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Bumbershoot’s producer declines to renew contract, putting the festival’s future in doubt

With the iconic summer music event in flux, the city of Seattle and One Reel seek a viable new model.

Festival goers gather on the Fisher Green lawn at Bumbershoot. The fate and form of the iconic summer music festival is in question. (©️ Sarah Northrop)

One Reel Productions, AEG Presents and Seattle Center confirmed Friday that AEG has declined to renew its option to produce Bumbershoot in 2020. AEG, the Los Angeles-based event producer, had booked and promoted the last five Bumbershoots, likely losing millions in the process, so the action wasn’t entirely unforeseen.

Still, the departure leaves a huge cloud of uncertainty over the future of Seattle’s landmark music and entertainment festival. It also raises a larger cultural question: What would Labor Day in Seattle look like without Bumbershoot?

“For years it felt to me that if you talked to anyone in Seattle about what they did on Labor Day, it was one of two things,” said Chris Porter, who booked Bumbershoot for One Reel from 1997 through 2014, before AEG took control. “People either went out of town, or they went to Bumbershoot. It brought together so many walks of life in terms of arts and music, in terms of ages and in terms of diversity.”

For many Seattle artists and musicians, being onstage at Bumbershoot meant you had made it in this town. Chris Cornell of Soundgarden once told me that getting to play his hometown festival felt like “a career highlight” at that point.

That’s a thought echoed by many in Seattle music. “Bumbershoot was the central music live event of the year,” said Ben London, musician and executive director of the Seattle chapter of Black Fret, a new musicians-assistance group. “But, remember, there was also a time when Seattle only had a few clubs, so to have that much music in one place was really important, and critical, in fact.”

Nancy Wilson of Heart, a headliner of the 2013 Bumbershoot, also lamented the idea of a Seattle without the festival. “It would be so hard to see the famous Bumbershoot close down,” she said. “We loved the spirit, and the name of the fest it is the coolest word for umbrella anyone ever heard of.”

Bumbershoot has always been about music and arts, but AEG’s version of Bumbershoot emphasized mainstream music draws, and much of the eclectic literary and artistic content of decades past had already been downsized. AEG is one of the largest music promoters in the world, and some felt their Bumbershoot lineups began to resemble Coachella, which it also promotes. But most music festivals have struggled to remain profitable, and Bumbershoot was probably a loss for AEG from the first year.

The official statement highlighted this: “Following financial and operational challenges related to the 2014 festival, the City worked with the festival’s appointed producer, One Reel, to create a new business model to sustain Bumbershoot. AEG Presents stepped forward as a producing partner and provided a major financial infusion, saving the 2015 festival and sustaining the annual event for five years.”

Rob Thomas, Vice President of AEG’s Northwest office, said the decision was heartbreaking for him and his staff. “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,” he said. “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.”

A few industry experts, speaking on background, said it was likely that AEG lost upwards of a million dollars each year it promoted Bumbershoot. When Lizzo canceled this year, it was likely the final nail in the coffin for the partnership.

Whatever role we play at One Reel, what is most important is that Bumbershoot doesn’t die.
— Marty Griswold

But what hasn’t been as noted in social media was that AEG also absorbed much of Bumbershoot’s debt, and had really stepped in, one source said, only because local AEG staff thought the festival should be saved, and not because it represented a potential chance to make money. Some of AEG’s losses may have been underwritten by signing acts to larger-scale national tours in other markets.

It’s been a difficult period for music festivals, with Sasquatch, British Columbia’s Pemberton, Portland’s MusicFestNW and Seattle’s Upstream all folding in recent years. The trend has been toward “boutique” festivals, like this year’s inaugural “Thing” in Port Townsend, rather than multiday extravaganzas. The statement Friday pointed that out (without highlighting exactly how much money AEG has likely lost): “Current realities associated with producing large-scale, community wide events create challenges.”

In other words, promoting massive multiday music festivals, particularly at a Seattle Center under construction, is hard to do.

Friday’s statement made it certain that AEG was not going to promote Bumbershoot 2020, but what was less clear in the announcement was what form the next festival might take. Some industry speculation suggest the idea of a scaled-down Bumbershoot is possible. Other scenarios include the festival continuing with a single large-donor sponsor, or taking a year off to reorganize. It could also just fade into history.

Marty Griswold, executive director of One Reel, emphasized that none of the stakeholders want to see the festival go away. “Both One Reel and Seattle Center have agreed to work together to revamp Bumbershoot to hearken back to its roots, and look towards the future, and make a sustainable model,” he said. “Whatever role we play at One Reel, what is most important is that Bumbershoot doesn’t die.”

The official statement highlighted some of the complicated history of the festival, which in part is what created the seeds of struggle. Bumbershoot was “birthed out of Mayor [Wes Uhlman]’s Arts Awards in 1971 (also known originally as Festival ’71),” and wasn’t actually called Bumbershoot until a couple of years in. The city of Seattle owns the name, but has consistently given producing permission to One Reel, formerly the One Reel Vaudeville Show.

One Reel was founded by a group of self-described hippies, including Norman Langill and Louise DiLenge. Langill brilliantly saw the festival as a countercultural gathering point where performance art could mix with music, literature, fine art and more. The crazy mix proved indelible.

Admission to Bumbershoot was free early on, but charges were added as city funding lessened, resulting in complaints. As the festival grew to multiple days and bigger crowds, the cost of tickets increased. Chris Porter said the most highly attended festivals were likely in the late ’90s, when a review headline in The Seattle Times called it “Bumbersquish.”

Maybe AEG’s motivations were corporate-driven... but they took on the debt, and kept it going for five years.
— Chris Porter

The festival had a reputation for finding talent on the rise. In 1997, Porter booked Beck for Memorial Stadium. “This was prior to the trajectory for Beck taking off so much, and we had thousands of people wanting to get in,” he said. Because of overcrowding, Seattle Center wanted changes, and eventually the festival adopted the use of wristbands for its mainstage shows to help manage crowds. Complaints about new ticketing prices and practices continued to pour in, but so did crowds, and they didn’t truly ebb until this last decade.

Many sources noted that many of the endemic problems of Bumbershoot are related to the city, which maintains ownership of the festival. Those include unions, city overtime pay on the holiday, police fees and, lately, more than any other, the inability to use much of the Seattle Center because of redevelopment. With KeyArena under construction and still not available in 2020, one source said “the economics are nearly impossible.”

Others noted that political will in Seattle also plays a significant role, as the arts are not an economic priority, even as the artistic image of the city is part of what makes it famous. Urban music festivals in other cities have been given grants or outright underwriting by municipalities, with the idea that the overall economic tax gain from increased tourism makes these events net profitable.

AEG will likely be vilified on social media for stepping out, but some noted that the company lost millions propping up the festival. “Maybe AEG’s motivations were corporate-driven,” observed Porter, “and they did it in their knee-jerk way, but they took on the debt, and kept it going for five years.”

Others pointed out that while AEG lost money on Bumbershoot, some of that went to paying the city of Seattle’s fees. According to multiple sources with knowledge of Bumbershoot’s finances, the city’s actual contribution to the festival was greater in the 1970s than it was in any recent years.

With homelessness being the political hot button at present, little talk this election year has gone to arts funding. “Save the Showbox” has become a rallying cry, but trying to actually get dollars committed to the arts, at a time with homeless people all over the city, will be a challenge. Still, with this being an election year, some wonder if Mayor Jenny Durkan would really want Bumbershoot to “die” on her watch. 

The Mayor’s office says they remain committed. “We will continue to support Seattle Center as they work with One Reel to explore a sustainable model for the future that honors Bumbershoot’s rich history and sustains it for the community for years to come,” said Mark Prentice of the Mayor’s office.

One Reel’s Griswold said the city wants the festival to succeed. “The city is invested and interested,” he said, “and eager to keep Bumbershoot alive now. I don’t think this is a bad position.”

There’s a possibility Bumbershoot might take a break for a year to reorganize. Festivals of this scale require long advance times for planning and financing, and this November announcement does not bode well for 2020. Porter hopes that doesn’t happen, but he said perhaps it will be like the Seattle SuperSonics, whose departure was not seen as ominous, initially, as it was later: “Some people said, ‘To hell with them, let them go, we’ll get another team.’ Then three years went by, and people didn’t realize what it felt like to have that team gone. I can only hope that somebody with money doesn’t want this to go away, even for year.”

It’s not AEG’s fault, or One Reel’s, and it’s not really just about prices of tickets. The industry has changed.
— Ben London

Porter now books San Francisco’s “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass,” an entirely free multiday festival underwritten by a philanthropic family. Seattle is awash in that kind of money, and Amazon could likely sponsor Bumbershoot for a comparable contribution to what it has put into the current city council races. Other saviors might include nonprofits like KEXP, which has a proven model with membership, or STG, which runs the Paramount, Moore and Neptune. But all those options likely would mean a smaller festival.

“There’s no bad guy in this,” notes Ben London. “It’s not AEG’s fault, or One Reel’s, and it’s not really just about prices of tickets. The industry has changed. People can always get behind Folklife, too.” Folklife has remained free, with a big push for attendee contributions. Bumbershoot relied on ticket revenue, and not contributions.

Both Folklife and Bumbershoot have 50-year anniversaries coming up in 2021. With or without a 2020 festival, Bumbershoot’s place in the history of art and music in Seattle is large, and will remain so to all who played Bumbershoot, saw great music there or simply met people who changed their lives.

The latter is true for 16-year-old Brandon Rosenberg. He had attended previously with his parents, but 2019’s Bumbershoot was his first time by himself. “It felt like a rite of passage for a kid growing up in the Seattle area,” he says. “I saw Tyler the Creator, which was amazing, and I got to spend the last three days of summer with my friends, and listening to great music.”

Like many Bumbershoot attendees over the decades, it was the sense of “discovery” that most impressed Rosenberg, seeing musical acts that he stumbled upon by chance. He also found something harder and harder to come by in this digital age: community. That artistic community has always been something at the core of Seattle, and of Bumbershoot.

And to wit, Rosenberg “met a girl,” too. They are dating. They hope, he said, to see Bumbershoot 2020.

 

Correction: The headliner who canceled her 2019 Bumbershoot appearance was Lizzo. Cardi B. was widely rumored to have been a headliner for 2019, but canceled her entire tour, and her Bumbershoot booking could not be confirmed.

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Bumbershoot’s producer declines to renew contract, putting the festival’s future in doubt

About the Authors & Contributors

Charles R. Cross

Charles R. Cross is the author of nine books including The New York Times bestselling biography of Kurt Cobain, Heavier Than Heaven.