The sound of silence may be the only music heard at B.C. festivals this summer.
Tiny Lights, a music festival held in the small Kootenay town of Ymir near Nelson, has postponed this year’s event to 2021. It may also be the opening act in a slew of postponements due to the COVID-19 outbreak and restrictions on public gatherings.
Carla Stephenson, the festival’s executive director, said Wednesday the ninth annual event will be moved from its original date of June 12 to 14 this year back to June 11 to 13, 2021. The decision to postpone the popular event, she said, was the right call.
“I actually feel really relieved because I feel like the stress of keeping my community safe was making me more stressed out than actually just calling it,” said Stephenson.
Tiny Lights is the biggest event of the year in the small community of 245 people. A report published in June 2019 by Victoria’s Royal Roads University and Creative BC found the three-day festival made a $700,000 economic impact on the region.
It’s also among the earliest summer festivals to run in B.C., the majority of which are scheduled throughout July and August, and the first to announce it is postponing.
Organizers for Shambhala Music Festival near Salmo and the Kaslo Jazz Etc. festival have said they are still planning to hold their events.
Stephenson said organizers across the province are grappling with whether or not to postpone. Many of the considerations for doing so are tied to financial concerns.
“I know that every single festival is struggling with this right now, because they are booking people,” she said. “How do you advertise right now? You can’t.”
Several of the biggest music festivals across the globe, such as Glastonbury in England and Coachella in California, have already announced postponed dates to either later this year or in 2021.
Debbi Salmonsen, executive director of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, is among those organizers weighing their options.
The festival, which is currently scheduled to run July 17 to 19 at the city’s Jericho Beach Park, is one of the biggest in B.C. Salmonsen said 10,000 to 15,000 people attend the event daily, along with up to 1,500 volunteers and more than 40 acts.
The logistics of training those volunteers and signing contracts to bring in staples such as fencing, public toilets and food vendors, Salmonsen said, mean she needs a minimum of 14 weeks to bring everything together ahead of the festival’s scheduled dates.
“They are complex things to organize, small or large. Large is just a bigger scale, more people involved, longer timeline to be set up,” said Salmonsen, who added a final decision will be made about the folk festival in April.
“So we are consciously optimistic. We haven’t made a decision for our own festival yet, but certainly the board and three key staff we have are monitoring it daily.”
Tiny Lights and the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, like many such events, are run by non-profit organizations that depend on grants and ticket sales to operate.
In B.C., grants come from organizations such as Creative BC and the BC Arts Council, the latter of which has said it won’t ask for refunds on expenses already paid for from its grants.
But Stephenson said many funders have yet to make a decision about the grants they’ve committed to for this year. That uncertainty, she said, is being weighing on all non-profits in B.C., and not just music festivals.
“So because they haven’t decided their policy about what they are going to do, it was really difficult for us to figure out what we’re going to do too. That’s a general industry problem, and I think it’s why people are having a hard time with these.”
Festivals have also been collecting ticket sales for months.
Tiny Lights opened ticket sales last October. Stephenson said her team is hoping to hold onto those sales until next year since refunds aren’t an option.
“If we had to refund all of our ticket payments we would not be OK. If we can hold onto them until next year, that gives us a chance to be financially OK for next year.”
Salmonsen said her festival’s sales began in December, and that a decision about refunds is among the many her team is being forced to contemplate.
“We’re also all at the mercy of ticket sales,” said Salmonsen. “Different festivals and different organizations have different budget concerns they’re going to need to deal with, with a likely significant drop in ticket sales if not a complete treatise on them as people figure out what’s happening.”
Revenue from ticket sales, in many cases, has also already been spent on deposits for booked artists.
At smaller festivals like Tiny Lights, those deposits give musicians financial certainty during tours where Stephenson said they might make around $500 per show. For larger shows like the folk festival, the deposits might cover expenses for artists travelling from abroad.
But for organizers, that money can’t be recovered once an artist is booked, which in turn delays lineup announcements by festivals hesitant to spend during the outbreak.
Stephenson said she recently spoke to another organizer at a festival outside the Kootenays currently scheduled for August that pays a $2,500 deposit to musicians.
“They were like, if we pay all these out, they’re not refundable. If we pay out $15,000, $20,000 deposits to people and it’s not refundable and our funders pull out our funding because we postpone, we are screwed as an organization. We can’t do this ever again.”
But if the shows don’t go on then Salmonsen said it will place a considerable financial burden on an entire industry in the province.
“Musicians, arts administrators, none of us know what’s going to happen to our jobs, our ability to pay rent, etc,” she said. “So we also care what happens to the musicians as well as our festival, our contracting crew who rely on us, the vendors who come in and sell scarves, carved artwork, food.
“All those things, it’s a really big ecosystem.”