— by Christopher Johnson —
When A.J. Niland, CEO of Louisiana-based Huka Entertainment, met RCMP officers before his inaugural event, he asked them to please smile.
For the most part, people were indeed smiling at the Pemberton Music Festival, Niland’s first foray into Canada. Without sweltering crowds, it was the best chance ever to see amazing bands up close on a variety of stages.
But creating a great festival takes much more than smiles.
Despite the tireless work of a lot of good people from the US and Canada, Pemberton’s turnout was woefully low, nowhere near the estimated 40,000 of 2008 or the expectation of 25,000 this year. Huka probably blew a lot of dough, and it’s hard to imagine how they’ll come back next year. Some fans and entertainment writers might disagree, but in my view — based on covering dozens of festivals — Pemberton was the worst-organized festival I’ve ever attended. And that’s not only because I wasn’t allowed to attend.
Here’s some of their rookie mistakes, and how they — or preferably another organizer — can improve next time.
1–Niland wanted to create the next Coachella, near a First Nations village of 2000, in a country and culture he knows almost nothing about. But instead of five days of comedians and 100 bands, he should have aimed for pulling off a two-day Saturday and Sunday fest, with possibly a few bands Friday night to warm up arriving fans, as Summersonic does in Tokyo.
Niland and Huka spent much money and energy on solving the 2008 traffic problem. The shuttle bus system between Whistler and Pemberton worked well, other than a few lines and waits not more than an hour.
Instead, there was a low turnout — only 150 for Downie (not 15,000 as he deserves) — on Thursday. This did indeed solve the traffic problem; nobody was on the road Thursday night, Friday night, or any other time for that matter.
2–Huka forgot to tell Canada they were invited to a festival. Did they spend any money on advertising in national TV or print media? I saw a few well-designed ads in Pique News, and it worked — many people came from Pemberton and Whistler. Of course, many of those were paid workers or volunteers who got free passes.
Almost nobody other than a few Vancouver rags promoted the festival until a lone wire service reporter moved a preview piece through CTV, CBC, the Globe and Mail, the National Post and dozens of other mainstream outlets. That happened about a week before the event — too late for people to make plans.
3–It was the worst possible timing. Pemberton coincided with the Vancouver Folk Festival, the mother of Vancouver music fests, as well as Fusion, which attracts massive crowds in Surrey. Pemberton probably spent the most money and got the lowest turnout of the three. Why should people leave beautiful Vancouver in July for unpredictable or extreme mountain weather 150 kilometers north amid forest fires or thunderstorms? They shouldn’t, and they didn’t.
The Ironman competition and other events reportedly didn’t give Huka many good options. But going head-to-head with VFF and Fusion was the worst possible choice. Fuji Rock and Summersonic in Japan, or Glastonbury and Reading in England, would kill each other if they ran simultaneously. So they don’t. In Germany, Hurricane and Southside work on the same weekend because bands play both events, and each event caters to a different region. For this reason alone, Huka seemed incredibly wrongheaded from the outset.
4–Host the media, don’t be hostile toward them. Veteran Vancouver publicist Teresa Trovato might be a nice person in a parallel universe but she acted like the passive-aggressive PR rep from hell and gave a bad rep to the US crew who seemed happy just to be in Canada for the first time. Most festivals set an accreditation deadline weeks or months in advance, and tell people who’s accepted or rejected right away (giving them weeks to fight over it or surrender peacefully). Trovato and Huka set a July 11 deadline, four days before the festival. Then, they inexplicable moved the goalposts to July 8, and falsely accused people (such as this reporter) of being “too late” by writing an application letter July 3. Even two days before the festival, many applicants still had no answer, and had no way of planning coverage. The result? Scant pre-festival coverage, and small crowds.
Trying to exclude bonafide journalists on a technicality or a whim was the public relations equivalent of “gotcha journalism” — and it backfired miserably for all parties. Only about 1 out of every 100 journalists loves music enough to go out of their way on a weekend to work at a festival, often for low or no pay. Rejecting them is a good way to kill your greatest fans. And that’s certainly what Huka did to this reporter.
5–Don’t kill or harm your guests. First impressions mean everything to music fans; you know right away if you like a band or not. Ditto for festivals. So, Huka “welcomed” guests by making them march 3 kilometers (about one hour) with all their camping gear from the parking lot to the campsite all the way around the concert grounds. It’s not clear how Regina engineering student Nick Phongsawath, 21, died around 6 pm Friday in the campground. But at that same time, many campers were complaining about the arduous hike, and I had to sit down due to heat-stroke, just from standing up with heavy camera gear under the hot mountain sun.
To shorten the trek, they could have created a corridor down the middle of the site. Or they could have put the campsite closer to the road, and the music area against the forest. Or they could have reduced the music audience space to allow a temporary parking point to drop off gear along the way from Whistler. But it’s as if designers completely forgot about their customers. Organizers falsely promised “it’s only a 15-minute walk” and “we’ll help you”, but I saw only two delivery men with quads, and a few buggies to haul gear. Starting a festival in a nasty mood might work at a Black Sabbath or Metallica gig, but it drew beaucoup complaints at Pemberton.
6–Remember that fans enjoy listening to music, not just cacophony. Soundgarden has mellifluous moments of quiet musing before soaring guitars and vocals kick in.
But during their 6:30 pm to 8 pm show, those wondrous moments were often drowned out by acts on other stages such as the bad-ass beats of Kendrick Lamar.
Fans also complained that Soundgarden or other bands were either too loud or not loud enough. Midsize events like Pohoda in Slovakia solve this problem by staggering start and finish times. It’s wonderful to hear Smashing Pumpkins end and Sigur Ros begin as you rush to another stage. But Pemberton often sounded like a Thai temple fair, without the monks and spices.
7–Fold your cards, cut your losses, and go back to Louisiana. Instead of trying to create Coachella in Canada overnight, Niland and Huka should focus on growing their business down in Alabama, where Hang-Out got nice reviews thanks to artists like Government Mule.
(see photos of The Mule here: http://globalitemusic.com/2014/06/14/government-mule-at-billboard-live-in-tokyo/)
The Huka staff, many enjoying Canada for the first time, seemed nice enough. But they played into Canadian sensitivities by saying stuff like “what does RCMP stand for” or “who is Gord Downie”. They’ve probably sealed their fate by either refusing to pay local Lil’Wat First Nation workers or “promising” to pay them end of August. You simply can’t walk into a mountain village and treat folks like that and expect them to welcome you back.
Taking 24 hours to issue a statement on their website about the “suspicious death” created damaging rumors that a man was murdered and the killer was on the loose, possibly sleeping next to you. It wasn’t enough for Trovato to write: “The RCMP are confident that this was an isolated incident and that the festival site is safe and well organized.” It seemed insincere, and too late.
Huka simply failed to communicate with Canadians on almost every level, especially in a region known for angsty folks who like sharing their feelings. They didn’t tell the crowd why Kendrick Lamar was 50 minutes late. They didn’t announce a man was dead, police are handling it, and everybody should stay partying. They didn’t create a bridge of trust between organizers and fans. Huka folks probably didn’t mean to do this, but they stepped on toes and hurt feelings. British Columbians still haven’t forgotten about the debacle of 2008, and they won’t likely forget this one either.