Vancouver folk festival cancels, Squamish's future uncertain as music fests pressured

TORONTO — Two West Coast music festivals say their future is in doubt as soaring costs and uncertain ticket sales make it impossible to plan and stage their events.

The Vancouver Folk Music Festival announced Tuesday it's decided to cancel its 2023 edition due to rising production costs that are "not realistic or sustainable" under the current model. It says the festival would need another $500,000 to cover higher expenses this year.

And the Squamish Constellation Festival, which hosts an array of independent Canadian rock acts, said it must decide within the next two weeks whether to scrap this year's edition.

Both festivals described an industry that underwent seismic changes after the COVID-19 pandemic ground live music to a halt in 2020.

Since both events returned last summer, they've faced hurdles that are familiar to many fellow festival organizers across the country.

Costs rose for equipment such as fencing and stages as inflation kicked in and some suppliers went out of business during the pandemic. At the same time, vendors began demanding payments upfront, both festivals said.

In British Columbia, the music festivals also face competition from a bustling local film industry that pays top dollar for equipment such as portable toilets and showers.

Mark Zuberbuhler, president of the Vancouver folk festival's board, anticipated many festivals will feel a similar financial pinch in the coming months, particularly ones like his that are run by non-profit organizations.

"It's just become very expensive to put on these types of events," he said by phone from Vancouver.

"The only way that we feel that it's possible is if you have some really strong and large corporate sponsorship that can help defray some of these costs.

"Our only hope of putting on a festival is if we had some sort of investor that would be willing to provide those kinds of funds to us, which you know, I don't think it's a realistic expectation. Sure it may happen, but I doubt it."

The society that runs the Vancouver folk festival will vote Feb. 1 on whether to pull the plug on the organization but Zuberbuhler suggested the decision was already clear.

"We're recommending that we wind up the society in an orderly fashion.... If we are able to accomplish that then it can always be reborn if other people want to move forward with it," he said.

"We can pay off all of our debts and end the society on a clean note."

Kirsten Andrews, one of the producers of Squamish, said organizers at her festival have been working without pay since last year's festival in hopes of figuring out ways to weather the storm.

"We are struggling to keep the company moving forward and planning hopefully for 2023 but also there’s debt outstanding from 2022 because we did not break even," she said.

Ticket sales for last year's festival plummeted 30 per cent compared to its 2019 inaugural edition, she said, while operational costs rose by 35 per cent.

Andrews said that for the Squamish festival to survive in its for-profit model, it will require financial support, including an extension of last year's government grants which made "a massive difference."

"The biggest challenge there is these funds existed for one year," she said.

"As a seasonal business and (one) that makes its money pretty much on one weekend in 365 days, that’s not really enough to help us get back on our feet as an industry."

She suggested the Squamish music festival will also seek backing from private investors.

"Some of the most wealthy individuals in the country, if not the world, live in B.C., and it's time for them to step up and do something to help us out," she said.

If those pieces come together, she believed "within a couple of years, we can and will turn this around."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2023.

David Friend, The Canadian Press