to rain and the Great Recession of 2009.
2014: One Reel reveals that the festival has accumulated more than $900,000 in debt, including $700,000 owed to Seattle Center, $200,000 to the city, as well as an undisclosed amount to 168 vendors.
2015: One Reel sublicenses Bumbershoot to AEGLive. Early purchase ticket price: $65, single day; $149.50, three-day pass.
“It really came down to the point where they said, ‘Do you guys believe in them, truly?’,” recounted Queirolo. “And I said, ‘Yes, because it’s tradition, it’s history. And it’s something that I grew up with and felt like it had viability for the future. And they said, ‘Fine.’ ”
But Bumbershoot isn’t Coachella. It’s an arts festival meant to reflect the city’s character. Is AEG up to it?
Queirolo said one of the first things he and Thomas did was sit down with the man who made Bumbershoot what it is — the founder of One Reel, Norm Langill.
Langill seems confident that the AEG crew will retain the festival’s essential character.
“I had a good talk with them about the history,” he said. “I bet you they’ll come up with some better ideas than we ever had in the past.”
Smith said she was given an arts budget by AEG comparable to last year’s. Of the festival’s 15 venues, 10 are devoted to nonmusical arts and 40 percent of the festival draws from local talent. The festival has also brought back dance, neglected for three years, expanded its comedy program and moved the Words & Ideas roster from the Leo K to the larger Charlotte Martin Theatre.
Still, not everyone is convinced. Jef Jaisun, a local singer-songwriter and photographer who played the 1975 festival — also a vocal critic of what Bumbershoot has become — spends a lot of time in New Orleans. He says AEG has commercialized JazzFest.
“As soon as AEG took over … suddenly the whole emphasis on New Orleans as headlining music disappeared,” said Jaisun, who reported that legacy New Orleanians like Dr. John and Irma Thomas were consigned to opening slots for the likes of Bon Jovi. He also complains that ticket prices under AEG have soared from the $20-$30 range to upward of $70.
(Early purchase tickets to Bumbershoot started this year at $65 per day and $149.50 for three days; last year they were $50 and $120, respectively.)
Jaisun represents the curmudgeonly cohort of boomers who gave up on Bumbershoot long ago because it no longer reflects their tastes exclusively. When the lineup for this year was announced, not one boomer darling — James Taylor, Neil Young, Bonnie Raitt — was on the list. Does AEG have its eye only on moneymaking acts for millennials, who will flock to see acts like this year’s The Weeknd, Hozier and Chance the Rapper?
Queirolo said absolutely not
“I talked to all those people,” he said. “They were astronomically priced.”
In his defense, Queirolo was at a severe disadvantage this year, embarking on a booking process in January that normally would have started months earlier.
“This is a building year,” he said.
So complain if you will. But the bottom line is that One Reel can’t pay for Bumbershoot and the city and Seattle Center won’t. So the choice this year wasn’t between AEGLive producing Bumbershoot or someone else but rather, as Nellams put it, “to either have it, or not have it.”