Festivals abuzz about attendance

FARGO -- When the teen pop band The Jonas Brothers pulled the plug on a string of concert dates, including a September show at St. Paul's Xcel Center, it added to the chorus of boos the concert industry is hearing this summer.

Music festivals
The crowd reacts to the Dave Matthews Band as they take the stage in July 2009 at the Soo Pass Ranch outside Detroit Lakes, Minn., as part of the 10,000 Lakes Festival. (Michael Vosburg/The Forum)

FARGO -- When the teen pop band The Jonas Brothers pulled the plug on a string of concert dates, including a September show at St. Paul's Xcel Center, it added to the chorus of boos the concert industry is hearing this summer.

What is usually a boom season for bands has been a bust for popular acts such as the Eagles, John Mayer, Christina Aguilera, Rhianna, Limp Bizkit, Lilith Fair and even the "American Idol" tour, which have all either cut dates or entire tours.

But while touring acts may be facing hard times, a couple of Minnesota music festivals are expecting big business in the next few weeks.

Bill Bieloh, owner of Moondance Jam in Walker, Minn., said the 19th installment of the rock 'n' roll festival is shaping up to be the biggest crowd ever. With the four-day festival starting Wednesday, five of the six campgrounds are sold out and he anticipates daily crowds to eclipse the 20,000 people who packed in to see Def Leppard in 2007.

About 70 miles south and east of Walker, just outside Detroit Lakes, Minn., organizers expect attendance at this year's WE Fest country music festival to top last year's total of 43,000 people.


With just over three weeks until one of the biggest country showcases in America kicks off on Aug. 5, Rand Levy, WE Fest vice president, expects about 45,000 at the site, 5,000 less than capacity.

Levy said he's optimistic because the number of early $75 three-day music-only tickets jumped from 6,000 sold in 2009 to nearly 12,000 this year.

Bieloh and Levy both say the key to success is signing appealing acts. But if it were just that easy, there would be more big music festivals on the calendar now.

"We have to realize we're in a very tough economy right now," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of the concert touring industry magazine Pollstar. "We're probably going to have more misses than normal because the market can't accommodate the volume of stuff we're throwing out there."

Bieloh said he saw more festivals four or five years ago. Now he names a handful of regional music events that have shut down in the last couple of years, including Party in the Pasture and Rockin' the Hills, both in North Dakota, and 10,000 Lakes, which for the previous seven years shared Soo Pass Ranch with WE Fest.

Billboard Magazine recently attributed the lack of business to climbing concert ticket prices amid a recession and the service fees that ticketing companies tack on to ticket prices.

"When times are tough the weak won't survive," Bieloh said, adding that failed festivals like Rockin' the Hills and 10,000 Lakes were relatively young and couldn't withstand the economic downturn.

Levy, a Minneapolis-based promoter who also worked on 10,000 Lakes, said the rock, folk and jam band-based festival, which was canceled in December, was "an artistically wonderful show, but it didn't make sense to keep doing it. It wasn't making money."


Levy said he would look at booking other shows at Soo Pass Ranch for next year, as long as they work financially.

"This is a great year to take a step back and look at all the things we do," he said. "We certainly would like to have other shows in the future. I just don't know what that would be. It's pretty tough out there."

The Lilith Fair touring festival he booked for July 18 at Minneapolis' Target Center is not doing as well as hoped. Levy said he also heard Minneapolis' Taste of Minnesota and June's Apple River Country Fest in Somerset, Wis., underperformed in attendance.

"You've go to be careful," Levy said. "You can't have a show just because you want to. You have to see an audience for it."

One festival's failure can boost another's attendance. When Rockfest in Cadot, Wis., switched from a classic rock bill to more of a modern rock lineup this year, Bieloh picked up about a thousand ticket-buyers for his Moondance Jam.

That said, Bieloh acknowledged his show added some newer acts like Buckcherry, Blackstone Cherry and Blackberry Smoke to broaden the show's audience, though Moondance will remain primarily classic rock.

"We need to evolve a little newer, too," he said. "To fill the venue, we're going to have to start bringing in newer bands."

Contemporary acts are the basis for Bieloh's other festival, Moondance Jammin' Country. In its fourth year, the fest drew its biggest crowd, 15,000, to watch The Zac Brown Band close the three-day event on June 19.


"We don't have the budget WE Fest has," he said. "We don't hit a homerun all the time, but this year we did with Miranda Lambert and Zac Brown."

He said Jammin' Country has grown about 15 percent every year and pulls in about 5,000 North Dakotans. Moondance Jam draws 7,500 from west of the Red River. He said Fargo is the Moondance festival's third-biggest market behind St. Cloud and Brainerd in Minnesota.

"For the first time since we held (Jammin') Country, I can see it growing as big as the Jam," Bieloh said, adding that this year looked to be the first Jammin' Country that would turn a profit.

He is already planning next summer's Jammin' Country.

Even before the first note of this year's WE Fest is sounded, Levy has acts booked for 2011. He said an e-mail blast will be coming out soon to announce those musicians.

Bieloh doesn't have anyone signed for the 20th Moondance Jam next year, but feels confident enough to hint that he'll play Van Morrison's signature tune "Moondance" every night this weekend.

Landing a legend like "Van the Man" would be quite the catch for a classic rock festival, assuming, of course, the tour industry rebounds and the singer doesn't cancel his summer 2011 plans.

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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