Bumbershoot Drops Memorial Stadium, Repositions Itself as a Smaller Festival

After several years of low turnout, a failed ticketing experiment, and the elimination of eight of 14 full-time staff positions, Bumbershoot, the city's marquee cultural event, is remaking itself to serve a smaller audience. Officials at One Reel, the festival's nonprofit parent, announced a series of changes today that begin a gradual repositioning of the festival.

Most notable: Bumbershoot will no longer use the Seattle Center's 22,000-capacity Memorial Stadium for its mainstage acts (last year: Bob Dylan, Hole, and Mary J. Blige), instead putting their biggest performers in the smaller, 14,000-person KeyArena. The move reflects a change in strategy in which the 40-year-old festival will focus less on booking expensive household names and more on finding more affordable options to draw crowds to Seattle Center over Labor Day weekend.

"I think that there was a time when Seattle needed Bumbershoot to present Bob Dylan. But I think that that time is past," says Jon Stone, One Reel's executive director. "We have to really ask ourselves: What is the purpose of Bumbershoot? What is Bumbershoot supposed to be all about? It's not necessarily about the big acts like Dylan."

Other changes:

--There will not be a tiered ticket this year, as there was in 2010. Presale for Bumbershoot 2011, Sept. 3-5, begins Tuesday, with a $75 three-day pass (down from $40 a day last year), and $29 single-day tickets. To access the presale, you must first sign up to be a member of the Bumbershoot fan club.

--There will be two shows on the mainstage each day, up from one in 2010.

--Decibel Festival will curate electronic music on the SkyChurch stage.

--The Broad Street Stage will not operate this year. A new stage will open on the North Fountain Lawn, across from the Fisher Green stage.

-- Note: The lineup will be announced later this spring.

Stone talks about why the changes were made, and where the festival is headed:

SW: For many people, Memorial Stadium is the festival's flagship stage. Why are you moving out?

Stone: Economics on one hand, and it's just the patron and festival experience on the other hand. The reality of it is that most of the audiences that see the shows in Memorial Stadium over the last decade, most of those will fit comfortably into KeyArena. And it's just an infinitely better place to experience a show, and an infinitely better place to produce a show. That's what it's built for. Memorial Stadium's built for soccer.

I think some people would argue with your assertion that it's a better place to see a show, being that one of them is inside. On a nice day, being outside would probably be a better experience, right?

On a nice day, yeah. On a less-than-nice day, I think that the trade-off is more than worth it, especially having gone through the last couple of Labor Day weekends with way-less-than-favorable weather.

Last year people had the option of buying tickets with or without Memorial Stadium access. And most people went with Memorial Stadium tickets. Doesn't this mean fewer people will have access to the most popular component of the festival?

The total quantities weren't that far apart. The amount of people that went into the stadium each day, we can get just about that many into KeyArena. It's not going to be a huge difference. The average attendance in the stadium is between 13 and 15,0000. KeyArena can hold 14,000.

How many people came through the door for Bob Dylan last year?


How will these changes affect programming? Could you imagine booking Bob Dylan, Neko Case, and the Decemberists for KeyArena?

The question is: Is that really the role of the festival, to keep presenting upper-echelon artists by price, or is there more affordable, more economical options, to present the same value of the festival without having to keep raising the ticket prices? In the future, I don't know if we'd do Bob Dylan again.

It sounds like you're not going to go for headliners so large to close out the nights.

Large by price, that's correct.

One of the criticisms I've heard in the past few years is that the middles of the days are weaker than they have been in the past. Do you think that by not having acts like Dylan you'll be able to spend more money and focus on the midday, midsize stages?

Absolutely. Not pursuing that one act, the overall resources needed to present a show at what a single artist like that (needs), it takes away from everything else. It takes away your options.

Bumbershoot used to have shows in KeyArena and Memorial Stadium. Is there a reason you're not going to try that again?

I wasn't around during those days. If nothing else, economics. Memorial Stadium is incredibly expensive to operate as a venue.

Are your expectations and goals for 2011 to be more or fewer than 2010?

Our model is based on attendance based on 2010. That's where we start our planning at.

It seems like you're adapting to a new size for Bumbershoot, rather than trying to get more people in.

You have to acknowledge attendance. And you have to build a festival that's appropriate for the size of audience that you're anticipating. We tend to think of Bumbershoot historically as a 50,000-person-a-day festival, right? I don't think it's that anymore.

The last couple years, we've seen days with 25, 30, 35,000 people. And on the one hand we kind of say, "Oh, attendance is down. Things aren't going so well." Well, in reality, that's still huge. That's a huge draw. That's bigger than most festivals in the country.

It's about matching the attendance reality--the expectation of the festival--with the right producing mix to get people what they want in a way that makes sense to everybody. It's about trying to get out front of the curve rather than being reactive to it.

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