An unusual announcement popped up this week on The Yardbirds’ website: “We have heard NUMEROUS rumors THAT ZepFest, WHICH IS SCHEDULED TO BE HELD at National Harbor, the weekend of May 27, 28, and 29, HAS BEEN CANCELED. HOWEVER, DESPITE OUR REPEATED REQUESTS, THE PROMOTERS HAVE FAILED TO CONFIRM OR DENY THE RUMORS.”
For months, the Yardbirds have been booked to play Zep Fest, this month’s tribute to Led Zeppelin, the legendary titans of 1970s hard rock. They received a deposit from the event’s organizers. “The band is ready and willing and able to play,” Mike Oberman, who manages the modern-day iteration of the British blues-rock band that launched the careers of guitar gods Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck, declared earlier in the week. The Yardbirds were simply waiting for their airfare.
But no one will be flying the band to the D.C. area on Memorial Day weekend. Originally scheduled to take place at National Harbor and the complex’s Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, Zep Fest is now off. Not that anyone’s told Oberman or his clients. “WE AWAIT WORD FROM THE ZEPFEST PROMOTERS,” reads the note on the band’s site. “ONLY THEY CAN CONFIRM OR DENY WHETHER the rumours OF ZEPFEST’S DEMISE are TRUE OR untrue.”
The Yardbirds aren’t alone. As of Tuesday, the Gaylord hotel was still in the dark. So was MissionTix, one of the firms handling ticket sales for the festival. So was Jeff Krulik, the local documentarian—and well-established chronicler of heavy-metal fandom—who was slated to show a rough cut of a new film at Zep Fest. Krulik says he hasn’t heard from organizers in at least six weeks.
Mark Boudreau, Zep Fest’s main promoter, says fans will have their tickets refunded. As for the talent, he says he’s still spreading the bad news.
The performers have a right to be surprised. The festival had been in the works since last year. Despite a few red flags, it looked like it was still a go until this week. That’s when letters written in terse legalese reached performers—at least some of them. Everyone else found out via the notice on Zep Fest’s website. Though tickets will be refunded, fans who bought airplane tickets to travel to the show are out of luck. MissionTix, likewise, says it may take a loss on refunds. Boudreau says he and the festival’s financiers will lose much of their investment (though he won’t say how much that is).
As with any business, new rock festivals have a high rate of failure. Witness the recently aborted DC Music Fest at Yards Park. But just like Led Zeppelin—a band whose shamanistic performances once fueled rumors of Satanism—Zep Fest’s cancellation remains mysterious. In Boudreau’s telling, the collapse wasn’t just due to the box-office problems that typically doom over-ambitious promoters. (Tickets were originally set around $300 for a three-day pass, and eventually slashed in half). As for the real culprit, Boudreau doesn’t offer much elaboration. “We’re in the midst of the shutdown of the engine with notifications and such, so it’s not something I can really get into in grave, grave detail,” he says.
Zep Fest, of course, was based on a familiar concept: a nostalgia-fueled rock festival for baby boomers with cash to spend and memories to rekindle. Like many such events—such as Abbey Road on the River, a Beatles-themed festival that took place last September at National Harbor—Boudreau’s would’ve featured tribute acts playing covers and dressing the part. But that wasn’t all: The contemporary incarnations of ’60s bands The Yardbirds (which no longer has any members named Page, Clapton, or Beck) and Vanilla Fudge (an influence on Zeppelin) were set to headline. David “Honeyboy” Edwards, a legend of the Delta blues, was booked. So were bands who were influenced by Zeppelin, like Zebra, the ’80s hard rock band once known for singles like “Tell Me What You Want” and “Who’s Behind the Door?” Speakers, like Richard Cole, once Led Zeppelin’s road manager, and Dave Lewis, a Led Zeppelin historian, were on the slate. It was a rock festival, true, but it was also a history lesson.
Though he’s cagey about certain other details, Boudreau cites a very specific number when asked how many fans he’d hoped to attract: 15,200 per day. But he admits there wasn’t a huge frenzy to attend the festival, no matter how many factors contributed to its demise. That might be the biggest lesson of Zep Fest: that short of an actual Led Zeppelin reunion—which happened in 2007 at a one-off gig, to great fanfare—people no longer care very much about “the biggest band in the world.”
What happens when a music festival collapses? While marquee bands like The Yardbirds and Vanilla Fudge had contracts and guaranteed deposits, members of some smaller groups say they didn’t have anything on paper, just verbal agreements. “They just didn’t live up to their part of the bargain,” says James Elliott, who manages the L.A.-based tribute band Led Zepagain. “They didn’t want to pay us.” Elliott says he agreed—verbally—to an “all-in” deal in which the band agreed to pay travel costs, provided they were paid in advance. The money was supposed to come six months ago, Elliott says; a week and a half ago, when it still hadn’t arrived, Elliott says he finally decided to pull out.
Boudreau declined to elaborate on conversations with Elliott or other bands. Asked if he had bitten off more than he could chew by booking around 50 acts, Boudreau says: “Given the circumstances, some of the acts that are less well-known, maybe they bit off more than they could chew,” he says. “Maybe they expected a big payday.”
Boudreau says a number of factors led the organizers to cancel the show. Returning to the automotive metaphor, he says: “If you have an engine and it has eight cylinders and only five are firing on time and three are only working on an intermittent basis, the car will still run…but you’re not going to win some kind of race with it.”
Some of those factors, based on conversations with Boudreau, the venues, and the ticket sellers: sales of tickets (Boudreau wouldn’t give specifics), rooms booked at the National Harbor’s flagship hotel (convention events like Boudreau’s must commit to filling a certain number of rooms in order to book the place), and the cost of airfare for talent (an attempt to broker a sponsorship deal with an airline didn’t work out, Boudreau says). Boudreau also alludes to some sort of municipal licensing snafu, but declines to offer any details.
Joe Loverde, the founder of MissionTix, a Baltimore firm, won’t say how many tickets his company sold for Zep Fest. “It wasn’t as large [a number] as the promoters had once planned,” he says.
Amie Gorrell, a spokeswoman for Gaylord, says the hotel has been in weekly contact with Boudreau since last fall. She says the event had made very few hotel-room bookings, but says Boudreau assured officials that ticket sales were strong. For such events, room bookings don’t tend to surge until the final two to three weeks before an event, Gorrell says, so the hotel wasn’t worried. And last week, a member of Boudreau’s team did a walk-through. The loss won’t be huge for Gaylord but Gorrell says she hasn’t heard from Boudreau since the festival was canceled.
Boudreau is 50 and lives in Arlington. According to a November 2009 copy of his résumé—forwarded by a group he performed some contractual work for—he has a long history in “guerilla marketing,” managing marketing tours on a contract basis for brands like Boost Mobile and Maxwell House. He’s tour-managed for musical tribute acts. In the mid-’90s, he ran the restaurant Las Cruces on 14th Street NW as well as a catering company. Last year, he was contracted as an on-site operations manager for Abbey Road on the River, which took place in September, also at Gaylord. Boudreau says he has experience planning large events, musical and otherwise, but declines to further discuss his work history.
Gaylord’s Gorrell and Rocell Viniard, National Harbor’s director of marketing, say Boudreau was vetted, and that throughout the planning stages they’d had no concerns. Like every person interviewed for this article, neither knew how Boudreau was financing the festival—some referred to a group of backers based in New York. Again, Boudreau isn’t offering any sunshine.
Asked if National Harbor would work with Boudreau again, Viniard says: “Probably not at this point.”
It turns out that planning a nostalgia event is hard work—just as hard as booking a roster of contemporary acts. Gary Jacob, the founder of Abbey Road on the River, started his festival in Louisville 10 years ago, and added the D.C. version in 2010. “Anything can happen at these outdoor events,” he says. “What you have to do is put systems in place…so that the only X factors are weather and what P.T. Barnum said: ‘If the people do not want to come, you can’t stop them.’” When that happens, Jacob says, you have to scale back your production.
“When we came to Washington, I cut our expectations in half from what Louisville does,” Jacob says. Last year’s local version of Abbey Road on the River had 80 bands and about 15,000 festival-goers, he says.
Zep Fest, with about 50 acts booked, was shooting for about the same attendance. The only problem: A group dressed up in Sgt. Pepper’s outfits is a much easier sell than obscure bluesmen and skiffle bands, no matter what bearing they had on Jimmy Page’s guitar solos. Especially if tickets are $300.
Boudreau, who listened to Led Zeppelin as a kid and through it eventually discovered the blues, may simply have been too much of a fan for his own good.
“I wanted people to understand Pinetop Perkins…and witness the power of Vanilla Fudge,” he says. “Nobody wanted [Zep Fest] to happen more than I did.”
Update | May 19, 11:48 a.m.: According to The Yardbirds’ publicist, Zep Fest finally contacted Mike Oberman last night to let him know that the event is now off.