Utterly sensible headliner choice Death Cab for Cutie.
Utterly sensible headliner choice Death Cab for Cutie. Josh Bis

If you care about Bumbershoot arts festival—held at Seattle Center this year September 2-4—you may have noticed a shift in content in 2015. That was the first, transitional year that Bumbershoot operated under the primary control of AEGLive, and sales figures increased, thanks to a lineup that skewed heavier toward a more youthful demographic and mainstream sensibilities. To gain more insight into how Bumbershoot functions in the brave new festival-glutted world of 2016, I spoke to AEGLive's vice president of Pacific Northwest operations Rob Thomas. (Publicist Matthew Ashworth of Porter Novelli, the firm promoting Bumbershoot, accompanied us. Both men said that they don't know who leaked the festival lineup online ahead of the official announcement, but they're definitely searching for the culprit.)

The Stranger: Who books Bumbershoot now?
Rob Thomas; We have two talent buyers: Chad Queirolo and Katie Brogan. Chad’s been booking the Showbox for 18 years. Katie’s been doing it there for nearly six years. They lead the charge on that, but they ask for input and support all the way around, but they’re the lead buyers. Robin Kim books the comedy stages.

What’s your role?
Thomas: I’m more in charge of oversight of the whole event. I wouldn’t say I have any particular department, but I pretty touch every aspect of it and manage all of those aspects. I get everyone the tools that they need to do their job. We’ve got an amazing team with lots of people who put in tons of hours. It’s endless the amount of time and energy that goes into it. I’m trying to empower everyone to do the best job they can.

What are the guiding principles for Bumbershoot’s content? Can you articulate any general philosophies behind the booking decisions?

Thomas: Our mantra is "discovery and exploration." Our intent is for people to go out there and leave their problems of the day behind and explore and discover stuff. Whether that’s a band or a comedian or a piece of art at the Flatstock poster show, the theater...

Matthew Ashworth: Puddles Pity Party was my highlight last year. He’s a classically trained opera singer and sad clown who doesn’t speak; he only sings. I’m sure I’ll find something like that this year. I’ve been going to Bumbershoot since I was 11. I always ask: What do I not know that I want to see? And then I walk into something and see it.

Thomas: Hopefully, everyone has a discovery like that. There are so many different art forms and cultural elements there.

Ashworth: Last year at the Reign Supreme Breakdance thing, the lines to get in were huge.
Thomas: It’s probably going to be even bigger this year.

Do you feel like you needed to start over with your booking philosophy from One Reel? Chris Porter had booked Bumbershoot for 18 years. Do you think there was a radical shift after he was replaced?
Thomas: Not really. There’s a 46-year history that lends itself to that same philosophy. A lot of that inspiration and the model is the legacy. We spent a lot of time with Norm Langill, who was the original One Reel guy. He runs Teatro Zinzanni now and he’s been an amazing advisor and inspiration to us. He offers infinite wisdom. We meet with him every couple of months to get his feedback and stamp of approval. Some of the other people who were around at day one, Karen Gates Hildt, a local attorney, was part of the mayor’s request to do the festival in 1971. It was her crew who made the plea to the city in 1971 when the city needed that morale boost. We spend a lot of time getting their input.

Is Bumbershoot consciously trying to attract a younger crowd than in past years?
Thomas: I think it’s a beast of its own and has a personality of its own. The festival is bigger than any individuals who are lucky enough to work on it. There are thousands of people who work on the weekend of the event, and hundreds who work up on the lead-up to it. It’s been so many different things for 46 years. Every person you ask has a different vision of what it is. So it’s hard to put it in a box and say that it’s this. It’s different things to so many different people. It’s been an inspiration to festivals worldwide and nationwide. It was a forerunner to this whole modern-day movement of what a festival has become. It really has a life source of its own. Feeding that beast is what we try to do.

We’ve made a conscious effort this year to incorporate local chefs, because we consider them artists. We’re empowering them to show their art. We’re obviously going to have food booths and that element, but there’s also the performance element of the chefs, as well.

Another thing we’re desperately trying to incorporate is some tech elements, some virtual reality stuff. We’re talking to a bunch of people. Whether that comes to fruition this year… It’s a goal. I don’t know if we’re going to cross that bridge this year, but if not this year, definitely next year. Virtual reality is something that’s happening locally and it’s changing the world in so many ways. [AEG is talking to several companies but wouldn’t name any until they’ve confirmed their commitments.]

Did Bumbershoot take any inspiration from other festivals in planning this year’s lineup?

Thomas: It takes inspiration from itself more than anyone else, because we look at it as Seattle’s festival. There are so many festivals happening in the US now that what we can do is our local thing and that’s what we’ve tried to pursue. We have it downtown because we want it to be a part of our city. Be a reason for people to visit here. Be a reason for the people who do live here to partake.

Ashworth: You don’t often see festivals have such a broad scope and include all the arts and think about food.
Thomas: More than anything, we see other festivals taking inspiration from what Bumbershoot has done for all these years. A lot of them are incorporating the comedy element. They’re ramping up those food pieces and the other disciplines, whether it’s dance or theater.

Ashworth: One year I decided to do mostly comedy and I ended up seeing Fred Armisen, Aziz Ansari, and Zach Galifianakis. I think about those guys now and how cool is that?

Thomas: It’s nice to have the comedy sets spread out over three different stages and the different vibe of the comedians. A lot of them, it’s not something you can put on the main stage and do a standup in that environment. It needs to be in a tight, smaller space in a room.

Ashworth: I grew up in Yakima, but my parents cared enough about the arts so we’d drive to Bumbershoot. So I saw Poison Idea, with my mom sitting in the stands, so I could go down in the pit. Last year I took my daughter—I have an 11-year-old. That’s unique in a festival; I went with my mom and now I’m excited to go with my kids.

Thomas: Most modern festivals don’t have that type of legacy to have had a generational overlap.

Have you received much feedback about the lineup yet?
Thomas: The stuff on Twitter’s been really positive. It’s hard to tell until we go on sale with it. People vote with their dollars at that point.

Is there a make-or-break figure you need to hit with ticket sales?
Thomas: More than anything, we want all those venues to be filled for the performers. Even with the smaller stages, we don’t want anyone to play to empty rooms. That’s the biggest concern. With so many choices, hopefully people can move around and get to experience a little bit of everything.

Is there pressure to achieve a certain sales figure?
Thomas: Not necessarily. It’s more about people having a great experience. It’s bigger than one band or one comedian or whatever: It’s the cumulative effect of all of that. It’s hard to break it down into silos like that when it become this beast when it all comes together.

Ashworth: This is my first year working for Bumbershoot, and the change in organization and leadership, people have talked a lot about that over the last few years. We’re an agency that’s been hired to help. Everybody we’ve worked with is united for the same goal. It’s not like this person’s from AEG, this person’s from One Reel, etc. Which is cool. It’s one team.

On the musical front, the Bumbershoot team before AEG seemed to be striving for an 8-80 appeal. Now it seems like some of the older legacy acts have been ignored and a stronger contingent of youth-oriented acts. I don’t know if that was a conscious decision or if it’s down to who’s available when—the typical whims of booking festivals.

Thomas: I think it’s more the state of the music industry. Since the introduction of the internet, not only have record companies been turned upside-down, but every aspect of the business. It’s a different place than it was when we were all excited about buying CDs. Music is basically free now. Hopefully some progress will be made in the streaming world for the artists’ sake, because it’s pretty brutal.

Ashworth: It’s a complex issue. I want the artists to get what they deserve, but as a consumer you say, "I can pick up this phone and listen to more free music than I can possibly hear in a lifetime." Where do we balance that? In between? I don’t envy the people who are trying to hammer that out.

Thomas: We’re in the middle of the change.

Ashworth: There’s gotta be new revenue opportunities that come with new technologies.

Thomas: Scoring for movies and games is one of the few places where musicians can make a living. It’s super-competitive.

Ashworth: It feels like we’re not that far away from I can buy my first virtual reality concert with Drive Like Jehu circa 1990, right? [laughs]

Thomas: Have you seen the Portlandia sketch where they go to the music festival, but they don’t leave their couch. Literally, they go to Pickathon, they sit on their couch with these big head things on, and they fly drones around the festival. I laughed out loud the entire time.

The big, glaring example of a discovery from last year that people didn’t know was Chris Stapleton. He played and nobody knew who he was. The people who were there got a treat. And then this year he became one of the biggest performers of today. I think we have a couple of those [artists]. Barns Courtney has potential to really skyrocket. Bishop Briggs is another one. That’s the most exciting part of the music stuff for me: seeing which of these people are going to take off. Just wait and see, because won’t have them next year. They will be entirely too big.

Were there any artists you were trying to get this year whom you somehow couldn’t?
Thomas: Oh, we go through hundreds and hundreds. And the hard part is, we kind of have to wait for them to say no before you can move on to the next one. Otherwise if they all say yes, then you’re stuck. It’s a nine-month process of hurry up and wait or pass or no thank you or let’s go on to the next one. The options on that change daily—even up till the last minute here. A lot of this stuff got solidified in the last week or two. It’s frightening and no way to live, but that’s the life we live. [laughs]

Were there any headliner-level people you were upset about not getting?
Thomas: With a lot of those, we hope to get ’em all next year. We go through so many names before we land on it.

Were Macklemore and Ryan Lewis easy to get, or did it take a lot of negotiating?
Thomas: Once we laid it out to them, they really clicked and everyone was on the same page. It’s a great thing for them to come back in that fashion. It made a lot of sense, locally, with their roots. They made a phenomenal video touting hometown pride and the fact that they’re on this. It encapsulates his journey in a minute-long clip. He said it brings everything full circle for him. It’s just a whole lot of love for the city. We couldn’t have asked for anything better.

Anything else you want to discuss?
Thomas: CIDR stuff is really important. The Center for Infectious Disease Research, their labs and offices are on Westlake. They’re doing amazing research. They’re researching cures and tests for HIV, AIDS, malaria, and TB. All of those diseases kill millions of people throughout the world. The fact that they’re part of our community, the fact that they’re our official non-profit partner, is a whole other element of our local community. To potentially help and save people around the world to the tune of millions of people, it makes us all proud to be part of that. And to educate people and promote their message. That’s the biggest goal. Apparently it’s a lot harder to breed a mosquito than I thought. The breed em, they dissect them, and it’s all happening right here. A portion of ticket sales goes to CIDR to do further research and to fund their cause. My brother-in-law works for a pharmaceutical company and he said, ‘Those aren’t very profitable diseases.’ It’s truly for helping humanity. It’s not research to make a drug that they’ll make a bunch of money off. It’s about saving lives.

Kamasi Washington is the Bumbershoot 2016 artist I'm most excited about.