Music festivals around the country have seen their attendance drop in recent years. Unfortunately, this year’s Bumbershoot was not spared from that trend. Attendance at the Seattle Center music festival was down this year to 48,024 people for the weekend, bringing in about 16,000 people a day, according to figures AEG shared with The Stranger.
That’s less than the 80,000 people who bought tickets in 2015, according to a Seattle Times story at the time. Or the 74,000 who were in attendance in 2017, also according to the Times. Over 100,000 people went to the festival in 2013, according to KIRO 7.
Saturday was the busiest day at this year's festival with 17,488 in attendance, according to AEG's scanned attendance figures which have not been previously reported. Friday and Sunday had 15,351 in attendance and 15,185, respectively.
Michael Spadoni, a marketing manager for AEG, said the company was happy with 2018’s turnout given the overall decline in festival attendance across the country.
“Relative to the rest of festivals in general throughout the country, it did well. We were all really excited about it," Spadoni said. "If you look at next year, as far as the festivals that will or will not happen again, ours is happening again because it did well.” Spadoni said AEG will “absolutely” be putting on a 2019 Bumbershoot.
The same can’t be said for other nearby festivals. Organizers of the three-day Sasquatch! festival at the Gorge Amphitheatre said after 17 years the festival would not return in 2019. Pemberton Music Festival near Whistler, B.C., which drew 180,000 people to its location near Whistler according to the Seattle Times, went bankrupt in 2017 and shut down.
And then, of course, there's the famous demise of Ja Rule’s Fyre Festival, which probably had less to do with the overall decline in festivals and more to do with Ja Rule charging people $12,000 to go to a “remote private island." (The island was actually just a strip of land next to a Sandals Resort in the Bahamas.) Fyre Festival is now the subject of a forthcoming Netflix documentary, a $100 million civil lawsuit, and federal criminal investigation.
The Bumbershoot festival, which started in 1973 and has seen attendance swell to over 300,000, almost ceased to exist in 2014. The festival's non-profit organizer, One Reel, found itself in about $900,000 in debt to the city of Seattle after bad weather and poor attendance at its 2014 festival. In 2015, One Reel signed a contract with AEG to help organize the festival. AEG agreed to pay off the nonprofit’s debts to the city with future ticket sales, and the city agreed to let Bumbershoot’s organizers have free rent at Seattle Center for the weekend, according to a contract obtained by The Stranger. AEG’s contract runs through December 2019. The city still owns the rights to the Bumbershoot name.
Marc Jones, director of marketing, events and business development for Seattle Center, said the city is happy with how AEG is trying to keep the festival alive.
“We have people in place committed to doing their best to continue the festival. And AEG is part of that partnership right now, trying to make it work and really investing not just short-term," Jones said. “This is the fifth year they have done it and we are talking about future renewals for the event.”
The Labor Day weekend festival started as a free event but then introduced a $2.50 charge in 1980, unless an attendee could claim either “the hardships of youth or age,” according to HistoryLink. From then on, prices have steadily increased. In 2010, an economy day ticket, which did not include admission to the main stage, cost $22 a day in advance or $30 at the gate. A full access ticket cost $40 a day in advance and $50 at the gate, according to the Seattle Times. Since AEG took over in 2015, Bumbershoot's prices have continued to rise. This year, ticket prices cost $130 a day with 3-day general admission passes going for $220.
Spadoni said there are a number of reasons ticket prices have had to increase. Artists now charge more money for live performances as record sales continue to decline as a source of revenue. Additionally, the organizers need to spend more money on security because of the increased risk of throwing large events in the United States (where a mass shooting seems to be always around the corner). Jones added that it is particularly expensive to put on a festival at Seattle Center. Bumbershoot is one of the largest urban music festivals in the country.
“We are absolutely not making money off of this," Spadoni said. "If anything we are trying to break even every year, especially when continually paying off the debts that we had to pay off from taking over from One Reel."
Spadoni added that the ticket prices reflect the cost of attracting major performers.
“The majority of money that artists make is now from live performances, sponsorships, and licensing,” Spadoni said. “That’s just a fact. It’s just how the music industry works now.”
AEG and One Reel’s contract with the city requires that they maintain the festival’s “essential character” as “an affordable, public event.” One Reel’s former executive director, Jon Stone, told Fortune Magazine in 2013 that the nonprofit considered the affordability of the event (a single day ticket was $50 and a three-day pass was $120 before fees in 2013) to be an integral part of the festival.
“Economic barriers to entry are real things in the industry these days, especially at larger festivals. That’s why we keep ticket prices as low as we can,” Stone told Fortune.
But reducing Bumbershoot's ticket price for future festivals would require dramatically cutting back on the number of acts, according to Spadoni.
“If we were going to cut that price in half you would get half the festival. That’s not what anyone wants to do,” Spadoni said. “It’s a world-class festival. We don’t want to change that just to make the ticket price cheaper.”
Marty Griswold, the current executive director of One Reel, said in an e-mail that declines in the overall festival market were partially to blame for this year’s lower attendance.
“Based on the demise of Sasquatch and other large festivals around the country, I would have to assume the largest contributor to a decline in attendance would be the change in consumer behavior,” Griswold said. “Large festivals just aren’t pulling in the numbers they once did.”
Griswold added that Bumbershoot has always been changing.
“Times change, festivals evolve. I would rather celebrate what Bumbershoot continues to offer the city of Seattle than dwell on what it used to be,” Griswold said. “And trust me, a packed Seattle Center doesn’t mean that it was a better Bumbershoot. Just different. And more crowded.”