By: Tim Falco Music festivals have become an integral part of the summer season. And after all, spending a weekend outdoors, enjoying the warm weather with friends, all while seeing your favourite artists and bands perform live can be a truly unforgettable experience.
That was certainly the case at the third annual WayHome Music and Arts Festival, held in Oro-Medonte, Ont. just north of Toronto. But the enthusiastic festival-goers in Oro-Medonte were blissfully unaware that the future of WayHome was uncertain to say the least, and that the 2018 festival would end up being cancelled.
Even with performances by popular artists like Imagine Dragons, Flume and Solange, plus a long-anticipated performance from the elusive Frank Ocean, many seemed to feel that there was a drop off in the quality of artists from previous years. When compared to the likes of The Killers, Kendrick Lamar, Arcade Fire and Sam Smith, it was no secret that the 2017 festival wasn’t going to draw the same massive crowds of previous years.
The numbers told the same story. This year, an estimated 15,000 people attended WayHome according to CTV, a fraction of the 35,000 in the inaugural 2015. WayHome was an incredible economic success in its beginnings, but the announcement of 2018’s cancellation left many wondering what went wrong.
WayHome announced that it “will be on pause in 2018” on September 5 this year.
A statement on the festival’s website says, “Thank you for the love and support the community of WayHomies have shown over the last three years. The millions of magical moments we created and shared together will sit in our memory banks to be relived for years to come”.
The company emphasized that “This isn’t goodbye, just see you later”. However, questions surrounding the future of the festival remain.
The announcement raised suspicion about the real reasons for the festival’s cancellation, with some speculating that it was not generating enough revenue.
Zoe Thornton, a first-year social work student at Ryerson, has attended WayHome for all three years since its inception.
“I found the quality of the festival definitely decreased this year, probably because they had less funding, which was publicly known,” she said. "There were fewer of the shops, art, activities and games that they had in other years.”
WayHome was definitely a smaller production in 2017, and this was evident in their use of space. The iconic ferris wheel from previous years was gone, and one of the stages was removed. Not to mention the significant decrease in big name headliners. A smaller and cozier festival is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can lead to loss of revenue.
Thornton believes that the reason for WayHome’s lack of funding in 2017 might have to do with a massive inaugural year, followed by a slightly smaller 2016 festival. Their first year featured Kendrick Lamar, Sam Smith and Alt-J as headliners, an absolutely enormous lineup that could have easily raised the bar too high for the future years.
“In their opening year, they came out with so many headlining artists, they might have outdone themselves a bit,” explained Thornton. “Then in their second year, it shifted to a more ‘festival’ feel, with smaller alternative artists.”
Indeed, a shift to a more alternative vibe – with the three headliners this past summer being indie/rock bands LCD Soundsystem, The Killers and Arcade Fire – and the smaller budget that came along with it could have played a role in the lost revenue.
With less funding, festivals are forced to book smaller artists, which causes a drop in ticket sales, according to Neil Knudsen, a volunteer for RBC Royal Bank Bluesfest in Ottawa. Knudsen emphasized how revenue decreasing from year to year can quickly send a festival down a slippery slope. He said that since Bluesfest began in 1994, they’ve found the perfect economic balance to maintain their success.
“Ottawa Bluesfest has a very clear-cut policy that they work with, and they don’t deviate from it very much,” Knudsen said. “From the contracts that they use, to volunteers, to how they hand out tickets and passes, they stick with it pretty religiously.”
Ottawa Bluesfest averages 250,000 attendees every year, with over 300,000 people showing up in 2015 to see Kanye West, The Tragically Hip and Chance The Rapper.
Surely, for a festival to continue running annually for over two decades, the organizers must be doing something right. Knudsen also pointed out that some festivals aren’t as particular with their planning, leaving them susceptible to financial issues.
“I’ve worked with other festivals that didn’t have the same approach [as Bluesfest]. The previous incarnation of the Ottawa folk festival seemed much less strict about their process, and they ended up going bankrupt.”
Gabriel Mattacchione, President of Beyond Oz Productions and founder of Ever After Music Festival in Kitchener, Ont. takes another approach. Instead of sticking to one method, constant change and evolution are extremely important. He wants to continue to branch out as the festival gains traction and popularity.
“Ever After has always been a living, breathing project. We are always trying to stay ahead of the curve in every aspect.” said Mattacchione in an email. “Steps into the technological world are appropriate ones to keep the forward momentum of the business. We try to expand or ‘add’ something new every year for our crowd to enjoy.”
Ever After has indeed been a success story for music festivals in recent years. It started the same year as WayHome, and has only seen increases in attendance since its first year. In 2016, the electronic music festival managed to pull 21,000 people on each of its three days.
Perhaps the constantly changing model that Ever After puts forward is just another possible path to growth as a business.
North by Northeast Music and Arts festival in Toronto is another example of a music festival undergoing a dip in attendance recently. They changed several of their venue locations in 2015, and the festival hasn’t seen a return to the 350,000 people that it drew in 2014.
“Usually festivals can suffer a loss for a year or two, but it can quickly become a vicious cycle,” Knudsen said. “If you lost money last year, you don’t have a lot of money to book artists this year.”
Maybe a “pause” is a necessary solution to financial problems for WayHome. A chance to reevaluate artist booking, set design, stage planning and other important tasks could end up being a stepping stone to repairing the festival. Meanwhile, the parent company Republic Live Inc. will continue to run its annual Boots and Hearts Music Festival, the popular country music festival held each year in Oro-Medonte.
While music festivals continue to draw thousands each year, some have seen failures that lead to loss of revenue. Republic Live Inc. and North by Northeast will need to come up with dynamic ways to draw the impressive numbers they used to have. Perhaps a pause this year to book more popular artists and invest in a better atmosphere will give festivals like WayHome a reason to hit play again.