Bumbershoot Blues

What's it going to take to right the struggling festival?

The big, dark rain cloud that's hovered above Bumbershoot the past two Labor Day weekends hit the festival's offices last week. Citing sluggish ticket sales and a decline in sponsorship, One Reel—the umbrella nonprofit that runs Bumbershoot (and the Family 4th at Lake Union)—laid off eight of its 14 festival staffers.

One Reel executive director Jon Stone cited the slow economy and bad weather for this year's poor results. "Historically," he says, "if you get a day of rain at Bumbershoot, that's the difference between a winning year at Bumbershoot" and a losing year. This year it rained for an entire day, and the weather was less than ideal for the other two.

Stone says the total 2010 attendance was in the neighborhood of 103,000, on par with 2009's weekend of rain, but down from the 150,000 the festival averaged a decade ago when artist fees and ticket prices were lower and the festival was a four-day event. The bulk of this year's attendees, Stone said, opted to pay for the standard ticket—which cost $40 in advance, and included access to all shows, including the mainstage ones—rather than the new $22 economy ticket that included everything but the mainstage, launched as a direct result of feedback from attendees who wanted to see everything but those acts. In fact, Stone says that while 90 percent of the mainstage tickets were sold, only 38 percent of the projected economy tickets were.

"Now we really have that mandate in front of us to find something that works," he says. "What we did this year doesn't really work."

Neumos co-owner Steven Severin, a former member of the Bumbershoot advisory board, advocated for the economy ticket. Asked what went wrong with that idea, he pointed out that within the past decade, other citywide and regional festivals, like the Capitol Hill Block Party and Sasquatch!, have gobbled up some of the opportunities and experiences on which Bumbershoot once had a virtual monopoly. "There's not as many dollars out there and a lot more competition for it," Severin says. "That has to play a role."

To get Bumbershoot back to a stable place, Stone says he's willing to put just about everything on the table. He says he's thought about bringing Fridays back (the schedule was shrunk to Saturday–Monday in 2006), expanding the festival to include several weekends, or even charging market rate for the stadium shows (Bob Dylan, Hole, etc.)—as is done at festivals such as Milwaukee's Summerfest, says Summerfest VP Bob Babisch. As Bumbershoot did this year, Summerfest offers two-tiered ticket pricing, with general admission set at only $15 a day. But Summerfest charges much more for the big names; last year, tickets to see Dylan went as high as $59, and this year's set from Rush averaged around $80.

Summerfest also has been more successful in getting sponsorships, largely from local companies like Miller Brewing Company and Harley-Davidson. Stone says strong local sponsorship is exactly what Bumbershoot is missing. "In order to keep moving forward and keep giving people what they want in the festival, we need to find new kinds of local partnerships," Stone says. "The community kind of needs to take ownership of the festival. One Reel's been stewarding the festival solo for 15 years now. For all of the sponsorship money that the festival brings in, the vast majority is from out of state. Why is that?"

One thing Stone says he's not willing to do is trim Bumbershoot by another day. "It can't get smaller. That makes no sense," he says. "That [Friday] fix was a direct response with what was happening with the rise of costs in the marketplace. If it keeps going like it's going for another couple years, the festival's going to be right back in the same place. [Cutting another day is] a plan that leads to nowhere."


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