The future of one of Seattle’s most cherished and embattled musical institutions is increasingly cloudy.
AEG Presents, which has been Bumbershoot’s lead organizer the past five years, will not renew its contract to put on the long-running music and arts festival. The Seattle branch of the world’s second-largest concert promoter had swooped in to rescue the debt-ridden festival in 2015, providing much-needed capital for the Labor Day Weekend fete that had accumulated more than $900,000 in debt.
For the past five years, AEG has sublicensed the festival from One Reel, the local arts organization that had independently produced Bumbershoot since 1995, although its involvement traces back to the 1970s. That agreement was set to expire at the end of the year and, weeks before this year’s festival was set to take place, an AEG official told The Seattle Times that negotiations on a new deal were ongoing. News that AEG has now declined to renew its contract, first reported by Crosscut, was confirmed Saturday by AEG Pacific Northwest Vice President Rob Thomas.
“Bumbershoot is a cultural fixture and an important part of our community,” Thomas said in a statement. “We worked tirelessly to come up with a long-term solution to remain involved, but came to the conclusion that we were unable to renew our contract at this juncture.
“We have had five wonderful years working with One Reel and the city of Seattle on creating some memorable Bumbershoot moments, and we want to thank everyone involved for allowing us to play a part in that,” he said.
Prior to this year’s lineup announcement, a Seattle Center spokesperson said One Reel and Bumbershoot had indicated they were interested in another five-year deal and that negotiations would pick up after the announcement. Though it’s unclear whether it affected AEG’s decision to cut ties with the festival, the following months proved to be a bit of a roller coaster. The lineup arrived several weeks late, as organizers worked through “some changes in that lineup,” Thomas said at the time. One of this year’s top draws, Lizzo, bowed out at the last minute over health issues. And on the second night of the festival a barricade collapse sent four people to the hospital with minor injuries.
The music festival market across the country has been increasingly rocky and Seattle is no exception. Within the last year and a half, Sasquatch and Upstream festivals have folded, and End of the Rainbow — Live Nation’s first attempt to fill Sasquatch’s Memorial Day weekend void — failed to launch amid lagging ticket sales.
As a glut of look-alike music festivals popped up across North America, fans and promoters have increasingly turned to smaller boutique festivals, like Seattle Theatre Group’s THING, which sold out in a promising inaugural year, and genre-specific fests. Out at the Gorge, EDM rager Paradiso and the Watershed country fest continued their sell-out streaks this summer.
After drawing 74,000 people during the three-day weekend in 2017, attendance dropped to 48,000 the following year, The Stranger reported. Reflecting the new turnout levels, this year organizers smartly reconfigured the Memorial Stadium main stage, reducing the amount of space in front of the stage and blocking off half of the bleachers. AEG representatives did not respond to a request for attendance figures during this year’s festival.
Once a free, bohemian music and arts fest, Bumbershoot has evolved into more of a mainstream festival with lineups akin to a smaller Lollapalooza or Coachella. Bumbershoot started charging admission in 1980 (a whopping $3) and ticket prices gradually escalated over the decades to around $220 for a weekend pass. Next year would be the 50th edition of the festival that began in 1971 as the Mayor’s Arts Festival with a $25,000 budget.