The Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival will return in 2022, organizers say, and when it does, it will be very different.
Seattle Center is using the two-year pandemic pause to reimagine the 50-year-old Seattle mainstay and chart a new future without One Reel Productions, the company that has run the festival for more than a quarter of a century.
“Although we’ll have some say in things, helping select the new producer and things like that, One Reel is pretty much effectively out of the Bumbershoot business,” said Marty Griswold, One Reel’s executive director. “It’s a seismic change basically.”
One Reel has been involved with Bumbershoot in some way since 1972. The company assumed programming responsibilities in 1995 and it grew the annual three-day Labor Day weekend event into one of the nation’s premier summer festivals.
Bumbershoot has struggled financially in recent years, however, and Seattle Center officials and community leaders believe that under a production deal that gave concert giant AEG programming rights, Bumbershoot overemphasized the music festival component in recent years and strayed from its original mission to showcase and celebrate artistic and cultural diversity within the community.
So officials will soon form a committee that includes Robert Nellams, Seattle Center director; Marc Jones, the Seattle Center’s director of marketing and business development; One Reel and members of Seattle Center’s advisory commission to explore how the festival will look going forward and who will run it.
The committee will give the public a chance to weigh in with ideas as well, and there will be a formal request for proposals. Fiscal sustainability will be a primary goal.
“Festivals are becoming so much more difficult to deal with and much more difficult to produce and so forth, so we’re going to work with One Reel to help find a new producer for the festival,” Nellams said. “You need a lot of resources to produce festivals going forward and they’re going to help us find somebody that can hopefully take this on for the next few decades, if not longer.”
Seattle Center, a city of Seattle department that oversees the area around the Space Needle, announced the decision to reimagine the event on Friday morning. Griswold called the move bittersweet. One Reel was tapped in February 2020 to help reimagine Bumbershoot for its 50th anniversary later that year, but the pandemic has since taken its toll, reducing the promoter to two employees. The company could no longer realistically plan such a large, multilayered event.
“I think all of us were kind of crushed because we really wanted a chance — I can’t stress this enough — to bring back the Bumbershoot that everybody loved and missed over the last several years, and we were really looking forward to doing that,” Griswold said. “We felt like things had really gone off the rails a little bit.”
Bumbershoot began in 1971 as the Mayor’s Arts Awards/Festival. The event was city-subsidized and free (the city owns the Bumbershoot trademark). Over time, the philosophy was to offer inclusive, multigenerational content with a number of events parallel to a music program that would attract large crowds of families and older visitors during the day and bring out a younger audience at night.
The city’s arts and culture communities were a much larger part of Bumbershoot in its early days. You might have seen a larger arts-and-crafts component, for instance, a quiz show hosted by local celebrities or a play produced on the grounds. Over the years, the event grew and the city recognized the challenge of producing it. In 1995, the city changed Bumbershoot’s status to a nonprofit-managed event and hired One Reel to oversee programming.
Bumbershoot continued to boom as the festival-style live music scene grew in the early part of this century. But the festival began to see declining interest in recent years for a number of reasons — all of which have plagued the once-rock-steady music festival circuit nationwide. After falling into about $900,000 of debt, One Reel signed a five-year production agreement in 2015 with AEG, the second-largest concert promoter in the U.S.
AEG made key changes to the format, leaning heavily on the live music component and drawing young people rather than a daylong multigenerational crowd. The promoter raised ticket prices steeply to help fund the booking of pop music’s most popular — and expensive — acts.
Combine that with other problems, like weather cancelations and the loss of Key Arena as host to headlining acts, and interest began to lag. The 2019 event also suffered when headliner Lizzo canceled due to health concerns and a steel barricade fell on bystanders, sending four to the hospital.
“I felt bad for AEG [that] last year,” Griswold said. “That was devastating to them and to everybody, the people who’d gotten tickets for the show were so excited. That was kind of the nail in the coffin, I think. And the barricade. Those are some really big challenges that occurred.”
Nellams and Griswold both think a return to its roots is the key to Bumbershoot’s long-term health. Tickets need to be affordable, content needs to draw all ages and interests and there needs to be a family component to the event. Music can’t be the only focus, though it will continue to be a large part of Bumbershoot’s programming.
Nellams has experienced the multigenerational magic of the event firsthand after attending the festival over the years.
“I’ve seen quite a few things and I have a lot of great memories,” Nellams said. “The beauty for me is I’ve been able to transfer Bumbershoot to my daughter. My daughter is 25 and I’ve been able to get her tickets for the last almost 10 years and to get her engaged and involved in seeing how Bumbershoot works, and that’s been just a gift that I’ve been able to share with my daughter.”
Griswold said he’s thankful that One Reel has been given a chance to help shape the future of the event. One Reel will continue to promote local programs such as Pianos in the Park and Art Saves Me.
“It’s hard, but I’ll be the first in line next year when Bumbershoot comes back,” Griswold said, “because I love Bumbershoot and I want to see it come back just as much as everybody else does. And it will.”