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Ontario’s WayHome music festival mulls its future in a crowded market

American rock group Cage The Elephant performs at the WayHome Music & Arts Festival in Oro-Medonte, Ont., on July 28, 2017.

Michael Hurcomb/REX/Shutterstock

Music festivals want to sell you a dream: a weekend full of live music where everything is perfect. It's the thrill of a concert stretched out into 72-odd hours. All your favourite artists are there, and so are your friends, and the sun is shining. It's intoxicating.

If everything goes according to plan.

British Columbia's Pemberton Music Festival became embroiled in bankruptcy proceedings earlier this year and was forced to cancel, leaving many ticketholders without refunds. The Fyre Festival, billed as a superluxurious event for influencers, fell apart in April, leaving attendees stranded on a private Caribbean island. And after just three years, the WayHome Music & Arts Festival in Southern Ontario has cancelled its 2018 edition as organizers examine how to better run the event.

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Pop-music festivals have spent the past two decades selling countless variations of the big dream. Executing the dream, though, involves a lot of being in the right place at the right time. For startups such as WayHome that enter the fray, trying to hone their identity in a crowded field, the slightest change in the market or tweak to their formula can have dramatic results.

Whether WayHome returns depends on many factors it can't control, but at least one that it can: In a massively crowded, low-margin market, what does WayHome want to be?

Festivals are booked many months ahead of time, leaving promoters and organizers to battle for touring superstars and bet on the hype of up-and-comers. In any given region, they have to compete with one another for ticket sales. And for music fans with extra cash, big-name destination festivals – a league in which WayHome had been a promising rookie – compete with each other across North America and the world.

Being in Canada makes things tougher, too. Artists are usually booked in U.S. dollars, and despite the loonie's recent race toward parity, former WayHome creative director Ryan Howes told the Toronto Star that talent budgets for this year's festival were about 30 per cent higher than before.

WayHome has undergone structural changes, too. Howes left the company before the 2017 edition, and former partner AC Entertainment, the promoter behind Tennessee's Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, has parted ways with the Ontario festival. Its organizer, Republic Live, declined an interview with The Globe and Mail this week.

Not discounting the longer Canadian Music Week or North by Northeast, Toronto has hosted a number of weekend festivals over the past dozen years, including Time, Veld, Grove, TURF, Dreams and Field Trip. And in Oro-Medonte, an hour or so north of the city, WayHome launched in 2015.

It was purportedly a quick success: After the second edition wrapped in July, 2016, organizers declared that it had "surpassed all expectations" with total attendance of 40,000, of whom 35,000 camped on-site.

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Crowds were thinner this past July. A WayHome representative said that total attendance was about 35,000 – 5,000 fewer than last year – with between roughly 18,000 and 25,000 people there each day. Although the figures have slightly different meaning, the math suggests that at its lowest point, this year's WayHome had about half as many people on site than were camping the previous year.

The consequences of this are far-reaching. Beyond less ticket income for Republic Live, fewer full-weekend attendees mean food and drink vendors sell less product and corporate sponsors get fewer eyeballs. In turn, the festival gets less indirect income, and partners become less enthusiastic about coming aboard again.

How did we get here? The answer likely lies somewhere in the intersection of a crowded market and WayHome's fluid identity. While some festivals cater to a predominant genre – Republic Live's own Boots and Hearts festival is country-focused – WayHome has tended to be genre-agnostic. In 2015, for instance, both Kendrick Lamar and Neil Young were among the headliners.

While the following year featured a range of artists, including rapper Vince Staples and EDM stars Major Lazer, its headliners had much in common. Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem and the Killers each blew up last decade with their own interpretations of indie rock, and share swaths of fans. Because of those bands' 2000s origins, too, their fans are now largely in their late 20s and 30s – usually a spending-money sweet spot between getting a steady job and having kids.

Music fans today, especially young ones, are more omnivorous than ever; the endless offerings of streaming music services are breaking down the barriers of genre that once governed the racks of physical record stores. This year's WayHome lineup mirrored that trend with headliners including R&B singer Frank Ocean and the pop-rock band Imagine Dragons.

Where other genre-be-damned festivals such as Bonnaroo, Osheaga in Montreal and Coachella in California have the brand power to bring in 50,000 to 225,000 people each year, WayHome is smaller, newer and less of an exotic destination for far-flung fans, on top of facing Canadian-dollar constraints when booking talent.

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It's not clear, either, whether the more genre-agnostic fans that are emerging in the streaming world are opening their wallets for local or mid-sized festivals as much as big-name destination festivals such as Coachella – or spending as much money as genre-specific fans.

This could change with time. If it really was aging indie-rock fans who helped WayHome surpass expectations in 2016 – with enough disposable income for a nearby festival, but not a major destination – then omnivores driving change in the music industry could simply be a few years away from that income bracket.

While WayHome takes a "pause," more genre-focused festivals play on. In Toronto, for instance, Veld hones in on EDM and hip hop, and while Field Trip has expanded beyond its indie-rock roots, it's usually a safe bet for the genre's fans. Even though WayHome brought in the R&B star power of Ocean or Solange this year, they weren't matched, genre-wise, lower in the bill, save for a few acts such as Daniel Caesar.

You don't have to look much further than Boots and Hearts to see the success that focus can bring. It's already been renewed for 2018. As Republic Live puts on its thinking cap to decide WayHome's future, it could look to its cowboy boots for an answer.

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About the Author

Josh O’Kane is a reporter with The Globe and Mail's Report on Business. Since joining the paper in 2011, he has told stories from New Brunswick to Nairobi. In his spare time, he writes about music and the industry around it. More

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