Not Your Parents' Bumbershoot: Steven Severin on the Future of Seattle's Long-Running Music & Arts Festival

Music News
Emily Fox
Bumbershoot 2016 // photo by Alex Crick (view set)

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It was announced last week that a new group has been chosen to take over Seattle's Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival. They want to make tickets more affordable, less dependent on big name headliners, and they want the festival to go beyond just Labor Day weekend. Here to talk about it is Steven Severin, co-owner of the music venue Neumos. He's part of the group that's being chosen to lead the next Bumbershoot. 

KEXP: So, Bumbershoot started back in the '70s, and from my understanding, used to be free in the '80s. Ticket prices jumped to a total of four dollars, and then by 2018, a weekend pass was more than $200, which also came with big headliners, when we got to the end. Tell me about your vision for the next Bumbershoot. 

Steven Severin: So, the funny thing I love about the ticket prices — and every year it comes up in social media, that the announcement gets made, the ticket prices get made, and it's like the annual tradition to complain about the ticket prices at Bumbershoot — that all said, we're trying to change the model that has been Bumbershoot for a long time. We're turning it into a year-round community arts and music engagement. We want to do events, not only on-campus but off-campus. We want to put an art lens on everything that we do.

One of the things that we find, and what happened with Bumbershoot in the past, is when you go to put together something like this — I like to peel back the curtain a little bit — it's expensive to run a festival. And so when you're doing so, you've got to look and see what is going to make sense so that you can keep doing it. And arts is the first thing that gets cut because you can't say, OK, if the Alabama Shakes play, I know this many people are going to come. If you say, I'm going to build this gigantic interactive art piece that I'm going to set on fire at the end, you have no idea how many people are going to come. And we're going to go back to that model and hopefully it works.

And, you know, Billie Eilish, I love her. That's not Bumbershoot.

What we want to do is make it so that Bumbershoot is affordable enough for people to just come want to hang out and bring back the discovery. Like, see what's happening. See why their friends are there. What bands. We're going to change the food and beverage, so it's not foot-long corndogs on a stick. And so the idea is just to try to make it a little more fun and inclusive because it got to the point where if you're not going to pay to see, I don't know, Chainsmokers and Lizzo, you're not going to pay the 150 bucks or whatever it costs — I really should figure out how much it cost to run Bumbershoot for the last few years — because you don't want to see the headliner and we want to take that out. Not that we're not going to have great bands. I've spent 25 years of my life trying to figure out what that next artist was that's coming up, because I don't run a giant arena or venue. I've ran Neumos, smaller places. So, it's always about what's next. And that's what we want to go back to, not who's happening now. And, you know, Billie Eilish, I love her. That's not Bumbershoot.

And I'm curious too, when you were brainstorming where you want Bumbershoot to go, and obviously you have the pulse on music today through Neumos, but if you were to just come up with something off the top of your head, what musicians or what bands in your mind would be great to be a part of this next Bumbershoot? 

I would like to see Black Pumas and TV on the Radio. That seems like... they're not arena bands. I mean, TV on the Radio, I don't even know if they're a band anymore. But that's kind of more what I think would make sense for the spaces that we have, for the amount of people that we can do. And there's still going to be a Climate Pledge Arena. That's still going to happen. I'm going to hold off on what we're going to do with that, but it's really damn exciting and different than it's been in the past. But right now, the focus is sort of the main campus. What we're going to do there, the Fisher and the Mural Amphitheater, and Broad Street over by the Pacific Science Center. But the other thing that we want to do is, we want to start using more spaces. Seattle Center's huge — you know, you're there. When we went did a site walk, we found rooms that I'd never even seen before. We want to do stuff in there, so we want you to go experience music, art, food, whatever in a space that you normally wouldn't have ever gone to, just to try and give you something different. 

And you know, I think Bumbershoot: a lot of people think, you know, one big event Labor Day and you're saying maybe to take it off campus, off of Seattle Center throughout the year. What would these other events look like throughout the year?

I won't say what they're going to be yet, but you could see something on the water. You could see an interactive arts installation at Sea-Tac. There's a lot of different things that we're going to do. The first year, we'll probably do four events that are separate from the main campus Labor Day event, and throughout the years, we're going to build this up. 

In terms of timeline, I'm guessing this probably wouldn't happen this year. When do you see this stuff rolling out? 

We're not going to do it until it's safe. And right now, we're in a pandemic where we're canceling tours and everything is just so up in the air. We just don't know. And when you do these type of huge events, it takes a long time to put together all the permitting and licensing and booking and creating the actual art pieces. It all takes time. So we're going to do it right, and we're going to do it by waiting. Maybe something will happen in 2022, towards the end, we'll see. We're not committed until 2023.

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