Something feels different about Bumbershoot this year. In the weeks after One Reel announced the lineup for this summer's festival, artists, musicians, critics, and friends began saying something I hadn't heard in years: "Wow, this year's Bumbershoot looks amazing."
People aren't talking so much about this year's classic marquee names (including The Replacements, Wu-Tang Clan, and Jonathan Richman, though even they seem like an improvement over the creakier nostalgia acts and radio superstars One Reel was programming just a few years ago) as they are about the smaller, mid-range, and quasi-underground acts: Gregory Porter, Mexican Institute of Sound, Negativland, Black Weirdo, Mission of Burma, Evan Flory-Barnes, ILLFIGHTYOU, and the Both.
Anecdotally, it feels like a better spread and a break from Bumbershoots past that seemed to spend a huge amount of money on superstars like Bob Dylan and leave the rest of the acts in relative neglect. I'm sure the folks at One Reel would take issue with any implication that they weren't working their asses off every year, but the public perception was that it felt less like an integrated music and culture festival and more like a Tacoma Dome gig with a few ragtag bands invited to busk in the parking lot.
The reason this year feels different, say the people at One Reel, is because it actually is. "Any given year is one person's best-ever year and another person's worst-ever year," says One Reel executive director Jon Stone. "Every year we are beat up and held up as champions at the same time, which is part of the fun." But he also says that things changed dramatically in the wake of the 2010 festival, which starred Bob Dylan, Mary J. Blige, Weezer, and Hole—and turned out to be a bust, forcing One Reel to lay off 8 of its 14 full-time, year-round festival employees. Soon after that, Teatro ZinZanni, which had started as a One Reel project, spun off and became its own entity.
As a result of all the changes, Stone—who cashed his first One Reel paycheck back in 1992, when he worked as "a truck-loader and box-pusher"—found himself unexpectedly in charge of the flailing Bumbershoot. And he knew that if the festival was going to survive, it would have to dramatically change course.
"It's been a process after things burst in 2010," says Barbara Mitchell of One Reel. "For better or worse (and I think it's immensely for the better), it caused One Reel to have to really sit down and figure out what Bumbershoot is and where it's going." Stone says Bumbershoot decided to "double down and get back to our roots in terms of our commitment to local artists. We said, 'we're not going to shell out stupid money for Bob Dylan, for superstars, especially not nostalgic superstars.' There's a smarter way to spend that money and better stories that we're uniquely positioned to tell. I didn't know what the answer was at the time, I just knew the way we were doing it wasn't the answer."
Why was 2010 such a crucible for the festival?
The first reason, Stone says, is that Bumbershoot found itself pouring "phenomenal resources" into headline acts. "That part is inversely proportional to the death of the record industry," he explains. "Artists used to make money on record sales and tour as a loss leader. Now artists make nothing on record sales... so fees for performances went up." In the early 2000s, he says, it cost $30,000 to put a main-stage name in Memorial Stadium and fill it up. But by the late 2000s, that number increased tenfold, costing One Reel $350,000 or more to do the same thing. "It was us not seeing the writing on the wall," he says.
The second reason was something more like hubris. In the 2000s, Stone says, Bumbershoot was getting national media attention and being compared to the big shots like Coachella and Bonnaroo. "We began to drink that Kool-Aid and thought, 'We've got to follow the leaders'" and book superstars. In retrospect, he says, that was "a huge mistake" for a few reasons. "What's been happening with the music industry in general—and festivals in particular—is a path towards unsustainability. They're not local, curated celebrations anymore. Global corporations run them." And when global corporations take over music festivals, he says, "innovation stops and the soulless and relentless milking of the consumer dollar starts."
By trying to "follow the leaders" and act like a for-profit festival instead of a 501(c)(3) cultural institution—which it is—One Reel was authoring its own blandness and its own destruction. Their admissions data told them that while people used to come early and spend the day, the year Bob Dylan played, for example, up to 60 percent of their attendees rushed in to see him after work, then split. "We're supposed to be exposing people to new ideas and things they wouldn't normally stumble upon," Stone says. "If people are just coming for the headliner, they're not really coming to the festival."
The third reason was a failure to respond to the financial meltdown of 2008. Corporate sponsorship had been a "huge" revenue stream for the festival, Stone says. A few long-term sponsorship contracts signed before the financial crisis helped them pull through 2008 and 2009, but in 2010 they crashed. "Corporate money just went away," Stone says. "Sponsorships went down more than 50 percent."
"That was a tough time," Stone says, "and that's right when I stepped in." He says he knew things didn't "feel right," but he wasn't sure what to do—so he went back to the old spirit of the festival, making it Seattle-specific and more artistically integrated instead of a sideshow surrounding a few members of the rock 'n' roll royalty. "The first part was to stake our flag firmly in Seattle soil," he says. "That was a big shift. To hell with what everybody else was doing."
But he wasn't sure that would work.
"It was beyond scary," Stone says. "It was horrifying. Mortifying." The 2011 festival, he says, was a bit of a "Hail Mary" year; by cutting the superstars, they lost about a third of their audience—but their finances improved dramatically. "It's like everything else in the music industry," he says. "The top 5 percent takes the top 97 percent of ticket revenue. The industry is so out of whack that only a few people are getting paid and they get paid all the money." By abandoning the top-tier acts, he says, Bumbershoot freed up resources to "do better things, more important things." (Full disclosure: In 2011, Bumbershoot also began selling tickets via The Stranger's ticketing system, Stranger Tickets. Prior to that, they sold tickets through a combination of their own system and Ticketmaster.)
But Stone stands firmly by the curators Chris Porter and Chris Weber, who've been with Bumbershoot throughout all these changes. "We've got all the posters in the office, and I'm looking at the posters right now," he says. "The festival has always been remarkably broad and balanced—but I will agree that the brightness of the lights of those superstars could overshadow everything else that was going on."
And there's still work to do. Stone acknowledges that the non-music parts of the festival—the art, theater, and culture—that atrophied during the 2000s need further nurturing. He and Mitchell say the rise and fall and resurrection of the festival is a cautionary tale for many growing organizations—by becoming too ambitious, they were losing the essence of what made them great in the first place.
So if Bumbershoot 2014 feels different, it's because it has crawled out of the wannabe-for-profit-music-festival grave it had dug for itself back in the 2000s. "This year is a continuation of that," Stone says. "I'd be lying if I said I had some long-range master plan of what the answer was. We're just steering more by our hearts, I guess, than by our egos. And that's doing well for us—so far! You can't see me now, but I'm knocking on wood!"