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For the purpose of this article, “Experiential Op-Ed” means an opinion piece that is based on personal experience rather than journalistic expertise. Please consider the entire content of this article to be prefaced with a giant “IMO.” This article does not reflect the views of Bettyandkora.com or its affiliates.
Pemberton Music Festival announced on May 18th that they had filed for bankruptcy after selling over $8 million dollars in tickets. Now they are facing allegations of fraud from one of the top music executives in the world and receiving scrutiny from their fans who feel scammed.
When I went to Pemberton in 2016, I noticed immediately that it was a disorganised mess, but the real issue was the deplorable, unsafe conditions the festival provided during showtime. Pemberton was a detriment to the music festival community, and its bankruptcy is the outcome they deserve for their failure to provide a safe and positive experience.
It is clear that the financial concerns of individual festival-goers were not a priority for organizers. You can read the breakdown of the shady bankruptcy deal here, here and here. I can save you some time by telling you that the gist of those articles is this:
According to Amp magazine, a week after Ticketfly advanced millions in ticket sales to Pemberton’s investors, those investors jumped ship, leaving Pemberton Music Festival LLC to declare bankruptcy a week later.
Pemberton also made this really sketchy move: 1 month before the bankruptcy announcement, they switched their general partners from Twisted Tree Circus GP (a company run by the CEOs of Huka Entertainment) to 1115666 B.C. Ltd, which was created by Pemberton’s investors last month.
Why would they switch general partners one month before declaring bankruptcy, while still selling tickets?
And, while Huka Entertainment (the producers of Pemberton) said publicly that they had nothing to do with the bankruptcy decision, they had a representative on the board that made the decision.
Last but not least, the festival’s owners structured the bankruptcy so that private companies which they themselves owned would get the first payouts, effectively leaving no recourse for the fans (besides going through the claims process).
During all of this, Pemberton was promoting ticket sales – up until the day before the bankruptcy announcement.
Marc Geiger, co-founder of Lollapalooza and the head of music at WME Entertainment (which represents some of the festival’s would-be headliners, including Tegan and Sara and Big Sean), called Pemberton’s organisers out.
“These guys are declaring bankruptcy, but none of them is actually bankrupt. Their shell company is bankrupt. And now they want fans to pay the price. That’s not bankruptcy. That’s fraud.”
Geiger has vowed to prosecute Pemberton organisers to the fullest extent of the law. Feel free to Google “Marc Geiger Pemberton” to see the myriad ways Geiger verbally crucifies the organisers. It’s incredibly entertaining.
All this bad business comes as absolutely no surprise to me — and the following sordid tale about Pemberton 2016 will explain why.
Pemberton’s deplorable organisation led to a backlash from attendees before the event even began. The festival had declared there would be shuttled to transport people from the parking lots with their gear, but this system was completely dysfunctional. Attendees paid an exorbitant $199 for camping, but some were forced to sleep in their cars in the parking lot their first night.
When my group showed up on Wednesday morning with the first round of attendees, none of the staff knew where the water stations were — not the “information” booth, not even First Aid.
One of the campground sections was left without port-o-potties. When this was brought to the campground manager’s attention, he said it was too late to do anything, and the entire weekend people were pissing and yes — even shitting — throughout the campground.
On Monday, when thousands of attendees were packing their gear out — over multiple kilometres — midday — in the literal middle of summer — they shut off the water stations.
Disorganisation led to huge security and staffing issues as well.
A friend of mine was volunteering as a Camping Ambassador, a job that entailed sitting at a booth, answering people’s questions and giving them free trash bags. While doing her job, she was repeatedly harassed and nearly assaulted. The festival property she was using was destroyed by attendees. She feared for her physical safety the entire weekend.
My friend dealt with security multiple times. After a few conversations, she learned that many of the contracted security staff were working 18-hour shifts because organisers didn’t hire enough personnel.
(Pemberton was also criticised for mistreating their security staff in 2015. In a letter to a Whistler newspaper, one woman recounts her son being hired and eventually having to admit himself to the medic tent for heat exhaustion due to his working conditions. Oh yeah, and they neglected to pay their security staff thousands of dollars in wages that year as well. Pemberton still owes people money from 2016, too.)
This lack of security was the most glaring on the last night of the festival. While my group was walking around after the music had stopped, we witnessed massive chicken fights with up to 200 people bustled around a central ring of fighting.
People were bleeding. My friend saw one girl who had a dislocated shoulder and was lying on the ground unconscious. Shortly after we began watching, two teenage girls mounted their inebriated male counterparts and the mob promptly began chanting, “Tits out for the boys!” A small group of ten or so cops were standing around the perimeter of the fight, watching.
Later on in the night, we watched as roaming mobs of people ransacked unoccupied campsites — not stealing anything, just destroying property. We would have reported it, but there was no one to report to. The only time we saw a security guard at this point was when they rushed by on ATV’s.
This environment reflects the culture of Pemberton. When we asked people why they were being violent and destructive, they said that we were in the wrong place, that’s what Pemberton was about, that’s why they came there. It’s chalked up to “blowing off steam” and “having a good time!”
My idea of letting off steam is dancing, enjoying music and being in nature — not getting as high and drunk as humanly possible or having my teeth busted out in a mid-dancefloor brawl (yes, that was a thing I saw happen).
My preference is community-centric events like Shambhala, Bass Coast and Motion Notion. You know, the kind where people actually care about their friends and actively try to avoid violence.
Call me crazy, but I don’t think this preference reflects poorly on my taste.
A great way to create a positive culture is by, you know, expressly stating it in your promotional materials and holding your attendees accountable for their behaviour. Take, for example, the schedule/brochure handed out to every attendee at Motion Notion 2016.
Nowhere on Pemberton’s website was there any statement about the festival’s stance on aggressive or disrespectful behaviour or trashing the festival grounds (and I know, because I looked for it!)
Furthermore, post-festival, Pemberton actually congratulated its patrons on doing a good job cleaning up after themselves! The Facebook post read, “Hi-Fives to all of YOU for helping us to keep our fest site clean. We’re out here now and ahead of schedule because of your help over the weekend.”
This outlandish bit of lip-service disappeared when Pemberton purged the internet of their social media accounts the day of the bankruptcy announcement, but some extensive google searching unearthed the Twitter version.
I mean, come on!!! Pemberton is known for its yearly desecration of the gorgeous ranch where it takes place. It’s one thing to just let it happen, not reprimanding attendees who trash their campsite all weekend and then clean it up afterwards. It’s another thing entirely to High-Five them for it!!!
The problem with failures such as Pemberton, the defunct Squamish, and the now-infamous Fyre Festival, is that they are detrimental to the industry as a whole. They cause festival-goers to lose confidence in event organisers. Worse, they paint festivals as hubs of drug-use and violence.
To be sure, there are individuals within the hierarchy of Pemberton’s organisers that are ethical human beings, but in light of my experience last year it’s very difficult to have empathy for them. The music festival industry is a fickle mistress, but there are festivals — even unsponsored ones — that have managed to attain success and longevity.
Pemberton created a shitty event with a shitty community that reflected poorly on the whole industry. Maybe if they had spent less time spouting vapid marketing phrases about having the “best weekend of your life,” and more time developing their own culture, this wouldn’t have happened. Maybe if they had spent less time worrying about how many blacked-out 18-to-21 year-olds they could shove into a field and more time worrying about organising an actual music festival, Pemberton wouldn’t have gone bankrupt. But I’m glad it did.