The Economics Of Running A Free Concert Festival

By Keith Sharp
Rian Malloch
Rian Malloch

At a time when the slumping Canadian dollar is prohibitive of booking name international artists and the competition to secure top domestic talent is at an all time high, The Sound Of Music’s new programming chairman, Rian Malloch is aware that he and his crew of volunteers have their hands full maintaining a tradition that has been in place since 1980, Burlington Ontario’s free summer music festival.

“It’s certainly challenging,” noted Malloch as he prepares to stage Saturday’s kick-off, ticketed concert at the City’s Spencer Smith Park TD Stage which features a full days lineup of name bands including headliners, The Cult, plus The Headstones, The Glorious Sons and such support acts as Chemical Burn, Pop Evil, Silverstein and The Watchmen. “The weakened dollar has impacted what we can do and the fact that artists aren’t generating revenues from record sales anymore so they make their money performing which makes it challenging to book them.”

What works for the event is that Sound Of Music has been operational now for some 36 years, is established as one of Canada’s largest “free” festivals and as such is an attractive gig for both established acts and up-and-coming new performers. “Even if we can’t pay what some of the bigger, ticketed festivals can pay, we still find key bands prepared to play at our festival,” Malloch noted.

Glorious Sons
Glorious Sons

It doesn’t hurt either that the main free festival, which begins on Thursday June 16th and runs through until Sunday June 20th is one of the first major events of the domestic concert season so bands like Vancouver’s Mother Mother and Toronto’s July Talk perform at Burlington first, using the event as an anchor before moving on to appear at a number of other key festivals through the summer.

Set on five separate stages throughout Burlington, with the main draws performing at Spencer Smith Park’s TD stage  on the city’s scenic waterfront with a second key OLP stage located just west of the Waterfront Park. The more intimate Cogeco Stage is located at Civic Square, The Hyundai Stage, which spotlights new talent is located behind the Waterfront Hotel and there is a Kids Naturally Village located downtown which spotlights special entertainment for the youngsters.

Ultimate Urban
Ultimate Urban

“During a 10-day period we turn Burlington into a mini “Music City”, reports Malloch, an Ottawa native who has spent the past 20 years in the music industry as a road manager, booking agent and now head of his own music management company. “We inject about $7 million into the city’s economy so we are well supported by all three levels of government and we have many faithful corporate sponsors.”

Variety continues to be the festival’s theme with artists geared towards a wide range of musical tastes. Having four main stages (plus the kiddies’ platform) allows The Sound Of Music to feature major talent like Our Lady Peace, July Talk and Mother Mother along with special Country Music theme nights like the tribute acts like Shania Twain, Keith Urban and Garth Brooks and classic heritage acts like Lighthouse while giving much needed exposure to new bands like The Motorleague, Caveboy and The OBGM’s. There is also a major parade plus live entertainment in many venues throughout the week.

Carla Sacco - Shania Twain Experience
Carla Sacco – Shania Twain Experience

This year’s festival even includes a Friday afternoon concert for the seniors featuring tributes to Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and The Dreamboats. “Titled the Silver Series, It’s sponsored by the Alzheimer’s
Society and it gives our senior citizens’ their own special event,” allowed Malloch. “All the retirement homes get involved, sending buses of people to the park, we set up lounge chairs for them, serve them lunch and make it a special day for them.”

To increase the festival’s profitability, The Sound Of Music promoted it’s first ticketed concert last year, featuring the likes of Weezer, Our Lady Peace, Collective Soul and Finger Eleven and the venture was successful enough that festival organizers have re-established this Kick-Off event which goes Saturday at Spencer Smith Park.

“The Cult lead vocalist, Ian Astbury has a history with this area (he once resided in nearby Hamilton), The Headstones are a great live band and it allows us to stage a more traditional live concert and generates additional revenues for our budget,” Malloch explained. Tickets for Saturday’s concert cost $60 plus applicable taxes and fees and can be ordered via the festival website (see link below).

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Malloch is aware that starting next week, there is a head-spinning number of festival options available within an hour or two drive of the Hamilton area but by keeping the four-day festival a free event, there is always going to be an attraction to The Sound Of Music.”

“We are a non-profit event and it is a struggle and a challenge every year because the funding models are always changing and it is getting more and more difficult to access government funding,” admitted Malloch. “We are fully aware that our funding could eventually dry up but we are preparing for that possibility. We have a great and loyal corporate base that has supported us in the past and we hope will continue to support us”.

For complete scheduling information please link to

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