Future of Sonoma Music Festival in doubt

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This weekend was supposed to mark the Sonoma Music Festival’s 30th year and second at its new location at the Field of Dreams.

But after slow ticket sales forced cancellation of the three-day event last month, the future of the local festival favorite is very much in doubt, according to its founder and producer Bruce Cohn.

“I do not see there being a 2017 festival,” Cohn told the Index-Tribune via email on Friday. “Not with me producing it, at least.”

Cohn says it’s simply too financially risky to run a local independent classic-rock festival in an era when so many mega-festivals are taking place.

Last year’s Sonoma Music Festival featured former Beatle Ringo Starr, Allman Brothers founder Gregg Allman and festival regulars the Doobie Brothers, which Cohn has long managed; the event was successful enough to cut charitable donations in the amounts of $80,000 and $40,000 to the Fisher House Foundation and the Redwood Empire Food Bank, respectively.

But this year’s weekend concert series with John Fogerty, the Steve Miller Band and Toby Keith ran up against stifling competition from other festivals featuring classic rockers – such as last weekend’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco and the who’s who of rock royalty at this weekend’s Desert Trip. That, coupled with the unavailability this year of the popular draw Doobie Brothers, forced Cohn to pull the plug.

And now Cohn seems to be indicating that the plug may never be put back in.

“Unforeseen pitfalls are bound to happen more often in the future,” said Cohn. “With so many festivals taking place all over the country now, and in places like Golden Gate Park, the odds are unlikely that a low-ticket-sale event could happen again without huge risk to the producer.”

Cohn said he’s been “able to avoid that risk for 29 successful years doing charity concerts.”

But not so this year. Cohn said he’s having to dip deeply into his retirement savings “in order make sure everyone was paid back for this year’s cancellation.”

“Someone else will have to take the hit next time,” said Cohn. “I simply can’t afford to.”

The cancellation of the 2016 festival was announced in early September, primarily due to a surprisingly sluggish ticket sales. At the time, festival organizers suspected the problem might be the competing Desert Trip festival taking place the same weekend near Palm Springs, with a lineup including the Rolling Stones, the Who, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Paul McCartney.

According to Cohn, the majority of the Sonoma Music Festivals’ VIP regulars had opted to go to the desert instead, leaving the local festival, which had spent thousands of dollars to set up and promote the event, in serious financial straits. In an attempt to avoid deeper debt, the decision was made to call it off.

Since then, the big question has been: Will the Sonoma Music Festival – an event held in esteem by many local music lovers – return in 2017? The prognosis appears unlikely, according to Cohn.

Festival organizers estimate that over the last three decades, the concert series – until last year known as the B.R. Cohn Charity Events Fall Music Festival and held at Cohn’s former winery in Glen Ellen – has raised nearly $7 million for a variety of veterans’ and children’s charities.

The refunding of 2016 tickets was slated to begin Oct. 1. Festival public relations director Michael Coats said refunds will take up to five days to process. EventBrite, the ticket-selling platform used by the festival, will be handling all refunds. “It should be all done next week,” said Coats.

Email David at david.templeton@sonomanews.com.

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