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Cohn cancels Sonoma Music Festival

“We’re all in shock, total shock,” said Bruce Cohn, shortly after announcing this week that his annual Sonoma Music Festival – one of the North Bay’s most anticipated music events of the year – has been canceled for 2016.

“It’s just so unfortunate,” Cohn said, “because I believe it’s the best lineup we’ve ever had in 30 years. I never would have guessed this would be the result of what we all thought was going to be our biggest year ever.”

This fall would, in fact, have marked the Sonoma Music Festival’s 30th anniversary. The announcement of the cancellation was made less than six weeks before musical superstars Toby Keith, John Fogerty, Dave Mason and the Steve Miller Band were scheduled to perform at downtown’s Field of Dreams, with the event scheduled for Oct. 7 to 9.

How, exactly, did this happen? As explained in a statement posted on the event’s website, “The primary cause is very low ticket sales.”

The usually sold-out classic rock event – held until last year at B.R. Cohn Winery in Glen Ellen – found itself in an unforeseen “battle of the bands” with another festival taking place the same weekend. The massive, epically named Desert Trip festival, produced by L.A.’s for-profit concert firm Goldenvoice, is a one-time-only event featuring a superstar line-up including the Rolling Stones, The Who, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and former Beatle Paul McCartney. Unfolding the same weekend as the Sonoma Music Festival – then repeating the same all-star lineup the following weekend – Desert Trip is set to take place in Indio, near Palm Springs. One might assume the nine-hour drive would have placed the event far enough away as to not be a serious competitor to Sonoma’s own festival. But according to Cohn, longtime manager of the Doobie Brothers and a lifelong supporter of classic rock artists, the draw of so many aging rock legends in one place has proven to be irresistible.

“What can we do? Those are the biggest acts in the world,” Cohn said. “Those artists will never perform together again. Our regulars here are classic rock fanatics. They come from all over, and they buy the VIP packages. Those regulars, they all are going to that show in Southern California. It absolutely killed us.”

Cohn says that tickets for this year’s Sonoma event were selling well – right up until the day the Desert Trip extravaganza was announced.

“Sales plummeted, immediately,” Cohn said. “By now, the beginning of September, we’d normally have been on track to sell 1,000 VIP tickets. You know how many we’ve sold? We’ve sold 288. It was devastating.”

The Sonoma Music Festival – which last year welcomed the other living Beatle, Ringo Starr, to Sonoma – is a major fundraiser for B.R. Cohn Charity Events, which provides funds to a number of local organizations supporting veterans, the hungry and homeless and underprivileged children. Over the last 29 years, the festival has raised nearly $7 million for those charities. Last year, slightly over 10,000 people attended the event, raising more than $200,000. According to Sonoma Music Festival public relations director Michael Coats, the low number of advance ticket sales this year signaled a potentially sizable loss for Cohn’s nonprofit, and canceling the series was the only way to avoid a serious hit to the charity.

“I’m not a promoter,” said Cohn of his festival efforts. “I do this to raise money for charity. I do this for the community. I’m not a big corporation that can amortize one weekend’s losses over all the other weekends. I do one show a year.”

Asked about any losses the nonprofit will end up experiencing because of the cancelation, Cohn says, “We are working it out. We’re talking to all of the artists and everyone else involved. Yes, we will take a big hit, but the loss is going to be a lot less than it would have been had we not pulled the plug.”

Cohn says that the best way the community can help is to recognize that the purpose of the concert event is to help people in need, and to keep alive a spirit of generosity. While full refunds will be available beginning Oct. 1 through the event’s website, Cohn is hoping that ticket-buyers – especially those who already purchased tickets at the VIP level – will choose not to take the refund, effectively redirecting that money to B.R. Cohn Charity Events.

Additionally, Cohn and his team will be announcing other ways that classic rock fans can support the nonprofit.

“We have a lot of rock memorabilia we’re going to be selling and auctioning,” he said. “We have signed guitars and a whole bunch of other cool things that have been donated. In the next week or so, we’ll be announcing how people can bid on those items, with all the money going to mitigate the losses of losing this year’s festival.”

The question many folks are asking now is, will the Sonoma Music Festival be back next year?

“If we can somehow work this so that we break even, I will consider doing this again,” Cohn says. “I assume our regular supporters will be back, if we did it again. In a normal situation, this would have been a very successful show. As it turns out, this was not a normal situation.”

Contact David at david.templeton@sonomanews.com.