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Meet the master planner of Bumbershoot’s music
About 10 months before it opens, Bumbershoot 2013 is already in full swing for Chris Porter, the festival’s programming director responsible for booking its 120 musical acts.
Special to The Seattle Times
FOR MOST WHO go to the nation’s largest urban arts festival, Bumbershoot begins this year on Saturday, Aug. 31. Seattle Center will open that morning to ticket holders who will rush in hoping to secure a prime seat for their favorite acts. Veterans will be easy to spot: They’ll be in line long before the gates open, carrying schedules with their top picks highlighted. And they’ll be packing clothing for every possible weather scenario. This is, after all, a festival named after an umbrella.
But on a November day back in 2012 — 10 months before the first of an expected 100,000 folks start showing up — Bumbershoot 2013 is already in full swing for Chris Porter. As the festival’s programming director, Porter is responsible for booking the 120 musical acts that will perform on six stages over Bumbershoot’s three days.
By now, Porter is deep into the planning of it all. In his tiny office near the Space Needle, he sits down to explain how the festival comes together. It’s the first of a half-dozen times over the next nine months he will allow a rare peek into how Bumbershoot comes together.
Bumbershoot’s programmer for 17 years, the forty-something Porter booked Boston’s Middle East club, among others, before starting at One Reel, the nonprofit that produces Bumbershoot. As he begins to discuss the long, complicated process of booking the festival, he draws back a black curtain on the wall behind him. And there, on a whiteboard covered with sticky notes, the draft lineup for Bumbershoot 2013 appears. Porter has devised a color-coded system using the sticky notes: square pink ones are ideas, bands that have pitched the festival or the staff wants to pitch; square yellow sticky notes show bands that have been offered a spot but have not accepted; rectangular notes are for confirmed acts that will, unless something goes sideways, be playing Bumbershoot this year.
Porter’s sticky notes are what amount to Bumbershoot’s state secrets. The final lineup won’t be announced to the public until a “reveal” event, still months away.
“This year it just feels like we’ll have a very Seattle festival,” he says. Though the festival is so diverse it will have many acts from different parts of the world, he’d still like to see many headliners come from the area. He has approached Soundgarden, Heart, Allen Stone, several Sub Pop bands and a certain skyrocketing Seattle rap star.
“It’s always a jigsaw puzzle,” Porter says. “I’m trying to book the headliners, but also the opening acts and the other stages. We know people often come to the festival for the headliners, but it’s the accidental discovery that makes Bumbershoot special.”
Every choice Bumbershoot makes stirs up controversy among locals who feel a sense of ownership for the festival, often without realizing it’s operated by a nonprofit with a small staff. Porter is one of only a dozen year-round, full-time employees at One Reel. It’s a small staff, but they do a lot with a little, in part because of a zeal for the arts.
Porter’s passion for music is a big part of what shapes the Bumbershoot experience. “Chris can see what’s going to be important years out,” says One Reel executive director Jon Stone. “The music industry has become more about science, and bookers simply look at who is selling to a certain demographic and make their choices around those numbers. But with Chris, it’s equal part science and art. What he’s doing for Bumbershoot is heavy on the art.”
In November, Porter’s main obsession is filling in his whiteboard with confirmed bookings. So far, he has only a few. “It’s tricky,” he says, counting 10 confirmed bands out of 120 needed. “Every other festival around the world is booking farther ahead every year, but if you fill up too many slots early, you miss the chance to include a band that breaks later.”
Around Bumbershoot’s offices there’s a saying that this year will be the “Best. Bumbershoot. Ever.” It’s sort of a joke, but it reflects a commitment to make the event special every year. Staffers acknowledge they can’t please everyone. “It’s a challenge and an opportunity,” says Stone. “Every year is someone’s favorite Bumbershoot, but every year is also someone’s least favorite.”
Porter goes to sleep this November night imagining what he can do to shape the “Best. Bumbershoot. Ever.”
IT’S FOUR MONTHS later, February 2013, and Porter’s whiteboard has 50 more “confirmed” sticky notes. “I’ve never been this far ahead before,” he says. “I’ve got the Zombies!” The band is a classic Porter selection, a legendary ’60s group that appeals to young hipsters, too. One Reel is also planning a “zombie parade” of costumed creatures.
Still, the Zombies, musical or undead, won’t sell many tickets, and Porter’s headliner slots remain his most vexing problem. Soundgarden has passed, Sub Pop has decided to do its own festival, and that local rap act Porter had planned on went elsewhere. But Porter has confirmed most of his headliners, including fun., MGMT and Kendrick Lamar. Porter also pulls in a local big name: Heart and their “Heartbreaker” tour, where they’ll perform a half-hour encore of Led Zeppelin songs with Jason Bonham on drums. “This is a fantastic way for us to book Heart, and to also have a hard-rock element, which sometimes is hard to find,” Porter says.
This booking has come together because Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson also appreciate what’s unique about their hometown festival. “There’s something special about playing an arts festival that is so rich with heritage, so full of passion and so unique to Seattle,” says Ann Wilson. “It’s especially meaningful to us because it’s the first time Heart has played Bumbershoot.”
Porter’s efforts with another local label have paid off big: Seattle-based Barsuk Records is celebrating its 15th anniversary and has agreed to curate a day of acts from its roster. That will bring stellar bands — including David Bazan — to a smaller stage. But Porter will get an unexpected Mainstage headliner out of it: Death Cab For Cutie. Better yet, Death Cab will play its entire 2003 album “Transatlanticism.” “People are going to go crazy for this,” Porter says.
Those additions help frame Porter’s whiteboard and fill five of his six headliner slots. To appeal to youth, he still needs an electronic dance music (EDM) act. Only a few DJs are well-known enough to headline, and almost all are booked through the summer. He’s behind on this.
Porter’s whiteboard for the other stages has also started to fill in. Programming manager Chris Weber has lined up all the literary, visual-arts and spectacle acts while Lisa Leingang has booked the national comedy stage. The top-notch comedy stage has become an increasingly big part of Bumbershoot’s draw, enough for many to justify the average $50 single-ticket price.
When Bumbershoot began in 1971, it was free and stayed that way until 1980, when admission became $2.50 a day. Many locals howled. But prices have steadily climbed, even though they remain lower than similar festivals. This year an advance three-day ticket cost $120, compared to $337 for a Sasquatch Festival ticket.
One Reel will spend around $4 million this year to put on Bumbershoot. “Somewhere between $1.4 and $1.6 million of that will pay talent,” Porter explains. The rest goes to security and production. In an era when superstars get huge guarantees for a single performance, Porter has to be careful not to overspend on the wrong bands. If he were to book Paul McCartney, that one fee would use up Porter’s entire budget.
More successful for-profit festivals now compete with Bumbershoot for headliners. With festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza Electric Daisy Carnival and Outside Lands, Porter has had to work harder to do Bumbershoot on a nonprofit’s budget.
And though Bumbershoot is often compared to those festivals, most in the industry understand that its scope is different. “Bumbershoot’s programming is all over the map in the best way possible,” observes Travis Hay of the blog Guerrillacandy. “There are so many different artistic entry points — ranging from comedy to theater to visual arts — that make it much more than just a music festival. That sets Bumbershoot apart from not just other local music festivals but national destination festivals as well.”
Still, two-thirds of Bumbershoot’s budget comes from ticket sales, which are primarily driven by Porter’s music bookings. If it rains, or Porter picks bands that don’t draw, the festival could lose money and go into debt.
In 2006, Bumbershoot moved from four days to three, dropping Fridays in part because of costs. Starting in 2011, faced with fewer sponsorship dollars and a couple years of bad weather, the festival had to leave Memorial Stadium and move the Mainstage to KeyArena. “The cost of using the stadium, and the fact that KeyArena is already built to put on concerts, forced that,” Porter says.
On One Reel’s own website, fans protested the smaller festival when it was first announced. “I feel I’ve been robbed,” wrote “Tito.” “Where is the talent? Just a bunch of has-beens. It’s going to be tough to sell these tickets.”
But “Tito” ended up being wrong: Ticket sales were up in 2011, Porter’s selections of breaking stars, rather than established superstars, earned rave reviews from fans and the media, and the festival returned to break-even.
“It’s important that we get right-sized,” Porter says, returning to his whiteboard. Booking the bands is only part of the equation. Deciding who plays on what day, on what stage, is also a challenge. Because KeyArena is Bumbershoot’s main venue now, Porter needs to make sure the crowd there turns over and that the evening headliner draws a different audience than the afternoon booking.
Porter goes to bed that February night moving the sticky notes around in his head, fine-tuning it into the “Best. Bumbershoot. Ever.”
BY MARCH, Porter’s whiteboard is almost filled, though one headliner slot is still empty. He continues to search for the right act to appeal to teens. He regularly meets with Bumbershoot’s youth advisory committee and uses a volunteer advisory board of local club bookers, which is who he is talking with on this March night.
“What does everyone think about Baauer?” he asks.
“Yes!” says Melissa Darby, who books the Crocodile and knows hip-hop well. “That’s the ‘Harlem Shake’ guy, and nothing has been bigger this year.” There’s a discussion on whether Baauer will still be big by Bumbershoot, and whether he’s already booked.
Scott Giampino, who programs the Triple Door, is on the advisory panel. “Chris does a great job with his limited budget in an increasing for-profit festival world,” he says. “For the ticket price, and the ability to see so many acts on one site, Bumbershoot is truly special. It’s also not overrun with super-bro frat boys, hipster doofuses or 14-year-olds because there’s no one demographic. That makes for a delicate booking process, but also gives a wider appeal.”
Porter ends the meeting pledging to get on the phone in the morning looking for the right EDM act. He’s still hoping for the “Best. Bumbershoot. Ever.”
SIX WEEKS later, in early May, Chris Porter is showing off his entirely filled whiteboard. “I’m done,” he says proudly, “the earliest the entire festival has been booked. There are a few little holes, but all the headliners are set.”
The lineup will be announced to the public that evening, when Allen Stone will appear at the Crocodile Café in a concert styled as a “prom.” “Allen Stone said he really wanted to perform at a prom, so we immediately sold out two nights, but we could have sold a week,” Porter says.
The prom goes better than he expected. Almost everybody dresses up; better yet, the lineup earns good reviews. “Something for everybody,” enthused The (Everett) Herald.
In the end, Porter has managed to pull in a superstar EDM act in Bassnectar. He’s done some minor shuffling — Kendrick Lamar, for instance, has another festival on the East Coast that same weekend, so he’ll fly in for Bumbershoot and immediately fly back. It’s the kind of extra effort — playing a one-off show for less money than he could make elsewhere — that Bumbershoot often elicits from performers, and it happens only because of Porter’s personal relationships. Bumbershoot booked Lamar a few years back, when he was coming up.
Lamar and Heart will headline Day One, but also on the bill that Saturday are Maceo Parker, Crystal Castles, Gary Numan, Charles Bradley and 30 other bands. It gives Porter almost the perfect mix of new and old, soul and alternative, rock and funk. Hearing the loud applause when the lineup is announced at the Croc, Porter is convinced he’s put together the “Best. Bumbershoot. Ever.”
BY JUNE, Porter is finalizing contracts. His job for this festival is mostly over.
The media have given his lineup high marks, and a few pundits have even called out his contribution. “Porter and company have put Bumbershoot back on the map as a musical must-see,” raved KIRO radio.
Porter regularly monitors social media, where criticism can often be brutal. But even on Twitter, Bumbershoot 2013 is finding much love. “Tons of people are coming from out of town for the Death Cab show,” he notes. And advance ticket sales are significantly ahead of previous years.
The whiteboard in Porter’s office is still there, but the black curtain has been removed. The only unknown left is how well it all plays.
Porter looks at all those sticky notes and sees beautiful music.
At last he knows he’s booked the “Best. Bumbershoot. Ever.”
Charles R. Cross is a music critic and author of eight books, including “Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain.”