For the first time in 37 years, there will be no WE Fest in Detroit Lakes. But just what the sudden cancellation of the 2020 festival means for the area is not yet known.
The new owners of WE Fest, Live Nation, told the Tribune Monday, Nov. 4, that they will take a year off to regroup.
"After careful consideration, we have decided to postpone WE Fest 2020 and come back strong in August of 2021," Brian O'Connell, president of country touring for Live Nation and creator of its Country Nation festivals, told the Tribune Monday morning, Nov. 4.
Contrary to the rumors that have been circulating, O'Connell added, that doesn't mean they are looking for a new home. O'Connell said the country music festival is staying put at Detroit Lakes' Soo Pass Ranch for the foreseeable future. WE Fest was founded in 1983.
"All of the rumors that are flying around that we're going to move the festival and all that kind of stuff are not true," he said. "We want to take the time to get to know the 37-year tradition of WE Fest and talk to as many people as we can who have been involved with it. ... There is a lot of history that we need to be respectful of, and a lot of people who are very invested in this festival."
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O'Connell added that since the acquisition of WE Fest from Townsquare Media took place so close to the 2019 festival, he and his team "didn’t feel like we had a good enough handle on things" to begin lining up acts for the following year and announce the first of next year's headliners during the event, as had been the tradition under previous owners.
"Instead of just booking a band and throwing tickets up on sale and figuring the rest of it out later, we hit the brakes," he said.
Townsquare Media, a Connecticut-based media company, purchased the Detroit Lakes festival in 2014 for $21.5 million in cash, along with stock and other considerations. On Aug. 6, days after the 2019 WE Fest concluded, Townsquare Media CEO Bill Wilson announced the $10 million sale of about 200 events, including WE Fest, to Live Nation.
Next year's festival would have been the first promoted by Live Nation.
By canceling the 2020 festival, and giving themselves an extra 12 months to plan, O'Connell added, Live Nation hopes to get a better handle on what fans want (and don't want) to see, what the community's expectations are, what has worked in the past and what hasn't — and how all that fits in with their own expertise in running music festivals across the country.
"It is our intention to restore WE Fest to its proper place nationally, and locally, as a premier festival," he continued. "Hopefully, it will last another 37 years. That's our goal."
O'Connell also noted that Live Nation wants to be "as transparent as possible" with regard to its future plans for WE Fest, in order to minimize unfounded rumors and speculation about where the festival is headed.
Of course, that speculation has already begun.
"Thank you to Townsquare Media (New York City, N.Y.) and Live Nation (Beverly Hills, Calif.) for ruining and officially killing one of the largest and most successful country music festivals in the world in only a few short years," wrote one upset fan who shared the Detroit Lakes Tribune's post on Facebook.
"Well if it helps make it as great as it used to be, then I guess a year off is okay," wrote a more optimistic Facebook user.
Some Twitter fans have already started a petition at change.org for Live Nation to "Bring Back WE Fest 2020."
Meanwhile, Detroit Lakes residents and businesses are getting used to the idea of an August without the popular event.
Local retailers admit the festival's absence will be felt, but are adopting a "wait and see" attitude regarding how significant it will be.
"Not having WE Fest in 2020 will be an adjustment," Chamber of Commerce President Carrie Johnston said. "The community prepares all year to welcome festivalgoers each August."
"It will have an impact, certainly .... it's kind of an unknown until we get to that point," said Randy Buhr, manager of Detroit Lakes' municipal liquor store, Lakes Liquor. This past August, Lakes Liquor hosted an autograph session and whiskey tasting with WE Fest performer John Rich of the duo Big & Rich.
The impact won't be as significant as it might have been if the shutdown had occurred a few years ago: While the store sees an additional 1,700 customers, on average, during the week leading up to the festival, Buhr said that number has declined somewhat since 2014, when it reached its peak.
In addition, he said, "there could be other events that could transpire instead of (WE Fest) that could possibly bring people to town."