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Music festivals return to B.C. despite surging operation costs

Organizers are finding creative ways to keep festivals on stage and sustainable
Suzie LeBlanc, artistic and executive director of Early Music Vancouver, said the flight and hotel costs for artists are up by about 40 per cent this year

Many music festivals – though not all of them – will return to stages throughout the province this year as event organizers find ways to navigate a financially challenging landscape.

Last month, FVDED In The Park announced the cancellation of its 2023 event due to “difficulties” the organizer was facing. Later, Vancouver Folk Music Festival announced its return after nearly having to cancel it due to financial challenges, with organizers saying they still feel the lingering effect of the pandemic.

Surging operation costs, along with higher travel and accommodation expenses for artists, audience attendance levels that are still recovering from the pandemic and a lower Canadian currency value have put financial pressure on B.C. music festivals, some of which have reduced the size of their event or come up with creative ways to cover costs.

“We’re definitely finding that audiences are still slowly coming back,” said Nina Horvath, executive director of the organizer for the Vancouver International Jazz Festival.

“And there’s been other challenges as well coming out of the last few years in terms of finances and sponsorships. That means that we are at a slightly smaller, reduced scale than we’ve been in the past.”

The 10-day event with around 300 ticketed and free concerts will not include an outdoor weekend at the David Lam Park this year and will instead consolidate all programs at its Granville Island venues.

As it did last year, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival will also keep to a slightly smaller size compared to its pre-pandemic scope due to challenges with higher production costs, according to Anne Blaine, vice-president and co-chair of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival Society.

“In terms of production these days, there’s a lot of competition in the area, with films and other festivals and events going on. And various companies went out of business over the pandemic, which is really unfortunate,” she said.

Another long-running festival, Vancouver Early Music Festival (previously named Vancouver Bach Festival) which specializes in classical music, also reduced its number of concerts to 11 this year, from 14.

“The travel, flights and the hotels are up by about 40 per cent in costs,” Suzie LeBlanc, artistic and executive director of Early Music Vancouver, told BIV.

“Since a lot of musicians come from Europe and other parts of the world, and some artists need instrument seats, a big challenge this year is how to cover those costs.”

Despite the adjustments, event organizers say they are seeing ticket sales trending upwards this year compared to 2022. Two festivals outside of Metro Vancouver – Rock the Lake in Kelowna and Shambhala Music Festival in Nelson, are already sold out.

“We just need time to recover and to bring audiences back,” said Horvath.

“The question now is how do we as an industry and as a province look towards long-term sustainability. And maybe that looks different than it used to before the pandemic and [we are] trying to understand what that is and how we can mutually support one another.”

Making festivals sustainable

Despite surging costs, most festival organizers have kept ticket prices the same this year to be sensitive to consumer financial challenges. Some have come up with new ways of keeping costs down to make their festival sustainable and financially healthy.

Early Music Festival will have a more intimate settings this year to host a smaller number of audiences under the theme of WOMENinSIGHT, which will highlight female composers and musicians.

“It’s a way to give people a very special experience… it represents the way it was performed when it was composed [back then] – the music tends to be performed in smaller spaces for most of the concerts,” said LeBlanc.

“The way I like to see it, there’s always an opportunity when there’s a challenge, and this one is really getting more diversity and a more intimate experience for our audiences.”

The event has also kept the digital concert options that started in 2020 to add sales revenue.

Meanwhile, the organizer of Shambhala Music Festival has found other ways to generate revenue, including increasing premium services such as premium camping and parking for people who are willing to spend extra money: Guests can rent a yard during the festival with a the tent and bed for $3,000.

“They are the individuals who are actually helping us carry the burden of the additional expenses this year,” said Neil MacLeod, CEO of Shambhala Music Festival, adding that those services were in high demand and sold out quickly.

GSL Group, which manages Rock the Lake in Kelowna and Ambleside Music Festival in West Vancouver, said they have continued to invest in owning permanent infrastructure to increase their resilience.

“Last year, we saw a surge of 20 to 30 per cent increase at least on the fencing and tenting – the basic necessities of running a festival. So [owning them] reduces the amount of dependency on things like this,” Mike Strawn, vice-president and general manager of GSL Group told the BIV.

Community comes together

When the board of the Vancouver Folk Festival announced in January it would dissolve due to financial challenges caused by the pandemic and mounting production costs, support from investors, donors, volunteers and other festivals poured in to help save the 45-year-old event.

In February, the province announced the creation of a $30 million fund to provide one-time grants of up to $250,000 for fairs, festivals and other qualifying events, which was “game changing,” according to the Vancouver Folk Festival Society. The federal government also gave some B.C. organizations, including music festivals, cash injections through its Tourism Relief Fund.

“Funding support with this really helped and also a lot of donations continue to come in various sizes from public, from the community,” said Blaine.

“One of the big lessons that we’ve learnt over the years is we should not take [music festivals] for granted. Because it doesn’t take very much to tip the balance, as most of them are not money-making ventures.”

Shambhala Music Festival was also a recipient of the B.C. grant, which helped the organizer promote the festival to an international market and increase the share of international audiences at this year’s festival to 40 per cent from 12 per cent in 2022, helping to stimulate local tourism.

For Blaine, music festivals are important to B.C. because they only help people discover music from all over the world, contribute to the local economy and bring community together.

“It’s the feeling that you get when you’re there – this is maybe how the worlds could be for a few days. It’s just really supportive, so accepting, so much diversity being presented, so many different takes on life and the world and people accept each other for who they are.” 

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