After announcing last year that it was adding a second weekend of the Sasquatch! Music Festival, one of Washington’s most important annual rock events, concert promoter Live Nation pulled the plug March 21, citing slow ticket sales.
“The fans did not support it, but continue to embrace the traditional Memorial Day Weekend event,” said Jeff Trisler, president of Live Nation Northwest. “Message received, lesson learned and we move forward.”
Northwest festivals have expanded exponentially the past few years, with the coming of Watershed (country music), Paradiso (electronic dance music) and two editions of Timber! (neo-folk). Is the market finally saturated?
The jury is out. But factors such as a shortage of name talent to supply a global glut of events, consumer habits, a run of canceled festivals across the country and increasing artist fees suggest the industry is definitely in flux.
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Though the July Sasquatch! lineup included world-famous Seattle band Soundgarden, the overall roster may not have been as strong as the May list, said Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of the music-industry trade publication Pollstar.
“There is a limited pool of talent available for these festivals, and the promoters here in America are competing with promoters all over the world, especially in Europe, where the festival scene is enormous during the summer months,” Bongiovanni said.
He added that tampering with a successful formula can be a dangerous business. Concertgoers want to know what to expect from their experience before buying a ticket.
“That’s why some of the really well-established festivals like Lollapalooza, Coachella or Bonnaroo can sell out without even announcing a lineup,” Bongiovanni said.
There is some evidence that festival growth might be hitting a natural ceiling, though, nationwide. Live Nation made a five-year commitment to St. Paul, Minn., in 2012 to put on the River’s Edge festival. After losing money on a $4.5 million investment the first year, the company did not come back in 2013 and recently announced it would not present the festival this summer, either.
Jon Stone, who books Bumbershoot, noted that skyrocketing artist fees are also a factor. Twelve years ago, he said, Bumbershoot headliners made $35,000. Today that number can be 10 times higher.
Festivals may also be incurring more ancillary costs. The Associated Press reported that concertgoers at Paradiso, hosted at the Gorge Amphitheatre, required medical attention that cost the Quincy Valley Medical Center $500,000 in unpaid bills and staff overtime.
Trisler had no comment regarding that incident, but did say Live Nation was taking measures to ensure medical treatment is available on site.
Whether all these factors are hiccups or the start of a trend remain to be seen. Stone, who wasn’t ready to say festivals have reached a saturation point here, was nevertheless startled by the Sasquatch! cancellation.
“Clearly something had gone horribly wrong,” he said. “There are economic repercussions to canceling an event like that that make my skin crawl.”
Owen R. Smith on Twitter: @inanedetails