halloatesbumbershoot.jpg
Renee McMahon
Daryl Hall & John Oates (pictured) closed out Bumbershoot 2011 on Monday, Sept. 5.
There was wiggle room aplenty, space at the front

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Is Bumbershoot Still a Historic Festival?

halloatesbumbershoot.jpg
Renee McMahon
Daryl Hall & John Oates (pictured) closed out Bumbershoot 2011 on Monday, Sept. 5.
There was wiggle room aplenty, space at the front for all who wanted some, and if you found a line at Bumbershoot 2011, it was probably for what appeared to be the only coffee vendor on the festival grounds (Starbucks in the Center House). I never thought I'd find myself pining for crowds and confusion. But after a weekend spent wandering around hoping to find a hint of old Bumbershoot, it's clear that the amoeba of humanity that once moved in rhythm across the Seattle Center every Labor Day weekend that made the festival great was not to be found. Barring a home-run strategy, it's not going to return.

Old Bumbershoot was a mess of the biggest names in rock and pop coupled with arts and culture spectacles big and small, spread across a couple dozen stages 74 acres that was held together by buskers, proud freaks, and sea of humanity that filled every pathway and strawberry sundae line in the Seattle Center. When you left a stage is when you were truly experiencing festival. It was the spontaneity and happy mistakes made possibly by the one-of-a-kind atmosphere that made Bumbershoot, to borrow the words of bandmates in local indie-pop outfit LAKE, "a historic festival." Bumbershoot -- for all the megastars it has hosted -- used to be the headliner. But the masses are gone, and, perhaps, the festival with it.

Bumbershoot can't become a smaller version of its former self. That's not possible considering the tens of thousands of moving pieces (determined attendees) it took to create it. It's got to become something new.

One Reel brass--the ones running the festival--deserve credit for recognizing Bumbershoot's predicament more keenly as anyone. After years of dwindling crowds, they've spent two seasons trying to remake the festival; last year they offered a reduced-priced "economy" ticket; this year they reduced the price of all tickets and lowered the star power on a smaller mainstage. But the solution--a new formula for a sustainable, unique festival--remains elusive.

Maybe the tea leaves were read wrong. Maybe instead of trying to create an affordable festival for everyone, the festival should become an expensive festival for a targeted audience. Sasquatch!, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and Coachella sells thousands of tickets long before their lineups are ever released. Fans don't know the bands, but they know what to expect. And they're willing to pay handsomely--almost twice the cost of Bumbershoot--to experience it. Marquee headliners, it's been rightly said, don't make festivals, and never defined Bumbershoot. But this year proved they're more a catalyst for the fest's best than was previously acknowledged.

Bumbershoot's not dead. There's a patient base of fans who enjoyed the mix of, say, Hall & Oates, Sallie Ford, and Fitz & the Tantrums on Monday. And it would be a shame--a travesty--for the festival to throw in the towel. But the takeaway from Bumbershoot 2011 has got to be the same as it was from Bumbershoot 2010: it's gotta be different next year.

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