LouFest founder shares thoughts on cancellation of music festival

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

In 2010, Brian Cohen, a documentary filmmaker, founded LouFest, a small music festival in Forest Park with performers such as Broken Social Scene and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. Six years later, the festival had expanded to feature names like Ludacris, Hozier and The Avett Brothers. In 2016, Cohen sold his stake in ListenLive Entertainment, the company that stages the festival, and started a new event, Murmuration, a music, arts and technology festival that in vision resembled South by Southwest, the famous annual gathering in Austin, Texas. But unlike LouFest, Murmuration did not become an annual event, and Cohen departed St. Louis for Michigan.

On Wednesday morning, he spoke with the Jewish Light about the cancelation of his creation, LouFest.

When did you hear that LouFest had been cancelled?

I woke up to it just like everyone else.

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And what was your reaction?

Well, disappointment, first and foremost for St. Louis — it’s going to have an impact locally and regionally. It’s naive to think otherwise, but hopefully the city can recover and move on and find the next big thing to embrace and go all in with that next thing.

So I take it you don’t think LouFest is going to make a comeback next year?

Nothing is impossible. It certainly has a great reputation, so maybe it has a chance to survive. I think it would require a management change. People would have to be able to embrace some new leadership and give it a fresh start. I know from looking at other festivals that have gone through similar things, it’s really hard to rebound once you have lost trust. It’s one thing to lose trust with the fans; it’s a whole other thing to lose trust with band management because a festival can only survive if it has band management on its side, and once you start losing that, it’s very difficult to regain.

No manager wants to subject their band to an event that may not be successful or put their people in a compromising position, so that’s why their confidence is so important.

You said you know from other festivals that it’s difficult to rebound. What are the examples you’re thinking of?

There have been quite a few festivals that have not made it. Regionally, there was Kanrocksas [Music Festival. It had been planned as an annual music festival in Kansas City but was cancelled its second year due to low ticket sales.] There has been quite a few. I think they go down for different reasons and every festival is unique and every situation is unique.

The organizers attributed the cancellation to a “loss of two of the event’s top sponsors, scheduling and contract issues with major artists, and existing debt from previous events,” a forecast for heavy rain throughout the weekend and “a bit of unfortunately timed media coverage” that “caused many of our vendors and artists to demand up-front payment just days before gates were set to open. LouFest simply couldn’t make that happen.” What did you think of their explanation?

Again, I have been out of the festival since the end of 2015, so I don’t have any insight into what has happened since then. I think the statement listed ticket issues, vendor and sponsor issues and weather. If tickets are soft, you typically know that a few months in advance. (The organizers did not list low ticket sales as a reason for the cancellation.) The same with sponsorship, you have to have that stuff locked up months in advance if it’s going to be successful. And with vendors, you have to pay your vendors. There is no way around that, so I think the issues may have been valid, but it seems like they could have been disclosed much earlier.

And I think organizers have to take responsibility. If a city and its fans are going to entrust you with producing a signature event, then you have to be responsible with it. You have to be transparent. You have to have some real flow of information if there are issues or things that people should be aware of. I think when the promoters eventually go on record — and hopefully they will soon, they will answer those questions about why all of this was held until right at the end.

Is there one factor that you attribute the cancellation to most?

Again, without having inside access, I think they were just overwhelmed by the finances. Apparently they were in the hole for years past. Bills came due and they weren’t able to cover (them). But like I said, there needs to be a real accounting for this and a couple paragraphs in a press release almost inevitably creates more questions than it answers. There needs to be some tough questions asked and honest answers given.

Could you talk about your exit from organizing the festival and the transition to the current operators?

A couple of the people came on in the middle of year one and they became minority partners year two. They had kind of limited roles but when I decided to exit, they expressed interest in taking it over, so that’s the way I went. Certainly my hope was that LouFest would continue to be successful, but that turned out not to be the case.

Do you still feel a connection to the festival? Is it personally distressing to you that it was cancelled?

Yeah, I moved to Michigan a couple years ago, so I’m not in St. Louis anymore, but this was supposed to be my legacy to the city. This thing that I cared so much about and really poured my life into for a number of years, so personally it’s very distressing. But on the other hand, how this affects me personally couldn’t be less important right now. The real focus needs to be on making sure ticket holders are refunded quickly and painlessly and making sure vendors are paid for the work they have done this year and in years past.

What are you doing these days?

I moved to Grand Rapids a few years ago. We wanted to be closer to the in-laws, so that the grandparents could have a bigger role in our kids’ lives, and so right now, I got into politics. I am the finance director for a U.S. congressional campaign. I found a terrific candidate, Cathy Albro, who has a chance to turn a traditionally red district blue, so that’s where all my time and energy is right now.

When you hear news like this, do you miss the concert business at all?

(Laughs) I didn’t miss it this morning. But when it goes well, the concert business is about as great as it gets. Being able to provide a one-of-a-kind experience for people is a real honor but when things go bad, they can get pretty bad, so I certainly am not missing that part of it.