The music festival scene is thriving in the Pacific Northwest, but concertgoers are spending more to see summer shows.
At the Great Idea Music Festival, for example, ticket prices increased $5 this year. The festival is held at the Enchanted Forest theme park near Salem. For one day each summer, the park has more to offer than gingerbread houses and animatronic nursery-rhyme features. Beyond the park’s bobsled rides, faux Wild West town and kid-friendly Renaissance architecture, the garage rock group Phantom! is rattling the roof of a nearby concession stand.
Made up of Chris Marsiglia, Tyrone Morato and Blake Ferrin, Phantom! says the Great Idea festival is hands-down one of the most unusual venues they’ve ever played.
“There’s probably not a lot of places where you can watch a rock show and then crawl through the Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole,” Ferrin says.
Also at the festival is performer Daniel Rafn, a Portland musician whose style ranges from experimental folk to electronic pop. He’s setting up his band equipment on what is usually a puppet stage.
“This is where they put on Pinnocchio and other such fairy tale plays,” he says. “It’s actually a really hilarious venue for a show.”
Great Idea organizer Doug Hoffman says the logistics went more smoothly than ever this year, even with more than 30 acts hauling gear up and down the Enchanted Forest’s steep hillside trails. Ticket prices for the Great Idea went up fractionally this year, from $30 to $35. Advance prices held steady at $22 in the weeks before the show.
The trend in asking concertgoers to pay more isn’t confined to small, grass-roots festivals. The reasons vary, but organizers say the more popular the festival, the tougher the decisions that have to be made about who’s getting in and how much they’ll pay.
One of the biggest events of the summer is Portland’s Waterfront Blues Festival, benefiting the Oregon Food Bank. For almost a decade, organizers let people in for $10 and two cans of food per day. But this year, Oregon Food Bank required everyone attending the final day to buy a $50 ticket.
Laura Golino de Lovato, the Oregon Food Bank’s director of marketing, says festival organizers came up with the pricing structure after they realized they had a huge Sunday schedule and weren’t sure if the site could handle the whole crowd. Then, de Lovato says, they also thought about fundraising.
“It’s interesting,” de Lovato says. “We’re so fortunate to have a really generous community, but we also have only about only 55 percent of people who come into the event that pay. So there’s still a lot of people taking advantage of what they perceive to be a free event.”
She says the Oregon Food Bank doesn’t get big breaks on artists’ fees, even though it’s a charity event.
For their money, concertgoers this year got a packed lineup featuring Mavis Staples, Taj Mahal and a closing set by Robert Plant. The Oregon Food Bank grossed a record $1.3 million over the July Fourth weekend, even with the new Sunday policy. De Lovato says, depending on next year’s bookings, they may try the Sunday ticket again.
Another festival exploring its growth boundaries is Pickathon. This was its 14th year on a pastoral farm east of Portland.
Organized by a volunteer core of die-hard music fans, it’s meticulously curated. Performances include everything from country singer Dale Watson to emerging local acts like Portland’s Old Light, as well as hip-hop experimentalists Shabazz Palaces and the indie rock queen Feist. The festival has cultivated the kind of family atmosphere where impromptu baseball games break out as parents lounge under tents.
“We are at a capacity and not planning on growing,” says Zale Schoenborn, one of the festival’s cofounders. “Our audience really thinks that the quality is super-special to them. We could sell three to five times more tickets, theoretically, here, but the experience would not be Pickathon.”
The prices for Pickaton went up a lot this year. Weekend passes that went for $190 last year sold for $260 this year. That’s not counting parking passes or other permits. Pickathon has made an effort to stay accessible, offering admission to 1,000 volunteers who are willing to trade a few hours of work time for a free pass. But the festival also didn’t sell out for the first time in a few years.
Schoenborn says about 3,500 people bought tickets this year. He knows some folks were kept away by the cost. But a lot of people did come back, and that’s key for a festival without investors — it lives or dies on ticket sales.
Schoenborn says the all-volunteer organizers have been wrestling with some big questions: “Can you see yourself doing this for the next 10 years; what does it look like for you?” versus “Isn’t this a great dream?”
“When you start on a festival like this, it’s just the passion of pulling it off. That’s not a sustainable vibe. So that conversation’s been very present for us in the last couple years,” Schoenborn says.
Portlanders Brenna and Judson Moore were first-timers at Pickathon this summer.
“Just the gross amount for getting in and ticketing was right under $700,” Judson Moore says. When asked if the event was worth the money, Brenna Moore says, “We’re still evaluating.”
The Moores were impressed with the festival grounds. It’s a private farm with pristine camping spaces and a view of Mount Hood — a good place to take their 3-year-old.
Judson Moore sees ticket prices going up all over the place.
“The overall cost of the event has been somewhat tempered by the overall cost of music events in general going up,” he says.
Music sales have been going steadily down, gutted by free music sharing and low-cost downloads, so tickets to live shows are one of the few ways the music industry can still garner profits.
Competition for ticket dollars might only intensify next year. New festivals are sprouting up in places like Lane County, and the Sasquatch Festival has announced it will expand into an entire second weekend next July in the Gorge.
If you’re still looking for a festival fix, you still have time. The Sisters Folk Festival is gearing up in Central Oregon starting Friday, September 6. MusicFest Northwest gets under way in Portland next Tuesday, September 3.