Less than a month ago, Huka Entertainment announced with a big splash the lineup for the 2017 Pemberton Music Festival. With headliners Chance the Rapper, Muse and A Tribe Called Quest, fans were urged to purchase tickets – warning that early-bird tickets sell out quickly, as do regular tickets – starting at $369 each.
"Our fourth year will absolutely be the best PembyFest yet!" Huka CEO Evan Harrison said in a media release.
Fans who jumped at the chance now find themselves out of luck: On Thursday, the festival was cancelled after the event went bankrupt, leaving ticket holders without refunds.
"I feel duped," said Angela Quiring, a Prince George mother who had fronted her daughter and three friends $1,857 for four tickets to the festival.
She said MasterCard told her Thursday that it is now filing payment disputes on behalf of customers such as her and that the organizers of the festival now have 60 days to respond.
After rumours of Pemberton's demise fuelled an online firestorm of criticism Thursday afternoon, U.S.-based Huka Entertainment, which has been running the festival, announced the cancellation with a notice on the event's website.
"For the past four years, Huka Entertainment has worked to create a one-of-a-kind experience in the most beautiful place on earth. We are heartbroken to see the 2017 Pemberton Music Festival cancelled."
At roughly 18,200 tickets sold, organizers knew they weren't going to match last year's total of 38,000 and stood to lose more than $10-million this year, according to Ernst & Young's Kevin Brennan, whose company is now the event's trustee overseeing its bankruptcy proceedings.
"Really it's just driven by fewer ticket sales than they had hoped to achieve and operating costs that had continued to rise, partially a result of the exchange rate as well," said Mr. Brennan, a senior vice-president at Ernst & Young's Vancouver office.
He added that the festival owed more than $2.5-million (U.S.) to secured creditors.
Shane Bozzer, co-owner of Salmon's Rentals and Apex Tent, said his Burnaby-based company is still owed more than $70,000 for helping build the VIP area at last year's festival. His business partner met with Huka a week ago and was assured that a cheque for that amount could be picked up this week in Vancouver, he said. On Thursday morning Mr. Bozzer said he arrived at a downtown office building to pick up the money and was informed of the bankruptcy.
The notice on the Pemberton event's website warned there would be no automatic refunds. It said people who purchased tickets had the option of filing a claim as an unsecured creditor while also urging customers to seek reimbursement through their credit card providers.
A publicist for Huka said the company had no further comment. The festival's Twitter account was no longer active.
The festival, which had been scheduled to run July 13-16, is held in picturesque Pemberton, located north of Whistler, about a two-hour drive from Vancouver.
The festival initially launched for a single year in 2008, when it was produced by Live Nation. It was not staged again until 2014, when Huka, which is based in New Orleans, relaunched the event.
Pemberton Mayor Mike Richman said he was disappointed.
"The Pemberton Music Festival brought a lot of exposure to our area and had a huge economic impact in our community; it was an exciting event to have in our town," he said.
While unsure of the exact economic impact, Mr. Richman said it was substantial. "There was a good deal of local employment, the festival would use local vendors, they would definitely use local businesses – food and beverage, hardware."
Mr. Richman says he didn't know what went wrong directly – he started hearing rumblings on Wednesday and heard the news confirmed on Thursday like everyone else.
"I think it's a tough market. I'm not going to pretend to understand that industry nor am I going to pretend to understand their financial workings. I know the Canadian dollar definitely had an impact."
He adds that he hopes a music festival can return to the town.
"I hope that there could be an opportunity to regroup and see an event like that come back to Pemberton because I think it's a great setting for it. We'll see where we go from here."
Jonathan Simkin of 604 Records, who manages the band Dirty Radio, which was set to play at the festival, was shocked at the cancellation.
"When you're in the business and you see something like this, your first thought goes to your own clients," Mr. Simkin said in an interview. "And you feel horrible. This is something they've been looking forward to; it's a big deal. It's probably the gig they were most looking forward to this summer. It's devastating both financially but also from a morale point of view."
He said it's especially distressing that concert-goers won't be getting their money back. He also noted that the Squamish Music Festival was abruptly cancelled last year.
"Between this and Squamish, it really makes you wonder what's going on," he said.
Reached in the UK, Stephen Franke, who manages the Victoria-based band Current Swell, said he was dismayed at the cancellation at such a late juncture.
"It's a huge hit for Canadian music and it's more of a hit for us than it is for the American acts who are coming up because this is a major festival and if you're a Canadian act you're going to take it seriously."
Current Swell released an album just last week and Mr. Franke said Pemberton was going to be the key local date for the album release period.
"When a festival cancels there's an open hole for a band," he said. "You've dedicated that weekend to that. None of those bands are going to make up that income in that time period."
Noting that festivals are difficult and expensive to mount, Mr. Franke said Pemberton's demise is particularly disappointing given the cancellation of Squamish last year.
"Now both are gone. What a drag."
Late Thursday, the WayHome festival in Ontario offered Pemberton ticket holders a free general admission ticket to its 2017 festival, to be held July 28-30 in cottage country.
Ms. Quiring said she was still trying to reach her daughter Avery, who is travelling in Australia, to tell her the bad news.
"If we don't get reimbursed we can't really make a bunch of 19- and 18-year-olds pay us $500 for something they're not going to use – so we'll probably end up sucking that up."