This is getting ridiculous. After promising to deliver the biggest, best, most tremendously super-awesome summer concert series the Twin Cities has ever seen; after doing pretty much that last year by bringing Dave Matthews Band and Tool to Harriet Island for the first inaugural River’s Edge Music Festival; after signing a five-year contract to produce the series in downtown St. Paul no matter what; after professing to be all kinds of delighted by last year’s enthusiastic (albeit profit-challenged) attendance; after promising to make this year’s show twice as amazingly incredible, perhaps even adding an additional weekend for country(!) music; after all that—producers Live Nation announced Monday that they are pulling the plug on this year’s River’s Edge Music Festival.
I think I speak for all fans of massive summer music festivals when I say: Aggggggghhhh! Not again!
The Soundtown Music Festival in Somerset, Wisc., was canceled last year. The 10,000 Lakes Festival died in 2010. Taste of Minnesota died and re-emerged a few times before it was put out of its misery in 2011. Now this.
2013 was of course supposed to be River’s Edge’s breakout year, since last year’s lineup was allegedly hampered by hasty scheduling. Live Nation is regularly referred to as “the world’s largest producer of live events,” and this year they were supposed to leverage their world domination to show us what they can really do, given the opportunity to make a few more phone calls.
The stated reasons for canceling were predictably lame: rising costs, scheduling problems, the reluctance of Midwesterners to drive 400 miles for a twelve-dollar beer, etc. “We weren’t getting people from Fargo and Green Bay,” explained Live Nation’s North American co-president Mark Campana in the Star Tribune, adding (with an extraordinarily keen grasp of the obvious), “This was a backyard event, with the largest percentage coming from the Twin Cities.”
The upside: it’s something else we can blame on Green Bay.
Now, Live Nation’s bean-counters may think canceling River’s Edge is a wise and rational business decision. But, being outsiders, what they apparently don’t understand is that St. Paul’s Harriet Island is now officially cursed. The 2012 River’s Edge festival temporarily banished the island’s demons by putting on a festival that went off without a hitch. No arrests. No deaths. No rain. Headliners Dave Matthews Band and Tool each were graced by idyllic summer evenings, and all the daytime performances were bathed in the warm glow of a gentle, Midwestern sun. Journalists covering the event had to consult their Thesauruses to find adjectives and superlatives giddy enough to describe the scene, so unaccustomed are they to seeing competent management anywhere near the Wabasha bridge.
In short, everything went according to plan—until Live Nation changed the plan. What the company is shortsightedly squandering here is a multi-million-dollar investment in our community’s good will. 45,000 people attended last year’s festival, and the goal for 2013 was to lure a modest 60,000 to the water’s edge. Which was entirely doable, because every one of last year’s attendees had 10 friends who felt like they missed something special, and who might actually have jobs this year, and thus be able to afford a ticket. Live Nation would also have had the chance to market the festival adequately in places like Fargo and Green Bay, which they did not do last year.
Live Nation says the festival is on “hiatus” this year, and will “hopefully” return next year. But mark my words, it will not. You are never going to see another River’s Edge festival.
Why? Because “hiatus” is the word festival producers use to diffuse the angry blowback from their real plan, which is to cancel the whole thing altogether. Hiatus is a great word, because it creates the illusion of hope without the burden of commitment. 10,000 Lakes and Soundtown are both on hiatus, and they’re not coming back, for many of the same reasons as River’s Edge. Outdoor mega-festivals are mega-expensive to produce, and the audience for them is not guaranteed, so the level of financial risk is very high. The difference with River’s Edge was supposed to be that Live Nation had the financial muscle to absorb two or three years of negative revenue in order to build a sustainable model for a major regional festival. Last year, Chicago’s Lollapalooza set an attendance record of 270,000. A nice little 100,000-person festival in the Twin Cities sounds perfect—and it would/could have been.
But here’s what’s going to happen instead: Now that Live Nation has broken the sacred trust it had with St. Paul and the Twin Cities, no one is going to believe that next year’s event will actually happen. No matter how many promises Live Nation makes, an “I’ll believe it when I see it” mentality will prevent most people from buying advance tickets, which—even if Live Nation’s intentions are initially good—will spook the company’s bean-counters so much that they’ll pull the plug anyway. Furthermore, if the cost of staging such events has skyrocketed as rapidly as Live Nation claims, those costs are not going down, so the economics of the whole enterprise will continue to look ever more red and menacing.
My guess is that after looking at last year’s financials and comparing future revenue projections with rising costs, Live Nation concluded that there’s no way to make River’s Edge successful in the long run, so pouring money into it for the next four years is pointless. Consequently, the company canceled this year’s event to cut their losses and buy their lawyers time to wriggle out of the five-year contract that initially gave everyone so much hope that this time things would be different. They won’t. If Live Nation can cancel this year, they can find a way to renege on the rest of their contract. And that’s exactly what they’re going to do, even if they spend the next year pretending otherwise.
I’d be delighted to be wrong, of course, but where Harriet Island is concerned, disappointment almost always squashes delight.
Fortunately, Twin Citians will not be at a loss for music this summer, as most of the regular—albeit smaller—music festivals are happening as planned. And at least one new festival, the First Avenue Festival, programmed by the folks at First Ave., is scheduled to take over the Parade Athletic Fields next to the Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden on July 20. The rest are:
May 24: The Soundset hip-hop festival
June 15: Rock the Garden
June 27-29: Twin Cities Jazz Festival
July 12-13: Basilica Block Party
And, of course, the Minnesota Zoo all summer long.