This article originally appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Canadian Musician
By Kevin Young
Annual festivals are a key part of the Canadian musical landscape in the summer – events that allow us to experience uniquely Canadian environments, music from all over the world, and, frankly, just let loose in the great outdoors for a few days.
Some festivals have a limited shelf life, but we had the chance to speak with representatives from three well-known and widely-loved events that have stood the test of time: PEI’s country-focused Cavendish Beach Music Festival, Quebec City’s anything-and-everything Le Festival d’été de Québec, and the electrocentric Center of Gravity, traditionally held in Kelowna, BC, but, for the first time, launching a late summer iteration in Wasaga Beach, ON.
Each has a unique brand identity that contributes to its ongoing success, and all provide benefits, cultural and economic, for the communities they call home. In every case, the value of partnering with like-minded companies and brands to build and expand their profile and the offerings they present is of great importance.
That’s especially true in 2016, considering that, when most summer events would’ve been booking their talent, the Canadian dollar was at its lowest point in years. Couple that with the fact that the number of music festivals from coast-to-coast seemed to have hit an all-time high in the years leading up to this one, meaning many long-running events found their crowds diluted due to the growing number of entertainment options available to them.
First up, Jeff Squires is the president and CEO of Whitecap Entertainment, producer of the Cavendish Beach Music Festival (CBMF). Squires has a diverse background, with stints as a school principal, hockey coach, and the head of Imageworks Communications Group, an advertising and custom publishing company based in Charlottetown. Working closely with the tourism industry while running Imageworks, Squires saw an opportunity to create a multiday festival supported by a network of business leaders and helped create CBMF, which has quickly become the largest outdoor event in Eastern Canada.
Once a cow pasture, the site of CBMF now welcomes in excess of 70,000 visitors to listen to a myriad of country music artists under the July sun. In past years, performers have included the likes of Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, and Steve Earle alongside Canadians like Dean Brody, George Canyon, and Doc Walker. This year, for the festival’s eighth edition from July 8-10, the lineup will feature Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney, and The Band Perry as its daily headliners.
While Whitecap hosts a number of other shows throughout the year, CBMF is the company’s signature event, Squires explains, and he’s intimately involved with all aspects of the festival: working with the local community and the province, quarterbacking logistics, and collaborating with the festival’s talent buyers on approving budgets and talent to ensure the delivery of a great experience for festival goers.Every year is unique, Squires says, including this one, which will see Blake Shelton, who had to postpone his appearance in 2014 because of Hurricane Arthur, the earliest hurricane ever in PEI’s history, perform at CBMF for the first time.Throughout the history of the festival, corporate sponsors have been key to its success and profile, including Lotto Max, which has been a festival partner since its second year. “They’ve been a significant partner in helping us build our brand, by associating with their brand,” Squires says.
It’s one of a variety of companies that Whitecap’s principal says “understand what’s going on and want to be involved to ensure [the festival] is sustainable year after year.” While the Canadian dollar is down this year from its historic high in the recent past, he adds, “I think our corporate sponsorship is up because people see the impact of the event.” Other sponsors run the gamut from local to international, including local and provincial tourism departments, Charlottetown-based station Ocean 100.3 FM, Meridian Entertainment Group, and Pepsi.
Additionally, the PEI Brewing Company, and specifically its flagship brand, Beach Chair Lager, which has the festival logo right on the can, is a sponsor. “Those are important sponsorships, because you can leverage up some marketing dollars, make it beneficial for all the parties involved and get your message out strategically.”
Squires is actually co-owner of the brewing company, with partner Kevin Murphy, who also operates Murphy Hospitality Group, a group of restaurants that helps to provide onsite service to the roughly 25,000 people who attend each day of the festival.
“That’s a daunting task,” Squires says. “So we contract out to the catering division of Murphy Hospitality Group to provide those services. We contract out to a bus company to provide bussing services, as well as different electrical companies, and other local vendors with their own food trucks – and again, that’s the benefit of the festival in terms of providing economic impact.”
Le Festival d’été de Québec (FEQ) is another event that relies heavily on corporate sponsorship to deliver its experience and, similarly, adds a significant economic boost to its host area. Held in downtown Québec City with roughly 300 shows spread over 11 days and 10 stages, it’s an ambitious and very successful festival – one that typically attracts approximately one million visitors per year. Unlike CBMF, Festival d’été’s offerings are very eclectic and range from rock, folk, and hip-hop to electronic, world music, jazz, and, unlike other Canadian festivals, a substantial number of French-language artists from Quebec and around the world.
Its primary venue, the Bell Stage, is situated on the historic Plains of Abraham battlefield and can accommodate roughly 80,000 people – a necessity considering past headliners have included the likes of The Rolling Stones, Foo Fighters, Billy Joel, Tiësto, and Lady Gaga. Other venues feature street performers, children’s activities, and concerts of all descriptions.Founded in 1968, it’s one of the longest-running festivals in the country and originally featured largely local and regional artists and acts. Since, it has grown substantially and generates in excess of $25 million in revenue for the city and region.Programming Director Louis Bellavance explains that his role is essentially that of an artistic director – overseeing the entire process in terms of the entertainment that’s programmed as well as where and when specific artists will perform. His job is to ensure that the festival features the right mix of genres and styles, and also that the number of artists from specific genres fits the current public appetite for live music.
In doing so, the question of whether to rely on one or two big names as lynchpins for the event or to use the festival’s resources to hire a number of well-known acts with slightly smaller profiles to create a different kind of impact is never far from his mind.
In programming the festival, Bellavance looks at the scheduling and booking as being similar to creating a showcase or set list. “It’s like I begin with one song and end with another. That’s the idea.” Additionally, he oversees a team dealing with everything related to the artist experience in terms of transportation, accommodations, catering, and backstage hospitality.
The festival has always been community-based, Bellavance says. “It’s rooted very deeply in the culture of Quebec City and used to be much more Francophone, but world music was also a part of it since day one.”
Because of the vast number of genres and artists represented, it’s a festival that facilitates discovery for its audience – programming artists that are both well-known and, if not obscure, from such dramatically different traditions that festivalgoers can’t help but see and hear something they have never heard of before. A beneficial side product of that is that much of that attention goes towards Canadian talent and, more specifically, that from la Belle Province. In fact, each year, a well-known Quebecois act is given the chance to develop a show that will take the Bell Stage during the week and, in most cases, put that artist in front of their largest headlining audience ever. Previously, those artists have included the likes of Jean-Pierre Ferland and Patrick Watson and this year will include Coeur de Pirate and Fred Pellerin.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, the festival increasingly began to hire international headliners as a way of staying relevant and promoting growth, a tactic that’s only increased their attendance over time. That said, Bellavance says there’s a balance that must be struck between offering high-value A-list artists and developing the festival’s brand. As an example, he mentions “the Metallica year,” when people, he felt, perhaps identified more with the headliners than the festival itself. Ultimately, he wants to make sure people see the festival as a whole and invest themselves in the event, not a single headline act. “That was my goal,” he explains. “So we invested in talent, booking it not around one or two names, but trying to build something very strong and cover more ground musically.”
In addition, it’s been important to be increasingly active in terms of sponsorship, aligning with partners to create a singular and unique experience. Bell has been a long-term sponsor, he says, and their involvement continues to grow. As the festival’s brand has become better known, sponsors like Molson, Sirius XM, and others have come to the table, seeing both an opportunity to be part of the event’s growth and to create unique content tagged to FEQ.
“It’s not about getting a logo and a banner placed prominently on stage anymore,” he says. Essentially, sponsors are looking to provide experiences for people – experiences that are beneficial for the festival, its audience, regional tourism overall, and the sponsors themselves.
Unlike many other events, FEQ’s ticketing model is aimed at providing artists who perform with the chance to play to the largest crowd possible by offering relatively inexpensive, transferable wristbands to patrons. This year, that means an all-inclusive pass for $90 CDN. Yes, less than $100 for 11 days of entertainment featuring everyone from Brad Paisley to Red Hot Chili Peppers to Duran Duran to Kaskade.
That’s a win-win situation for artists and audiences. “If you had to pin down one thing as to why the festival is what it is now, I always say that we’re selling a lot of wristbands because we’re selling them cheap and we are letting people share them. If you’re selling wristbands for 300 bucks, you know there’s only so many you can sell and you sure don’t want people to share them.”
Try getting a ticket for a Rolling Stones show – a recent Bell Stage headliner – anywhere for $90. Very unlikely. But at FEQ 2015, at that price, you could see the Stones and hundreds of other artists if you’d like.The impact of that model, beyond offering concertgoers a good deal, is that the main stage is routinely packed. Look at it this way – Lady Gaga is the headliner. Maybe you’re not into her music, but a friend of yours is. You give them your wristband for the night, they take a friend who has a wristband as well, and the next night, you go see Metallica or, you know, whoever is playing. The artists on stage are practically guaranteed a larger audience than they would have with a more traditional one ticket/one human model, which is actually quite attractive from their perspective as well.
Part of the success of the festival is owed to the fact that Quebec City is not a major market where huge acts routinely stop on tour. Nor are there a number of large, genre-specific festivals on offer nearby. The result is a truly unique experience for audiences and artists alike.
As a side note, the province of Quebec, in and of itself, is an incredibly lucrative market and one that has been known for embracing artists ahead of the rest of North America. That has included the first tastes of Canadian success for everyone from Supertramp and Genesis to the Backstreet Boys in the mid-‘90s. (Didn’t think you’d see those bands in the same sentence, did you?)
Although the days of huge domestic record sales are pretty much behind us, to put this in perspective, Quebecois artist Kevin Parent, for example, sold in excess of 300,000 records in Quebec alone back in the day. It’s a massive market, and one that can make or break careers.
Center of Gravity (CoG) is itself a unique festival in terms of its musical offerings and its reliance on sports as a draw for audiences. Now in its ninth year, the sports and music festival returns to Kelowna in early July, but will also create a new iteration of “the nation’s hottest beach party” on the shores of Georgian Bay in August for the first time.
It’s a major expansion, says Ben Brown Bentley, event producer at Wet Ape Productions and director of finance and marketing for CoG. Established in 2007 with the mandate of developing unique sporting, music, and cultural events in Western Canada, Wet Ape is known for founding CoG, the Keloha Music and Arts Festival, as well as Harvest Haus. Additionally, Wet Ape produces one-off shows with electronic dance superstars like Deadmau5 and Tiesto.
While CoG is typically EDM and hip-hop heavy, Bentley says that “it’s a multi-genre thing – electronic focused, but it’s anything high-energy, including urban and indie music, and with all the sports activations, there’s going to be three stages. Plus, we have a water slide being built into the beach, we’re building a whole wakeboard competition into the beach…” Essentially, there are a lot of different facets to CoG beyond music, and they all combine to create an event – and a draw – that’s greater than the sum of its parts. “Because of that, we like to think we’re bringing something unique to the market.”
Additionally, their expansion into Ontario highlights the appetite for this kind of hybrid event across the country. “ We’ve actually been trying to come out to Wasaga Beach for a few years now. It just seemed like an ideal location and it just happened that, this year, it worked out. The Kelowna festival has always been a beach party and we’ve always wanted to expand the brand and Wasaga Beach as a beach party destination fit very well.”
Again, it’s about having a broad appeal, catering to everyone from music and sports fans to families looking for a good hang at a stunning location to soak up sun and check out some extreme sports. And partnerships like CoG’s longtime association with Monster Energy and other partners only help expand the festival and Wet Ape’s ability to grow their brand nationwide, Bentley says.
“Frankly,” he continues, “what CoG offers is a festival that provides equal weight to music and sports.” That, in and of itself, is relatively unique in the market. “CoG actually started as a sports festival, not a music festival – as Volley Fest, the beach volleyball competition in Kelowna.” Music, however, has helped propel CoG to become a larger festival, but the sports side of it has always been at the core of the event.Bentley also points to CoG’s new partnership with Live Nation as benefitting the festival. “They came onboard in early 2016 and that’s made a huge impact and expanded our reach.” In all, he estimates the potential attendance over the three-day festival in Kelowna at roughly 8,000 people per day and, in Wasaga, at roughly 10,000 to 12,000 per day.
The impact on the local economy is substantial, he sums up, estimating that, during CoG, some local businesses in and around Kelowna experience a bump in sales similar to New Year’s Eve celebrations.
One of the challenges, of course, inherent in programming festivals, particularly when it comes to headliners, is the relative strength of the Canadian dollar versus the value of its U.S. counterpart. That said, this is by no means an issue that suddenly came out of nowhere. While the Canadian dollar did surpass the U.S. dollar in value in 2007, that was the first time it had done so since the 1970s, and since, it’s fallen back to a more modest valuation.
Still, it can present challenges, as it did fairly significantly this year. “It makes an impact,” Bentley acknowledges, “so we have to be more creative. I think for all Canadian festivals there was a pushback from international artists about fees, but most artists were understanding and we were able to negotiate.”
The factors that play into those negotiations include what the artist’s actual worth is in Canada, and in specific markets depending on their size and location.
On the up side, inevitably, the dollar makes Canadian artists more attractive to talent buyers. Having said that, the three festivals have traditionally always featured a large contingent of Canadian acts – an initiative that Squires says is a “guiding principle” for CBMF.
Also, Bentley adds, “With the dollar right now, we’re seeing a lot more people from the States buying tickets, because it makes a lot more sense for them to travel to Canada.”
In every case, there are strategies each festival employs to deal with the fluctuating value of the Loonie. One of those is the increase in sponsorships and brand partnerships, which can help offset the dollar differential and, potentially, lower ticket sales, considering the Canadian dollar’s value affects consumers in much the same way it does businesses.Speaking to whether the dollar has been an issue for CBMF, Squires says: “Yes, but no. It wouldn’t be prudent not to address that, but what we do year in and year out, is to plan for a rainy day. We know we’re going to be here every year. We have an established event and venue… We’ve also become more efficient in the ways we do things, so we can find additional dollars that can be reallocated to offset what you’re going to lose in exchange.”In doing so, Bellavance says, buying U.S. dollars on a regular basis helps weather the fluctuations. “We’re doing that on a constant basis. When I’m buying the talent, I know what my cost is and how much USD we need to make this work, so I’m not gambling.”
“In any business over a long period of time,” Squires adds, “I think you have to realize that there are blips on the radar, but the reality is that our dollar hasn’t traditionally been on par. We were fortunate for a couple of years, but that was more the exception than the rule. You have to figure that into your business plan if you’re going to be doing U.S. business year to year.”
Like Bentley, both Squires and Bellavance are seeing more interest from long haul visitors, who make their respective festivals a destination for their holidays. In each case, too, it’s not just about the event itself; it’s about the setting – an attractive destination in all three cases.
“The date [of CBMF] is is the weekend following Canada Day. People put it in their calendars and when they leave here after 2016, they already have their spot booked for the next year without even knowing who the talent is.”
Kevin Young is a Toronto-based musician and freelance writer.