Salmon Festival ready for 'critical' 25th anniversary

Justin Brake
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Grand Falls-Windsor councillor Jim Courtney and Canadian rock bassist Duncan Coutts have something in common: they both know throwing a summer music festival is toilsome at the best of times.

Coutts, bass player for Canadian rock band Our Lady Peace, stopped organizing festivals nearly a decade ago when he and his band mates ended their short but famous run of "Summersault" rock music festivals in 2000 because "the festival circuit just seemed to die out and the economics didn't make sense."

Our Lady Pease headlines the bill at this years Salmon Festival concert Saturday. Submitted photo

Grand Falls-Windsor councillor Jim Courtney and Canadian rock bassist Duncan Coutts have something in common: they both know throwing a summer music festival is toilsome at the best of times.

Coutts, bass player for Canadian rock band Our Lady Peace, stopped organizing festivals nearly a decade ago when he and his band mates ended their short but famous run of "Summersault" rock music festivals in 2000 because "the festival circuit just seemed to die out and the economics didn't make sense."

Courtney, chairman for the Exploits Valley Salmon Festival, manages the ups and downs of combining municipal politics and popular music in festival form on what seems to be a daily basis this time of year.

This week the town of Grand Falls-Windsor hosts the Salmon Festival's 25th anniversary celebrations, which run July 16-20. As is the case with any marriage or event, however, 25 years doesn't necessarily imply an unblemished quarter century.

Carrying the baggage of a $250,000 two-year deficit into the mid-summer festivities, the event has many doubting both the town's capacity to host a concert of such proportions and the committee of councillors' ability to organize and execute it successfully.

"This is the 25th (festival) and it's a critical year," says Courtney, speaking to The Telegram at a downtown cafÉ across from the town hall in Grand Falls-Windsor. "If, by chance, this one has gone soft, if we don't make money this year, we're really going to have to sit down and re-evaluate what we're doing."

Each year, Courtney announces the revenues brought in by the festival and is agitated by some of his critics' disparaging remarks following the deficit years.

Commenters of an October 2008 article, "Councillors debate Salmon Festival future," posted on local newspaper The Advertiser's website, offered varying opinions on the festival's level of success, referencing economics, music trends and demographics as factors which need to be taken into account.

Courtney has his own list of variables he believes play a role in the concert's year-to-year success, such as location, weather conditions, and an outmigration of the key 18-25-year-old demographic.

He also recognizes the need to co-ordinate the event in a way that will best adapt to the evolving demands.

"We may have to recognize, too, that there may be a shifting demographic," he says.

"What percentage of our demographic is living or working in Alberta? How much outmigration has occurred? I think we'd be crazy not to acknowledge that."

The festival committee's current attempt to draw crowds large enough to achieve economic adequacy, which Courtney says is not necessarily a break-even mark, is to appeal to as many music fans as possible.

"This year people are saying 'You've got to get something new, get something fresh.' So we spent a tonne of money this year. We're bringing Akon and that's no small feat."

Courtney hopes the acquisition of the international R&B superstar as a co-headliner alongside Our Lady Peace will boost the festival's appeal to the younger demographic.

As far as a benchmark indicator goes in measuring the event's economic success, he says a surplus is not a sufficient indicator.

"If we take another $50,000 loss, as a council we'll take that hit," he explains. "(Last year) we took a $50,000 loss, but you look at the $2 million or $3 million in revenues coming to the town - it's worth that to us. You can't get that kind of return on investments."

The committee also enlisted a diverse local component for the Saturday concert, including emerging country music artist Tara Oram of Canadian Idol fame, recent Polaris Music Award shortlist nominees Hey Rosetta!, energetic Celtic four-piece The Navigators, Grand Falls-Windsor cover band Papa String, and YouTube phenomena Donnie Dumphy, who will host the show.

From his home in Toronto, Coutts says he's eager to be a part of the roster.

"I don't only listen to rock music, so sometimes if you have to vie for an audience it can be a lot of fun," he says. "If there's a good cross-section of different types of music then sign me up."

Salmon Festival Splash Concert ticket sales, an early indicator of the festival's potential overall annual success, were approaching the critical mark last week, Courtney says.

"In order for us to break even, we need to be at 40 per cent of our sales of early bird (tickets), and that's exactly where we are, at 40 per cent of our break-even (number)."

Tickets now cost $59.50 until the day of the concert and admission at the gate is $69.50.

"Even at 69 bucks you're getting good value on the show," Courtney says.

The Salmon Festival kicked off Thurs with the popular annual Salmon Dinner at Joe Byrne Arena and wraps up with Grand Falls-Windsor Day festivities and "Newfie Night" Monday.

For more information, visit www.salmonfestival.com.

Organizations: Our Lady Peace

Geographic location: Grand Falls-Windsor, Grand Falls, Alberta Toronto

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