Bluesfest will survive pandemic but tickets may be more expensive next year, says executive director

Lynn Saxberg – Ottawa Citizen

The crowd at Bluesfest Sunday, July 14, 2019, closing night of the festival.   Ashley Fraser/Postmedia
The crowd at Bluesfest Sunday, July 14, 2019, closing night of the festival. PHOTO BY ASHLEY FRASER /Postmedia

Despite the loss of revenue from the cancellation of this year’s edition of Bluesfest, executive director Mark Monahan says the festival will survive, thanks to the financial support of government and the corporate sponsors that stuck with the event. 

But don’t be surprised if tickets are more expensive next year.

“Certainly the cancellation of the event means that we are not going to have a positive year,” Monahan said in an interview. “But the government programs that have been offered have certainly been a big help to weather the storm.” 

Although the festival was unable to generate revenue from sales of tickets, beverages or merchandise, neither did it face the huge expense of setting up and operating the site. 

In a normal year, Bluesfest is Ottawa’s biggest summer music festival, presenting more than 200 acts on multiple stages and attracting up to 300,000 fans over its 10-day duration. It takes place at LeBreton Flats park on the grounds of the Canadian War Museum. 

Still, retaining sponsorship was a tough sell in a year when many businesses are struggling.“Many corporate sponsors support your event because of the exposure they gain from being associated with it, and not having an event made it very difficult to deliver most of those benefits,” he said. 

“But even if some of them didn’t give us the full amount of what they had intended, they did give us some financial support to help us get through this, and that’s really important.” 

He said the organization wanted to keep the team of 15 full-timers in their jobs, and the federal government’s wage-subsidy program helped make that possible. 

Like many Canadian festivals, Bluesfest is a not-for-profit organization. It runs the main event, Bluesfest, as well as CityFolk, Marvest and the Festival of Small Halls, and coordinates several community music-education and talent-development programs, including Blues in the Schools, Be in the Band, and the What’s in The Song songwriting program.

“The motivation isn’t about making money,” Monahan said. “We feel it’s important to keep the staff on, and we hope that next year will be somewhat normal and we’ll be able to put on an outdoor event,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Monahan and his staff have kept busy by organizing the drive-in concert series in August and the Chef’s Table dinner-and-show collaboration on the patio of the National Arts Centre’s restaurant, 1 Elgin, where patrons enjoy a chef-prepared farm-to-table feast while watching live music being performed from a boat in the Rideau Canal. It’s been a big hit, with strong demand for all seven performances this month. 

With the final two Chef’s Table events scheduled this weekend, at a price of $125 per person, Monahan says the endeavour shows people will pay more for a unique experience.

“What we’re finding is that if you provide an experience, people are willing to pay,” he said. “If you’re careful and you curate the lineup well and you give people a good experience, and they believe that you’re going to deliver on that, they’re willing to pay more. This is a bit of a lesson for us.”

The Bluesfest team is also working on a series of concerts for the Festival of Small Halls, which presents Canadian artists in community venues in small towns around Eastern Ontario. An announcement on dates, venues and artists is expected Thursday. 

Another series of concerts, to be livestreamed under the CityFolk banner, is in the works for November. 

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