After 28 years of free entry, the Oregon Food Bank will require tickets for admission to its annual Waterfront Blues Festival.
Held every July Fourth weekend, the festival is a high watermark in Portland’s summer calendar and the biggest music festival in Oregon, regularly drawing crowds over 100,000.
But it’s also the kind of place at which guitar legend Buddy Guy can just jump down off the stage and walk around in the crowd, as he did last year. The crowd is visibly slack-jawed in the smart phone video of the performance that popped up online.
But not all those people grooving on their blankets are fully participating in the festival and its mission, raising money for those in need.
Tara Taylor is the Oregon Food Bank’s lead festival organizer. She says the Food Bank has come to the conclusion it’s got to start charging.
“We simply cannot afford to run it any more,” Taylor said. “We need more people to pay. Frankly, 40 percent of those who come through the gate do not contribute. It’s sad but we’ve seen this number stable for many years, and the need for food assistance has not gone down.”
Taylor says the Food Bank considered cost cutting measures, like reducing the length of the festival.
“But when you have [an event] of this size,” Taylor says, “so much of the festival is fixed costs. You end up not saving that much money. What makes the festival viable is throughout — getting folks down to the park. We’re trying to keep it as reasonably priced as we can.”
In years past, audiences were encouraged to make a $10 donation at the gate. This year, everyone entering the festival will have to pay a $10 admission.
Twice, the festival has raised as much as $1 million — before expenses. But the bigger the crowds, the more security costs have grown.
Then there’s the cost of getting all those musicians to Portland.
The festival mixes big names like Los Lobos, Robert Plant and Boz Scaggs, with hometown heroes like Curtis Salgado, the late Linda Hornbuckle and many others.
Peter Damman — a musician who’s played around town for years — is the festival’s artistic director. Sometimes, he says, the festival benefits from its status as a mission-driven fundraiser.
“Steve Miller played one year,” Damman said. “We were prepared to pay him. We had a big check for him at the end of the set. He was so moved by the entire experience, he wrote the check back over to the Food Bank.”
But that kind of largesse is not not something the festival can bet on.
“The reality,” Damman says, “is we’re competing with all the other concert promoters, not just here in town, but all over the world on Fourth of July weekend. So if we make an offer to Buddy Guy … he’s got an offer on the table from a festival in France and another in Atlanta. At the end of the day they’re going to pencil it all out and do what they’ve got to do.”
Some of the pressure appears to stem from the music industry’s changing landscape. Record sales aren’t what they used to be. In 2013, a Northwestern University professor published a survey of 5,000 musicians finding that, across genres, artists were only earning 6 percent of their income from sound recordings. Touring and live shows comprised 28 percent.
Scott Pemberton is a genre-bending guitarist based in Portland. He plays lots of festivals — including the Waterfront Blues Fest in years past. And when he did, he says he took less than his usual rate. Pemberton says for a good cause, a local charity, he was glad to help out. But there’s only so many times musicians can do that.
“In order to be a performing artist — and I guess this is kind of obvious— you have to perform,” Pemberton says. “And you have to perform a lot.”
The realities of touring life include gas money, hotels, meals, advertising and pay for the band. Those expenses remain, even for artists who take a cheaper rate. Of course, some artists do as Pemberton does, and find ways to work charity gigs into their touring plans.
“A lot of it would have to do with availability,” Pemberton says. Sometimes festivals have ratios they’ll offer for compensation. “Some pay, but less than normal. Sometimes they’d ask you to almost play for free.”
Waterfront Blues Festival organizers say they’ll continue to try to get maximum bang for the booking buck, catching artists as they pass through and coordinating as much as they can with other festivals.
But the days of getting over a hundred bands, fireworks, security, and more just on donations are gone. Anyone wanting to see recently confirmed artists such as Dr. John or an all-star Prince set featuring Liv Warfield, Tyrone Hendrix and other Paisley Park alums should be ready to pay $10 a head.
The festival will still be glad to accept food donations at the gate.