It's safe to say that Bumbershoot 2015 didn't go exactly as planned for new lead producer AEG Live. Saturday's stormy weather drove crowds away with heavy downpours and lightning delays for the outdoor stages, and the gloomy cloud cover on Sunday surely kept more patrons away (remember, Bumbershoot is not a "destination festival" and relies heavily on walk-up sales). While things picked up thanks to a clear and beautiful Labor Day, the overall mood for the weekend wasn't sunny.
It's natural that AEG had some growing pains in its abbreviated first year at the helm of Bumbershoot. With that in mind, here are a few areas that need improvement going forward.
Frustrations with the lines at Bumbershoot cast a pall over the proceedings as much as the actual cloud cover. The line to enter the festival through the main gate chaotically stretched along Mercer Street all weekend long, but it was especially dreadful on Saturday as patrons waited for the gates to open (thanks in part to a technical glitch). It should go without saying that it doesn't exactly encourage walk-up customers when they show up and see a horror show of a line just to get into the festival.
Once inside, the lines to enter KeyArena were totally mismanaged. It was hard for festival-goers to discern a clear policy to how KeyArena was being handled. It was confusing enough to have to walk all the way around KeyArena to enter the building (with the signage pointing the way being unclear at best) while the doors near the bulk of the festival were reserved for sparing VIP use, but everything else was inconsistent (even the employees managing seemed confused at times). Sometimes KeyArena's floor would be full. Sometimes floor access would would be cut off despite it not even being half full. Sometimes the line to get down to the floor wouldn't move for an hour. Even the smaller festival elements had line issues. I'm still not sure why the lines for the Laser Dome shows had to close before the performances began, leaving late arrivers stuck on the outside. Bottom line: If you found yourself in a line at Bumbershoot 2015, you were probably in for some bummer times.
Open the Gates
Dovetailing off of the line fiasco, the fact that AEG decided to shorten the time between gates opening and programming beginning to 30 minutes is simply unacceptable. It raises the anxiety for patrons and potentially prevents them from seeing the early acts. That's incredibly problematic, because the musicians and comedians that go on early are the ones that can benefit most from new eyes and ears. The protocol in place discourages discovery. Nobody benefits from the late gate entry time, and the solution is so, so easy.
High Price to Pay
Bumbershoot 2015 was too expensive. It just was. AEG seemed to be in denial about it well in advance. When I asked AEG's Rob Thomas about the prices in July he stated that “prices last year are on par and equivalent to what we’re charging this year,” which simply wasn't true. Single day walk-up ticket prices jumped from $70 to $109 this year. That's huge. When the 2014 lineup was announced, you could get a three-day pass for $120. As a result, I know many people who didn't attend this year because they felt priced out of the festival (though new businesses taking over things Seattleites love and jacking up the cost is all the rage these days). While there are no easy solutions to cutting costs short of removing stages or buying less talent, Bumbershoot gets further and further away from its inclusive community arts festival roots as prices increase.
Crank It Up
While watching Cake at the Fisher Green Stage on Saturday, a weird thought crossed my mind: this needs to be louder. While festival stages far too often tend to go in the opposite direction with this is for sure damaging my ears decibel levels (bring earplugs, everybody!), the volume at the Fisher Green Stage was lacking all weekend. The vocals were frequently buried in the mix, but more importantly, it sound just lacked that umph of the sonic waves that you want to feel the electricity of live music. Shortly after said thought, a group in the crowd tried in vain to start a chant of "Lou-der! Lou-der! Lou-der!" Perhaps next year the sound engineers can just slightly turn up the dial.
To be blunt, the comedy lineup at Bumbershoot this year was a joke. That is not a comment on the performers themselves. I personally saw comedians like Hari Kondabolu, Sean Patton, Paul and Storm, Mike Lawrence, and Elicia Sanchez deliver wonderfully entertaining sets. But the overall comedy booking this year sucked the buzz out of the proceedings. While in past years the comedy stages featured packed, standby-only audiences, the theaters were routinely half-full in 2015. Attendees just weren't into it.
It's not really a surprise. After AEG took over comedy booking from Lisa Leingang, the comedic star power took a nosedive. Look, any comedy festival would love feature Hari Kondabolu, but he shouldn't be the biggest standup name on the lineup. He literally has jokes about how he's not close to a mainstream comic. He should be comfortably a few notches down from top billing as he would've been at almost any previous Bumbershoot. You only need to look at the previous two years to prove that. The 2013 slate included Patton Oswalt, Marc Maron, Doug Benson, Reggie Watts, Todd Barry, Scott Auckerman, Matt Besser, Tim Meadows, and Horatio Sanz, Natasha Leggero, Jerrod Carmichael, Kyle Dunnigan, Joe Mande, and Morgan Murphy. Last year performers included Pete Holmes, Janeane Garofalo, Eugene Mirman, Paul F. Tompkins, Doug Benson, W. Kamau Bell, Matt Braunger, and Rory Scovel. Those loaded lineups made this year's offering look mundane, and the crowds reflected that.
If there's enough money for two main stages (KeyArena and Memorial Stadium), then spending a bit of the budget to beef up the comedy lineup to its previous highs should not be a huge issue. There's a reason why for years comedians almost universally claimed Bumbershoot as their favorite festival. Leingang built Bumbershoot into a comedy oasis. It was the one major arts festival where comedy wasn't an afterthought. Don't ruin that by shortchanging it, AEG.