Last winter, it became apparent that One Reel, the nonprofit that runs Bumbershoot, was in serious financial trouble. After last year's festival, One Reel laid off full-time employees along with its seasonal hires, workers complained about not getting paid, and tax records revealed a steep slide in net assets from $5.3 million in 2009 to -$1 million at the end of 2013.
The 2014 festival had been celebrated as a return to Bumbershoot's roots as a cultural event by and for Seattle, leaving behind the previous years' attempts to compete with the Coachellas and Bonnaroos of the world. The plan looked good in theory, but the 2014 festival didn't sell well—at the time, the organization blamed bad weather and some bad luck.
By November, rumors were swirling about a heavyweight music conglomerate that might—or might not—have been brokering a deal with One Reel and the city to bail out Seattle's flagship musical festival. Over a period of weeks, One Reel director Jon Stone said there would be news in the near-term future, but he couldn't say anything yet.
On Dec 19, One Reel and Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG Live) finally announced they'd signed a deal to keep Bumbershoot going. Some of the terms: Stone would be replaced by former One Reel director Heather Smith, AEG would assume financial responsibility for the festival, and the two organizations (one for-profit, one non-profit) would curate the festival together.
"We're going to work collaboratively," Smith said at the time. Of course, nobody knew what that meant. And, as a small flurry of recent articles are pointing out—including a front-page story in the Seattle Times—we still don't.
A Seattle Met story points out that Stone, music booker Chris Porter, and comedy booker Lisa Leingang are all gone. The Times story points out that current bookers Chad Queirolo and Andy Roe have deep roots in the city's music community.
The truth is, nobody knows what's going to happen to Bumbershoot—because, in all likelihood, neither AEG nor One Reel know, either. There is no doubt that, no matter what Smith says about collaboration, AEG is in charge. (As Bertolt Brecht wrote in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui: "He who holds the purse strings holds the power.") And this year was, by all accounts, a mad scramble to put a festival together behind the normal schedule.
The question isn't what this year's festival tells us about the future of Bumbershoot—those are the same questions that have been hanging in the air since December. It's next year's festival, and the following festival, that will give us hints of what's to come.