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Facing the music: Summer concert festival organizers see no path ahead in pandemic

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TORONTO — Summer 2021 was supposed to mark the triumphant return of Canadian music festivals. Instead, it’s ushering in another season of disappointment.

As COVID-19 cases rage across the country, many of Canada’s beloved summer music events are falling like dominoes as organizers abandon any hope of a return this year.

Since the start of April, RBC Bluesfest in Ottawa, Country Thunder festivals in Craven, Sask. and Calgary, as well as folk festivals in Winnipeg and Edmonton have been among those who’ve announced cancellations.

And in the coming weeks, several other major music events are expected to make the final call on their own prospects of a 2021 festival season, in the shadow of strict health guidelines.

Todd Jenereaux, executive vice president of Republic Live, is one of those organizers faced with a looming deadline. His company operates Boots & Heats in Oro-Medonte, Ont., and as one of the province's biggest music festivals, it remains on the calendar for the long weekend in early August.

But he’s watched the prospects of holding this year’s country music extravaganza grow dimmer by the day.

“If you can't have more than 10 people together in one space in Ontario right now, it's a long way to get to 30,000 in August,” he said.

“We obviously have to deal with the reality of a deadline coming up that is going to be really hard for us to achieve … All we know is we can't do anything until things change. This is an industry that doesn't turn on a dime either. We can't get the go-ahead on Tuesday and be open on Friday."

Festival organizers across the country say they’ve faced similar uncertainties as provinces make summertime plans a low priority while they grapple with surging cases of viral variants and a sluggish rollout of vaccinations.

Beyond allowances on large gatherings, countless other pieces must fall into place for a successful music festival to move forward, such as water stations and swaths of portable toilets — shared accommodations that make public health authorities anxious, according to some planners.

But the most urgent deadline involves the performers who take the stage.

Most Canadian festivals rely on major U.S. acts to draw ticket buyers and many of those performers book their North American festival stops a year in advance as they map out larger summer tour schedules.

With the U.S.-Canadian border still closed, festival organizers say they've been unable to predict whether bands and their crews might even be allowed to head north with their gear in tow.

“I don't know how many times we've had conversations with agents over the last year (with them asking,) ‘When are they going to open up the borders?’ Well, I have no clue,” said RBC Bluesfest director Mark Monahan.

“There were so many factors beyond our control that at a certain point you just had to throw in the towel.”

Terry Wickham, producer of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, said his board waited an extra month in hopes of a turnaround in COVID-19 numbers. Eventually, they decided it wasn't realistic to move forward with so many health concerns looming, among them asking volunteers to put themselves in a vulnerable situation.

“If I thought things were going change in the next few weeks, I’d have hung in, but I just don't see it,” he said.

“A lot of people have the feeling that the show must go on. Sometimes, you know, it doesn't,” he added.

Outside Canada, one music festival learned the hard way about how precarious making plans to go forward can be.

In late March, Australia's Byron Bay Bluesfest was blindsided when health authorities blocked the event from moving forward after a single COVID-19 infection was detected in the region a day before the festival was scheduled to begin.

Evelyn Richardson, head of Live Performance Australia, told local media the fallout of a last-minute cancellation left the festival with a potential loss of $10 million (Australian).

Those risks could beset any festival hoping for brighter days ahead this summer.

The Osheaga Music and Arts Festival in Montreal remains on the calendar for late July, despite an ongoing nightly curfew in parts of the province.

Organizers at Evenko declined interview requests but said in a statement that “it’s too early to talk about our summer festivals at this moment as Montreal is still in a red zone, but we continue to monitor the various elements.”

The Calgary Folk Music Festival’s leadership also declined to be interviewed but said they remain “cautiously optimistic and adaptable” as they move towards four days of events that kick off July 22.

Rather than sit this year out, Myles Rusak and his team at the Sound of Music Festival in Burlington, Ont. have drafted an alternative plan.

Instead of holding the usual nine-day festival, the executive director said they will revamp the structure and stretch it out over three months. The Sound of Music Festival's Return to Live series will consist mainly of concerts performed on patios, inside restaurants and around the area by mostly local Canadian musicians.

“Early on, we had to stop thinking about what we can't do — and that was the full-blown festival,” he said.

“So we thought: What can we do?” he said.

While many of the details are still in working stages, such as the performer lineup and the seating arrangements, Rusak said he's closely watching how other countries navigate their own live music rollouts.

“I refuse to say, ‘Nope, we're done, let's just phone it in and wait it out,’” he said.

“What we’re attempting to do is plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 15, 2020.

David Friend, The Canadian Press