A lot of great things have happened in Seattle. Grunge. Coffee. Software. Amazon. And Bumbershoot, our Labor Day weekend music and arts festival. In fact, the site of the 1962 World’s Fair, now known as Seattle Center, is the site of Bumbershoot. Through it all, Seattle had managed to somehow keep a relatively low profile. It used to be known as a place you could drift away to and that appealed to countless artists and dreamers. But, in the span of a generation, it has gone from being called “the nicest place to live in America” to being called “the fastest growing city in America.” That is quite a leap and it does not come without a steep price to pay.
The Anschutz Corporation’s AEG LIVE division bought out Seattle’s beloved Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival from local nonprofit, One Reel. Bumbershoot was an emblem of that quirky egalitarian spirit that Seattle has been known for. Last year, was the first year under the control of AEG LIVE. The price hike on tickets raised eyebrows. People noticed. Locals noticed, for sure. Here is my recap from last year.
Here’s the thing, Bumbershoot has been in need of better organization for some time. Crowds keep growing while overall entertainment, including the arts, keeps decreasing. Like it or not, the Bumbershoot that all of us grew up with is no more. It’s not a lot of quirky, authentic, indie fun anymore. There is still a glimmer of the old ghost but it’s now mostly a corporate brand. Can we turn that around? I wish we could. There is a price to pay for being the biggest–and it’s too high a price! Burning Man was once just an authentic feel good thing but no more. So too for good ole Bumbershoot. Bumbershoot no more.
Has Bumbershoot Become Seattle’s Burning Man? Photo: Trey Ratcliff / Flickr
EDITOR’S NOTE: There’s a great piece in The Seattle Times by Danny Westneat that sheds light on the upsurge in Bumbershoot ticket prices. I wasn’t aware of this development but Bumbershoot, according to Westneat, is now run by Anschutz Entertainment Group. That doesn’t change what I have to say below. But it adds more information to work with. Read it here.
For those of you in Seattle, Bumbershoot is this Labor Day weekend, September 5, 6, and 7, 2015. I suggest that you NOT go. That is, unless you really want to burn through what have recently shot up to $100/day tickets. I was reading an insightful look at how Burning Man went from a groovy and authentic happening to a corporate playland just the other day. And it got me to thinking about Bumbershoot. If nothing else, maybe this could open up some discussion.
“Today is the last day to buy the $29 any day tickets, with which you can buy now and choose later.” — The Bumbershoot website, May 31, 2011
For those in Seattle, this letter to Bumbershoot may seem harsh or even unpatriotic somehow. But hear me out. For those outside of Seattle, here’s a taste of what happens when something good turns sour. Just how do you go from a $5/day, to a $30/day, to a staggering $100/day event–and pretend nothing’s wrong? And now you’ve got additional VIP-enhanced ticket prices too for an event that originally was simply a place to hear a lot of great music. At some point, Bumbershoot had no business expanding in size. It’s still held within the 74-acre Seattle Center. Total attendance last year was estimated to be 125,000 visitors. The venue has NOT gotten any bigger. Bumbershoot is a study in an overwhelmingly clogged gridlock of humanity. At some point, bigger is by no means better. That should be a lesson to the City of Seattle in general. And it should be something that compels Bumbershoot to stop and rethink.
What is, or was, Bumbershoot? This article from The Seattle Times from Sunday, August 27, 2000, proves useful. Read it here.
I wish we could somehow turn back the clock and return to a more carefree time. I’m wondering if that’s possible. I believe that it is. How do other similar events manage to entertain the city for a weekend and even do it for free? Now, I fully understand that there is only one Bumbershoot but I think you could learn a lot from the free and fun Northwest Folklife Festival. Sure, they incur plenty of expenses themselves and they make an organized effort to collect donations. Couldn’t Bumberhoot make a serious effort to drop ticket prices and seek out donations?
You don’t have to be an old fogie to recall when it was relatively cheap to buy tickets to go to Bumbershoot, Seattle’s landmark music and arts festival. Just observe the notice above. $30/day tickets were still a reality only four short years ago! Maybe you have to be a bit older to recall when it was totally affordable to the point that you bought a pass for the whole shebang without blinking an eye. And for you new locals, check this out, the event used to be free!
The Wikipedia post on Bumbershoot is rather thin. But it begins with one intriguing fact: the event was first run by the City of Seattle. It began in 1971 as a way to lift everyone’s spirits amid a major economic slump. Talk about doing the right thing! Bumbershoot ultimately fell under the control of the nonprofit, One Reel, which is known for a very expensive cabaret show, Teatro Zinzanni. I’m sorry but I’ve tried it, byway of a gift, and found their glitzy dinner theater extravaganza to be an overpriced spectacle. And I see that is what has become of Bumbershoot. As a nonprofit, you would think that One Reel would have it worked out where its ongoing Teatro Zinzanni, geared to upscale customers, would help finance the so-called people’s festival, Bumbershoot.
Anyway, all I wish to do here is say that I’ve got some good memories from Bumbershoot. However, I’ve also seen Bumbershoot become less accessible and more limited in its overall offerings. Keep in mind, I do appreciate that these packaged experiences don’t come cheap. I used to go to Lollapalooza when it was affordable too. Well, no one is going to boycott one of these events if they’ve convinced themselves it’s the most amazing thing ever. Bumbershoot used to be pretty amazing but I’ve seen the life sucked out of it. And part of the problem, the ongoing problem that will only get worse, is too many people! So, to some extent, if I were to persuade anyone to stay home, I’m doing Bumbershoot a huge favor.
I’m sorry, Bumbershoot. I’m just not feeling the love, despite your branding yourself as a people’s festival. But I still hold out some hope. Maybe you’ve just let yourself fly too close to the sun. It’s time to come down back to your roots. What do you say, Bumbershoot? Do you really want to be seen as Seattle’s Burning Man, a rich person’s version of cutting loose and having fun? I hope this may strike a chord with some old Bumbershoot fans from over the years. Again, I’m sorry but I had to say something. Did you think that no one would notice the skyrocketing prices? Or, if they did take note, did you think people would simply shrug it off? Well, maybe you did. But I speak for those who can’t just shrug it off. If you are truly a people’s festival, you will find a way to scale back and bring this event back to the people. Bumbershoot, you are no longer being true to yourself.
Think about it. Help me understand. But, at the end of the day, there’s got to be a way to lower those ticket prices. Don’t worry, we won’t miss any of the razzle dazzle that you may feel you need to cut from the schedule. One Reel, you can save that for Teatro Zinzanni. Hey, the show wasn’t all that bad. Just consider this: You won’t lose your core audience if you scale back and scaling back can be a good thing. Also look at it this way, it is a very practical idea. I miss you guys already.