It all started on August 13th, 1971. Hippie culture and bohemian beauty filled the city. A free event at the site of the World's Fair 1962, Seattle Center, home of the Space Needle and the festival that was initially known as Festival '71. It was free to attend with the exception of one or two events, and drew crowds immediately- estimated attendance was about 120,000 people.
Now it's 2015. The festival, now named Bumbershoot (a cutesy term for an umbrella, so often needed in Seattle), had a decent draw of 80,000 over three days on Labor Day weekend. The event, though, is no longer free. Single day tickets ran as high as $109, more than double the price of a one day ticket for last year's event. Gone were the roaming artists on stilts, the performers who would set up on the lawn by the fountains, the readily visible installation pieces scattered across the campus. The arts are now hidden away, in buildings on the outer edges of the festival grounds. How did it happen?
One Reel is the nonprofit organization that ran Bumbershoot from 1972 to 2014. After several years of low turnout (partly due to weather), the company was looking at two options: end Bumbershoot, or find a partner to step in and assume financial risk. AEGLive, a company based in Los Angeles and has worked with Bumbershoot to underwrite artists in the past, stepped up to assume that responsibility. This has enabled the festival to continue, but the cost of such a deal was noticeable from the moment the gates opened on Saturday, only half an hour before the first acts were slated to go on.
More than half of the Seattle Center campus was blocked off by tall green hurricane fences to keep people without a ticket from being able to see any of the acts. These fences, though, made navigating the grounds difficult even once you were inside, as signage was noticeably lacking and the 'interactive app' was glitchy at best. White picket fences further obstructed pedestrians, serving to block off the beer gardens which were the only areas you could drink in while trying to catch artists at the outdoor #NeverTamed, Rhapsody and Starbucks stages. The drinking areas nestled close to the stages in some places, allowing you to grab a beer and watch some bands, the arrangement is less than ideal and leaves you with a less than stellar view.
Patrons often stood in line for more than an hour to access the KeyArena or Memorial Stadium acts, often while tweeting and Facebooking Bumbershoot asking what was going on. Very little information was disseminated to the people waiting, and at times they waited in the rain as the lineup area was uncovered. Many guests wound up soaked, especially on the first day when Seattle saw some of the worst rainstorms of the year. For a company like AEG, who runs an awful lot of outdoor festivals and sporting events, it's hard to understand why more covered space wasn't set up.
When it came to finding my way around, the signage was definitely lacking. What signs were up were vague, and the maze of fencing often meant going in a circle before finding my bearings again. The interactive map on the Bumbershoot app was somehow even more confusing, when it did work, and was glitchy and prone to randomly resizing itself. Sometimes, it was just better to pick a group of people and head in the same direction as them- at the very least, I would be going somewhere, and maybe it would lead to something new.
The One Reel nonprofit was pared down when AEG took over and now oversees only the arts side- it appears that AEG has the final say when it comes to booking the music, and that showed through. Previous years of Bumbershoot had a wide variety of acts, from world music, industrial, rock, motown, funk, and pretty much anything else you can think of. This year's acts were much more on the mainstream side, with quite a few artists from top 40 radio and newer rap acts in there. That isn't a bad thing, of course, but the mixture just wasn't there. Then there's the local acts- Bumbershoot always had so many of the smaller acts from Seattle; this year there were just a handful. Though AEG likes to point out that the event is being run by the Seattle branch, it's pretty obvious that the regard for cultivating the local artists isn't as high on the priority list as the company would like us to think. Saying it's being run by AEG Seattle comes across almost as a ploy, like trying to call Blue Moon a craft beer when it's made by Coors.
The art itself, as curated by One Reel, was good, but was no longer intermingled with the music and the vendors- you had to search it out and actively look for it, which is a major departure. Art used to be front and center with the music, but its disappearance is not entirely on the shoulders of the new takeover. The displays have been shrinking and pulling back over the years, as crowds are less interested, but it still should be a visible part of Bumbershoot's heritage and not hidden away.
The brightest spots in the weekend this year are twofold- the vendors, especially the artists in the Armory center participating in Flatstock, and the musicians, who really fed a lot of life into the crowds even when they were soaking wet and freezing. The vendors who brought amazing show posters, handcrafted clothing, and handmade jewelry never disappoint at Bumbershoot, and they're always so local and give people a feel for what Seattle is really about, one they can take with them.
The musicians that played at Bumbershoot this year, while not the across the board, eclectic mix that I've come to expect, did a stellar job of giving everything to the audience. Hell, the singer/guitarist for Dead Moon actually collapsed onstage and had to be helped off to an ambulance- so when I say these performers gave everything, I mean it. The crowds- no matter how wet, cold, tired, and cranky from standing in line- gave it all right back tenfold. There's something about live performances that makes music more real, more meaningful, and more connected, and that's the big takeaway from Bumbershoot.
AEG announced that this year's turnout was enough to ensure there will be a Bumbershoot 2016. Here's to hoping that with a full year, rather than the eight months they had for this year's planning, AEG can get some of these issues sorted out and bring the festival back to its roots a bit. And I know those guys need to make a profit- I totally get that. Everyone needs to get paid. But really think about lowering the prices so the weirdos, freaks, and awesomely crazy people that make Seattle what it is can come back and show everyone what a truly local Bumbershoot looks like.