Last week Torontoist ran this excellent article on “7 Problems With Toronto’s Music Festival Scene.” For the most part, it’s a bang-on look at why while this City has a lot of summer music festival, few are regular occurring events and none have reached the level of an Osheaga or Lollapalooza. If the City and the province are serious about growing our local live music scene, they’ll both figure out solutions to the problems listed in the piece.
I wrapped up my 2014 music festival season a couple of weekends ago with day two of Riot Fest. It was an okay experience. The weather was great, the food selection was varied and the only long lines I encountered involved the TTC. However, the noise bleed between the stages was terrible, the sound mixing was at times flat out poor and while the event was billed as a combo music festival/carnival/expo, it really was just your standard music festival with a few booths that were selling clothes and another that offered a couple of carnival games.
But even though my experience was just okay, I wasn’t that disappointed, as I hadn’t paid for a ticket. I was one of the dozens of people who won tickets from NOW Magazine. Dozens more won tickets from Edge 102.FM and I believe that that a few other sources, including the festival itself and Indie 88.1 FM also gave away tickets. Music festivals always generate a fair number of free tickets but it seemed like there was a lot of people at Riot Fest who didn’t pay to get in.
There also weren’t a lot of people there in general. Much like my overall experience, the turnout was just okay. It wasn’t dead but it also wasn’t that busy and I was there on the sunny day. As the Torontoist article mentions, it costs a lot of money to put on an event at Downsview because everything needs to be brought in. To cover those costs a lot of tickets, and a lot of beer, need to be sold. Based on what I saw, I can’t see how Riot Fest sold enough of either to make money.
But Riot Fest was hardly the only festival that likely lost money this season. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of summer festivals failed to make a profit this year. Jeff Cohen, the founder of TURF, says in the previously mentioned Torontoist article that his festival lost cash and it appeared that people actually bought tickets to it. I’m sure that Embrace’s Time festival also lost cash, based on the low number of attendees and the fact that I didn’t see a lot of people buying alcohol. And I can’t help but wonder how Field Trip did as this year’s expanded version didn’t seem to attract the same number of people as last year’s one-day, sold out ever did.
On the financial side of things, I feel like the winners are the dance music festivals, along with Drake’s OVO festival. Digital Dreams might have pissed off a lot of people with its booming base and curfew-breaking sounds but it also sold a ton of tickets and, thanks to falling on one of this summer’s rare hot weekends, likely sold a lot of alcohol. The same goes for Veld, Mad Descent’s Block Party and OVO.
I would be shocked if Digital Dreams, Mad Descent and OVO didn’t return in 2015. Veld’s a bit of a different story because people died at it and that can make getting insurance a bit trickier. Downsview may also balk at hosting it again, because of the deaths, and finding a new home for Veld could be problematic.
On the non-dance side, I have no doubt that, barring some disaster, TURF will be back for another year. I’m a touch more uncertain about Field Trip though that has more to do with what the lineup would consist of than anything else. (Would Broken Social Scene play again? How many slots is Arts & Crafts willing to give to non-Arts & Crafts artists?)
I really doubt that we’ll be seeing a return of the Time Festival and, between it and what happened with 2013’s Grove Festival, I’d be surprised if 2015 presented us with a Fort York-based festival that mixed guitar bands with DJs or rappers. Unfortunately this city just isn’t into that combo.
The wildcard is Riot Fest. If it does come back, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it set up again at the Amphitheatre. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if Riot Fest skipped 2015, especially if Lollapalooza does come to town.
Nothing against Riot Fest or any homegrown festivals but I really hope that happens as Lollapalooza still easily offers the best music festival experience that I’ve ever experienced.