The story of Bluesfest: How a little Ottawa music show became a juggernaut

It was the very first edition of the Ottawa Blues Festival, and things were not looking good.

After a day of rain, and shortly before showtime on Friday, July 8, 1994, there was a disappointing 60 or 70 ticketholders at the venue, Major’s Hill Park.

Some had bought the $4 advance one-day tickets, others waited until the last minute and paid the $5 premium price at the gate.

They were there for headliners Clarence Clemons, Buckwheat Zydeco and Randy Bachman.

The organizing committee, all volunteers, had hope but no expectations. They didn’t know whether the one-off series of weekend concerts would live beyond the first weekend and any smart betting person would certainly have wagered against longevity. That same year, Festival Franco and a Victoria Island festival had already crumbled under debt and public apathy.

But those $5 latecomers arrived in sufficient numbers to lift the atmosphere of impending doom and as the weekend progressed, the crowds grew.

Bluesfest had an inaugural budget of $100,000, half of which was earmarked for artist fees, the rest for infrastructure — stage, trailer and other equipment rentals. Some of the money they had raised, the remainder was in potential revenue.

It was typical, in that first three-day festival, and for subsequent early Bluesfest versions, for a portion of the artist fees to be paid from the beer money, with runs to the foreign exchange outlet at the Ottawa Airport for U.S. dollars in which many of the artists were, and are, paid.

How times have changed.

Bluesfest’s 24th edition, which will kick off Thursday, will cost $17 million to stage.

In the early years, bigger name acts performed for $10,000 to $20,000. Until 2007, and the move to the current LeBreton Flats location, Bluesfest was paying headliners — none of them superstars — a maximum $200,000. The move to LeBreton meant a significantly larger site and the need to invest in acts with enough pull to pack the field. Look back at that 2007 lineup and you’ll find Kanye West, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and the White Stripes.

A-list performers such as West, Red Hot Chili Peppers (2016), Foo Fighters (who will headline this year’s event), P!nk (2017) and Lady Gaga (2014) are expensive, command fees in the $1-million range.

Behind the scenes, Bluesfest has evolved from a top-down volunteer-run organization into a major not-for-profit corporation with 15 full-time staff working year round, hundreds of contractors, and at least 3,000 volunteers working the 10 festival days.

In the precarious world of music festivals, where utter failure is more common than sustained success, Bluesfest has carved out a niche in the North American big leagues.

Or as artistic director Mark Monahan puts it: “We no longer have to explain to anyone who we are.”

Laying out big money comes with risks, and Monahan admits he has made mistakes in thinking that an act that works well in one market will be well received in Ottawa.

“Markets are unique,” he said. “Ottawa audiences tend to be conservative and musically savvy, but you can’t always be certain what will work and what won’t. Over the last 10 years there have been hits and misses.”

When he booked Steely Dan for big dollars in 2008, Monahan says he was convinced it would be a runaway hit. It wasn’t.

More shocking was the 2010 Wednesday night jam band gig on the main stage with Grateful Dead stalwarts Phil Lesh and Bob Weir who played to a small knot of Dead Heads.

“I thought for sure that would work,” said Monahan, “but it was a disaster. In the States, they have a huge cult following, but up here it means nothing.”\

The unpredictable can also be positive, as in 2007 when an agent in the States contacted Monahan to rave about a Toronto kid who was “going to be huge.”

Monahan needed an act to open ahead of Great Big Sea so decided to give the Toronto kid a shot. He drew a huge crowd.

The kid?


“Sometimes you book an act and you don’t understand what you’ve got,” said Monahan. “I didn’t know who Drake was. Then again, five years ago we brought in The Weeknd and there was no one there.”

Booking acts for the festival begins early — Monahan already has offers out for 2019 — and begins with the need for at least 20-30 performers with some name recognition.

“It tends to happen organically,” he said. “Most of our partners — Montreal Jazz, Osheaga included — are around the same time as us.

“You can’t operate in a vacuum in this business,” he added. “You network to get intelligence on how acts have done elsewhere but sometimes it has to come down to a gut feeling, because there is no text book.”

Veteran Ottawa concert promoter Dennis Ruffo, who has been bringing acts into Ottawa since the late 1970s, says Bluesfest is a major music festival thriving in a secondary market.

“Ottawa was always a secondary market until we got the Canadian Tire Centre,” he said. “But to an extent, we still have secondary status. It’s cheaper for A-list artists to do two or three shows in Montreal or Toronto and bring Ottawa fans to them. So Bluesfest has to pay them a lot of money to get those A-list performers”

“Monahan has taken chances and to an extent turned his back on the traditional festival audience by bringing in the likes of Lady Gaga, P!nk and the EDM because he has needed to grow the Bluesfest audience,’ added Ruffo. “There simply aren’t enough artists out there to sustain that older audience demographic. So he’s been smart and moved with the times.”

Monahan and his fellow volunteers had proof enough after Year 3 that they had an enthusiastic audience for a weekend music festival but didn’t know how to grow it into a viable, sustainable business.

The answer – or at least part of it – came during the 1995 festival, when Mitel’s investor relations director asked Monahan if he’d considered getting corporate sponsors. Monahan said he didn’t know how.

That led to a cheque for $5,000 and Mitel becoming the festival’s first sponsor.

“It was found money,” laughed Monahan. “I couldn’t believe it.”

If Bluesfest still wasn’t top of Ottawa’s mind, the 1998 edition at Confederation Park starring the legendary Ray Charles changed that overnight. Charles packed the park, Elgin Street sidewalks and every other nook and cranny where a free sighting of the stage could be had.

Ottawa was in the midst of its high-tech boom, and there was money to spend.

CIBC, seeking to host its wealthy investors from the high-tech sector, came knocking along with Bell, Labatt and later the first “title” sponsor CISCO.

From Mitel’s initial $5,000, the sponsors were now paying in excess of $100,000 for visibility and other perks at the festival site. Today, sponsors are paying up to seven figures.

According to the research firm Acuity, Bluesfest generates about $30 million in local “ripple revenue”’ during its 10 days — a calculation that includes hotels, restaurants, cabs and other cash spent offsite by festivalgoers.

There are music festivals, Ottawa and Montreal Jazz included, that have proven staying power, but many others that have arrived with a splash and folded.

Monahan learned his own lesson in that regard 15 years ago, when Bluesfest tried, and failed, to establish the festival in Toronto.

“We had this notion that we had a successful formula so we could duplicate it elsewhere,” he said. “Toronto was logical, because they didn’t have a festival. We tried to run in from Ottawa but it didn’t work. We had no roots in the Toronto community.”

Music is the product Bluesfest sells. Between 75 and 80 per cent of its revenue is driven by consumers who buy the tickets, buy the beverages, the food and the merchandise.

Beer is a major revenue-generator, but Monahan says the overall financial health of the festival is not dependent on beer sales alone and the connection between performers and beer pours is exaggerated.

“You can’t program artists just to sell beer,” he said. “People tend to spend the same amount per head each year, but on different things. The youth audience is not buying alcohol but they are buying other things. Kanye West, for example, set a record for merchandise sales.”

A sense of community and a desire to be part of the action is the key festival longevity, figures Monahan.

“To an extent, it speaks to the power of social media,” said Monahan. “People get caught up in the ‘My friends are going so I’m going too.’ A month before the festival, they weren’t interested. Two days before a show, they decide they want to go.

“So in a general sense, that’s what it all boils down to: Community and an opportunity for people to get together to do something that is fun and reasonably accessible.”


55% – Ottawans who have been to Bluesfest in past five years

25,000-30,000 – Average daily audience

300,000 – Estimated # of beers consumed during festival

3,500 – volunteers

$150,000 – Amount paid to local artists to date


Original article written by Chris Cobb – Ottawa Citizen.

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