Is It Just the Rain Holding Bumbershoot Back?

Yesterday I chatted with One Reel executive director Jon Stone about the troubles facing Bumbershoot right now, namely low ticket sales and sponsorship. An article about the subject ran in the paper today. Here are a few thoughts from some of the people I talked to about the troubles afflicting the festival:

Is it the weather?

"I really think the biggest issue that they face is the weather," says Steven Severin, the co-owner of Neumos and booker of this week's City Arts Fest. "I don't even necessarily go to see the bands. I go to see my friends that I don't necessarily get to see all the time. Maybe I'm an outlier because I've seen more shows than most. I don't think it's so much about the lineup and I don't think it's the money, because it's a really fun time. I think it's a great festival. I have a blast. I don't want to go out there when it's raining. It's no fun."

"If it's a Saturday (and it rains), it's devastating for you," says Bob Babisch, VP of Milwaukee's Summerfest, an 11-day event along Lake Michigan. "We all know what we're getting into when it comes to the weather. We had perfect weather, so actually had an upturn (after some rain last year). This year couldn't have been better."

Is it the formula? Should Bumbershoot not to cater to a more niche audience?

"Adam Zacks found the formula. I like to refer to it as the secret," Severin says in reference to Sasquatch!, the festival Zacks runs. "It's not about stats and numbers, it's about figuring out exactly what people want. That's the reason he's been so successful at building his brand, he figured out which audience he wanted and went after it. He didn't try to spread it around to other genres. Block Party's the exact same way: they figured out who its audience was and booked accordingly. Bumbershoot doesn't have specific headliners. They're all over the map. But that's sort of the way they've done it, and they've been really successful in the past. It'd be such a big change to try to narrow it down and make it something (specific)."

Niche isn't a direction Summerfect has gone. They average 80,000 people a day, and charge just $15 for general admission tickets--good for side stages that feature acts like Counting Crows, Modest Mouse, and Gov't Mule (who I saw there in 2002)--and market-price tickets for things like Rush ($80ish) on their mainstage, the Marcus Amphitheater.

"That's our model. If you go into the amphitheater and you buy a ticket, that gets you into grounds, also," says Babisch. "Our deal is $15 [for the grounds] and if you come on a weekday before 6 it's $8, and there's always a way to get in free."

Babisch says they keep the price down through volume and aggressive local sponsorship from places like Miller Brewing Company and Harley-Davidson.

"I think that goes back to there is a sense of community," Babisch says. "A lot of the companies want to be a part of this festival. They want to be good citizens. By being an inexpensive festival we try to make it a festival of the people. They take ownership, the people, and that includes the sponsors. And that helps us keep bringing big-name talent to those (side) stages."

One Reel's Stone says this is the kind of sponsorship Bumbershoot is missing.

What about the competition?

"They used to be the only festival," Severin says. "They were it. Now we have Sasquatch! that sells out in advance, we have the Capitol Hill Block party that sells three days now, we have City Arts Fest. And then there's all the smaller festivals. There's not as many dollars out there and a lot more competition for it. That has to play a role."

While that's a good point, Babisch points out that Chicago's just 90 miles away, and home to Lollapalooza, Pitchfork Festival. There are also a host of other events in town, including two major country music festivals.

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