How Bluesfest found its groove in the face of the pandemic

COVID-19 forced organizers to rethink the concert experience for attendees and sponsors alike – while raising new questions for 2021
Mark Monahan
RBC Bluesfest executive director Mark Monahan calls the decision to cancel the 2020 edition of the festival ‘the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make.’ Photo by Julie Oliver
Editor's Note

This article first appeared in the winter 2021 edition of the OBJ newsmagazine. Read the full publication here.

Like all of us, Mark Monahan has memories of last March that will stay with him for years. 

At the start of March 2020, the executive director of RBC Bluesfest was busy selling tickets for that year’s festival, to be held July 8-18. Headliners included Alanis Morissette, Rage Against the Machine and Jack Johnson.  

At the same time, Monahan was monitoring news stories about some SARS-like virus in China, which was starting to pop up in North America.  

“I was following the story because I remember SARS so well,” he recalls. “We had a Toronto Bluesfest the year of SARS, and we got slaughtered.” 

But Monahan also remembered SARS was short-lived and didn’t extend much beyond Southern Ontario. So he wasn’t that worried about COVID-19. 

Then came March 6. I’m not going to call it The Day the Music Died. You’re allowed to think it.

“Someone came into my office,” he remembers, “and said the South by Southwest Festival had just been cancelled. That’s one of the largest festivals in the States. I sat there and went, “Holy shit.”

Watching a trainwreck

Each of us has a “Holy shit” moment from March 2020; a moment when we saw, or heard something we never thought we’d see or hear.

Maybe it was March 11, the day the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. If you’re a basketball fan it might still be this day – late that afternoon the NBA suspended its season.

If you’re a parent maybe it was March 12, the day schools in Ontario announced they would remain closed for two weeks following the March Break. On the same day, the NCAA cancelled its March Madness basketball tournament.  

For Monahan – for anyone in the festival business – the days following the cancellation of the SXSW festival must have seemed like watching a trainwreck. 

The crash came March 18. On that day Canada and the United States announced they were closing their borders. 

On the same day, the Glastonbury and Bonnaroo festivals were cancelled. 

An industry under siege

It’s hard to imagine any business being more affected by a global pandemic than music festivals. 

When you look at other industries affected by COVID-19 – tourism, hospitality and sports come to mind – you’ll see that they have multiple areas of consumer appeal.

Musical festivals are built around one unshakeable, foundational assertion – it’s more fun listening to music when you’re with other people. So what do you do when your core business suddenly becomes illegal?

People gather in a restaurant to eat. People embark on a cruise ship to travel. People go to a sporting event to find out who wins.

But a music festival? Everything you’re going to hear at a music festival you can easily hear at home, and it will likely sound better. (If you’re a fan of an artist like Bob Dylan, it’s a guarantee.)

Musical festivals are built around one unshakeable, foundational assertion – it’s more fun listening to music when you’re with other people.

So what do you do, what can you do, when your core business suddenly becomes illegal?

Winning over sponsors

RBC Bluesfest 2020 was cancelled on April 28, later than most other festivals, but Bluesfest is a mid-summer festival, not a spring event like SXSW or Coachella.

It took time to admit defeat. 

“Cancelling was probably the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make,” says Monahan. “We’ve always taken pride in overcoming all obstacles. Every successful festival does. But there was no safe way we could hold a festival this year.”

Bluesfest has a board of directors and a long-time dedicated staff. They got together for frantic meetings last spring to discuss what had just happened – “Would you call that a pole-axing, or did it feel more like a meteor strike?” – and what to do next. 

“We decided early on that we weren’t going to crawl into a corner and wait out the year,” he says. “We wanted to put on live shows. How could we safely do that?” 

Some ideas were kicked around. Some bad ones were quickly discarded – viewing cubicles, one really, really big field – and at one meeting someone said, “What about a drive-in? I think someone is trying that in the States.” 

The drive-in idea grew until it became the #CanadaPerforms at RBC Bluesfest Drive-in series, held over two weekends in August at Place des Festivals Zibi in Gatineau. 

The drive-in shows were done in partnership with the National Arts Centre and featured performers such as Sam Roberts and Patrick Watson. The artists performed on two stages, and the audience stayed in cars.  

When he had the lineup and dates booked, Monahan went looking for sponsors. He approached the companies that normally sponsor Bluesfest.

“They asked me how many people would be watching the drive-in shows,” remembers Monahan. “I told them the Zibi festival site had space for 440 cars.

“‘Four hundred and forty?’ they said, and I told them ‘That’s right – 440.’ They said they’d get back to me.”  

Monahan had a problem. RBC Bluesfest can get crowds of more than 20,000 for some shows, and over the course of a festival will draw hundreds of thousands.

Four hundred and forty is, to a corporate sponsor, a little –  well, it’s less. (Even if you throw in passengers and trunk cheats.)

So Monahan went back to the sponsors and said he forgot to mention something. The shows would also be streamed over Facebook Live. This seemed to interest them.

“‘How many people will be watching the stream?’ they asked,  and I said, ‘How many people would you like to be watching?’  They told me one million was a good number. I told them, ‘You’re not going to believe this.’”

Monahan promised the sponsors one million views for the drive-in shows. Bluesfest had never live-streamed a performance before. Monahan says he wasn’t so worried about the number as he was about whether the stream would actually work. 

And what was the final number?

2.1 million.  

‘You’ve got to try something’

After streaming the drive-in series, Bluesfest turned the September CityFolk Festival – which it also runs – into a pay-per-view event, featuring outlaw country heroes Jason Isbell and Steve Earle.

“Those shows were an incredible success,” says Monahan. “They were great shows, and after we had Q&As with both Isbell and Earle. That’s something we were never able to offer at a traditional concert.”

Mark Monahan
RBC Bluesfest executive director Mark Monahan is hoping to build on the live-stream success of 2020 this year. Photo by Julie Oliver.

The “traditional concert” term surprised me. I’d never heard it before.

It has obvious echoes of “traditional media,” which is what they call newspapers today. Either that or legacy, which is better than dead, although still a sad progression down the adjectival health continuum.

I asked Monahan when he started using the phrase “traditional concert,” and why wasn’t he crying about it?

“Because it’s not all bad,” he said. “Some performers love the live-stream shows. Why not? They don’t have to go anywhere. And the audience, getting to ask Steve Earle a question after the show, a lot of people love that.”

Monahan is hoping to build on the live-stream and pay-per-view successes of 2020. One plan is for Bluesfest to partner with Ottawa Tourism for live-stream shows that will only be available in Ottawa hotel rooms.

Ultimately, there will also be that “traditional festival” to start planning. Monahan figures the success of Bluesfest 2021 will hinge not only on a successful vaccine rollout, but on rapid testing.

“We’re already talking to a company that promises results in five minutes,” he says. “We could have a staging area before people enter the festival grounds, where the test would be administered. Wait there to be cleared, and then you’re in.”

I ask if that might create a bottleneck problem at the front gates. Lineups are hated by every festival organizer. They’re right up there with lawn chairs, smuggled booze and work-visa problems created by felony records of most alt-country bands.

“Could there be lineups with rapid testing? Yeah, we’ve thought about that,” he says. “We’re going to do a test run at an event before Bluesfest, to see how it works.”

There follows a lengthy pause. No one asking or answering a question. The last question twirling around the room – “Could there be a bottle-neck problem because of rapid testing?”  

Monahan finally starts laughing.  

“I know,” and then his laughter builds until he has to stop and catch his breath. “Yes, that may be a problem. But we’ll figure it out, don’t worry. You got to try something, right?”

You know what? He’s right.