A Missouri music festival got canceled weeks before opening, underlining a 'risky business'
Treeline Music Festival in Columbia, Missouri, was supposed to feature popular bands like Japanese Breakfast, MUNA and Salt-N-Pepa. But the festival owners announced they would be calling off the event, citing low ticket sales and "significantly higher than expected expenses."
When organizers announced the cancellation of Columbia’s Treeline Music Fest, it joined a number of canceled music festivals in recent years in a risky industry where profits are hard to produce.
Organizers said in social media poststhat “significantly higher than expected expenses” made it impossible to put on Treeline, which was formerly known as Roots N Blues.
Festival co-owners Tracy Lane and Shay Jasper told the Columbia Daily Tribune they wanted to avoid cancellation, but a combination of increased costs, decreased sponsorship money and ticket sales below pre-pandemic levels forced them to call off the event.
Treeline did not respond to Missouri Business Alert’s requests for comment.
Richard King, the founder of Roots N Blues and former owner of the Blue Note in downtown Columbia, said creating and executing music festivals is a logistically complicated and expensive task.
King said his first step in planning music festivals is typically confirming the date with agents for the bands, followed by determining the marketing plan and budget. Organizers must also hire a sound company, find sponsors and handle smaller details like ticketing and ordering fencing for the event space.
“You’re working with a lot of people, so you're trusting a lot of people that are going to keep their end of the bargain up,” he said.
Brian Cohen, founder of LouFest in St. Louis, said music festivals and other similar events have “100 moving pieces” to consider, with the costliest being the artists, followed by production, such as building stages and creating the infrastructure to host the event.
LouFest began in 2010, though Cohen left after 2015 and has since created Confluence, an “ideas festival” in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that combines art, music, science and technology.
Shortly after Cohen left LouFest, the festival began experiencing difficulties. It ultimately met its demise in 2018, when financial issues caused organizers to cancel the event.
Nationally, cancellations have struck multiple high-profile festivals in recent months. They include Philadelphia’s Made in America event, which was supposed to take place Labor Day weekend, as well as Block Party, a Chicago music festival that ended its 18-year run after the founder felt it became too difficult to manage and profit from.
Profit can be hard to come by in this industry, and it often takes years before organizers can make money off of their investment, both King and Cohen said.
King said the expenses and bills associated with festivals are “never ending” and can take a long time to accumulate and sort through, making it complicated for organizers to determine if they made any profit.
“(Once you’ve) paid your taxes and all that good stuff, then you sit down and figure out if you made any money,” he said. “I'm the last guy in line.”
Since the pandemic, music festivals have only gotten more expensive to put on. Between inflation and supply chain issues, costs for everything from performance fees to porta potties have escalated, said Bob Brecht, managing partner of TSE Entertainment, an entertainment service agency in Austin, Texas.
“A lot of it is people trying to make up for lost income, especially with artists and production companies,” Brecht said.
Overall, the cost of producing a music festival today is about 25% to 30% higher than it was in 2019, he said. On top of that, it takes about three to five years to make a profit off a music festival that has just launched.
“You gotta have deep pockets and investors and understand that you’re gonna lose money,” Brecht said. “Most promoters think that they can just jump into these things and make money year one, and then they find out how much things cost.”
He noted that the biggest moneymaker festivals are those taken over by big companies like Live Nation that have the means to fund larger festivals.
“It’s a risky business for independent organizers of small festivals,” he said.
The planning process is time-consuming, Cohen said, and usually extends far beyond the time period the event takes place. This year's Confluence festival will take place at the end of September. In November, the team will begin planning next year’s event.
“I think people may not have a full understanding of just how long a process it is and how fickle the revenue lines are,” Cohen said.
After Treeline’s cancellation this year, Cohen said it may be hard for the festival to come back next year and that it is often difficult for festivals to recover from a cancellation.
However, King is hopeful that his successors in charge of Treeline will be able to recover and festival goers begin to understand the behind-the-scenes work involved.
Despite the obstacles inherent in planning a music festival, both Cohen and King believe it is worth the headaches to create events that can bring communities together.
Cohen said the challenges “are just part of the package of that final payoff,” and that he puts in the work out of a love of bringing people together through shared experiences.
King said "you gotta be out of your mind" to put on a music festival, but that the work has its rewards.
"I’ve lived in this community for a long time and it’s something that I always wanted to do," he said.
"I personally had so many rewarding moments with so many different artists, meeting so many different people, working with so many different people. I was lucky.”
This story was originally published by the Missouri Business Alert, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.