Creatures of the Night Music and Arts Festival in Adams, TN came to an abrupt halt Saturday morning after one of the more memorable kickoffs this season. The wildly anticipated, heavily stacked lineup featuring Lotus, Emancipator Ensemble, Papadosio, GJones, Desert Dwellers, Space Jesus, and many more seemed too good to be true. As it turns out, it totally was.
An event in its first year leaves many skeptical. It’s a difficult game to convince wary concert goers that this time will be different. There will be plenty of camping space, transportation won’t be an issue, all the stages will run on time, the weather will be perfect and there will be no surprises. Spend your money and travel from far and wide, because this time it will be different. And for one night, CoTN was different. The skepticism was slowly replaced as Friday night progressed, the first in what promised to be an incredible weekend. Superb sound and out of this world stage design and effects were immediate mood changers to an otherwise soggy and disgruntled crowd who had spent most of the day in a rainstorm, wading through mud. Talented performers, workshop teachers, and visual artists augmented their lineup, highlighted by featured visual artists Amanda Sage, Gabriel and Jeremiah Welch, and Jonathan Solter. Incendia team were set up around the grounds, bringing their unique fire engulfed domes and fire spinning crew to warm up the guests. The stages on night one went off without a hitch, with mind blowing performances by Ozric Tentacles, Yheti, GJones, Space Jesus, Keller Williams, and Lotus. The collaborations were on point as well, as guests discovered magic like Mike Greenfield of Lotus sitting in with Boston-based band Wobblesauce, tucked out of the way at the Backwoods stage long after Lotus had left the main stage. It seemed to be enough to forgive the event’s false promises of car side camping and lack of flush toilets. Guests went to bed excited for Saturday, glad to finally be at an event that was different from the others who had disappointed throughout the summer.
But when guests opened their eyes on Saturday, the birds had already been chirping for hours about a supposed cancellation of the remainder of the weekend. As the hours ticked by, the rumors were confirmed: due to unexpected circumstances, the event will not proceed as planned. All of the headliners and most of the support were cancelled, and the willing performers would be re-distributed to whichever stage could host them. Guests watched in horror as Emancipator’s and Papadosio’s tour busses pulled out, and the Main Stage began a full breakdown. Rumors were abound about a rescheduled Papadosio performance in Nashville (Lost in Sound checked up on this and unfortunately the band was unable to find a venue with such short notice). Production teams scrambled to beg, borrow, and bargain up a hodgepodge lineup of artists and tech, because “the show must go on”, of course. Guests debated their course of action: do they escape via the shuttle and try to drive home or stick around to see the results? Many had been anticipating a face melting Papadosio set in several hours, and had very few plans to drive. It seemed as if yet another music festival was going down in flames once again.
It’s no secret that this season hasn’t been forgiving to the influx of new events that have popped up around the country. As the summer wore on, it became obvious that the “festival economy” was in dire straits, as one event after another spent more money that it could rake in, and artists, guests, and staff went home disappointed more than once due to a lack of organization that resulted. It’s now such a regular occurrence that the lack of surprise shown by those who frequent this culture has become a bit of repetitive dark comedy. All jokes aside, this is a serious issue. One that leaves hardworking people without food on their table and leaves guests stranded, hungry and occasionally in danger. This is not just an issue on the grassroots level, either. The events at Tomorrowworld and last year’s Hudson Music Project should attest that even the largest and most well funded events can’t avoid financial ruin in the case of unpredictable circumstances. Throwing high production concerts in remote environments is risky business, and even some the most financially savvy events regularly come out in the red due to unforeseen circumstances and low attendance. The phrase “plan for the worst, and expect the best” comes to mind, but there seems to be more “expecting the best” happening then “planning for the worst”. The industry overall is trembling under the weight of a season full of bad experiences and negative balances.
But what is causing these issues? Music festivals have been around for many years now, and there are definitely successful examples of how to do things right. Lighting in a Bottle and Symbiosis come to mind, as well as smaller, newer projects like Wildwoods Music Festival. It is possible to put on a beautiful, well curated event successfully year after year, but it is becoming more difficult to do so in the past few years. The reason why is a twofold problem. The first issue is oversaturation. There are just too many music festivals within one region and genre. Typical summer weekends include your choice of weekend long experiences, popping up like parks at Disney World, each the same satisfying treat with its own unique flavor. But there are only so many people who will buy tickets to an event in a given region, and often times, that ticket is their only party of the summer. Even if they come as a volunteer, providing much needed help to the often understaffed shindigs, time away from the muggle life takes a toll on one’s wallet, and volunteers can now expect to be worked to the bone due to the same understaffing conundrum. It isn’t worth it to many. Yes, there is definitely an underlying need for these types of cathartic experiences, and it’s very clear that our generation has an insatiable appetite for the “transformational”, but it isn’t worth the bruised ego and bank account.
But WHY are there so many music festivals nowadays? These are expensive projects, with even the smallest event capping their budget above 6 figures just to get by. In the middle of a recession, it’s difficult to imagine that there are this many people who can wrangle that much money for a party. While investors and sponsors play a big roll, there just aren’t enough to go around at this point. Without sponsors, most of the promoters and production companies aren’t able to put their money where their mouth is at the end of the day. Their promises end up based on the dream of what an event could be, without seeing the other, potentially disastrous side.
How do we resolve these issues in the future? Working together is a start. Events that share a region need to be more tactical in their planning, and solution could lie in joining forces. Effective budgeting would help as well, since it’s become evident that creative and clever solutions to expensive problems are much more event friendly than overspending and under planning. Refocusing on guest experience overall instead of profitability could actually make the most difference, instead of stacking headliners and hoping for the best. I’m certainly no expert, but a season of observations from all sides of the playing field has left me with that much to say.
The skeleton crew left at Creatures of the Night has scrambled together some entertainment, allowing guests to stay overnight and providing something for the disgruntled ticket buyers. Word of a refund has yet to be announced, and the specifics on what that entertainment will be are still sketchy, but as I’m writing this from my picnic table next to my tent, I can hear some melodies drifting over from the less frequented Backwoods Stage, the only permanent structure in the venue, set amidst a mock old western town in the back corner of the venue. True to the culture we know and love, the show WILL go on, and we will all make the best of it together.