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Former Trucking Mogul Talks Entering the Concert Biz and Landing The Rolling Stones' Only Canadian Gig

Stan and Eva Dunford
Jess Baumung

Stan and Eva Dunford 

Stan Dunford talks growth of his company, Republic Live, and why he was worried about pulling off this weekend's Stones show even before Mick Jagger's emergency surgery.

Stan Dunford gulped when The Rolling Stones postponed their U.S. tour -- and the lone Canadian date at his sprawling 600-acre Burl's Creek Event Grounds in Oro-Medonte, just over an hour north of Toronto -- due to Mick Jagger's emergency heart surgery.  While wishing the fabulously fit 75-year-old frontman a speedy recovery, he hoped the biggest show he would stage to date would still be a go.

Fortunately, Jagger was back on his feet -- dancing no less -- in no time and the tour back on, with no need to even change the original June 29 date. Dunford is an unlikely player in the music business. He spent the start of his adult life in the trucking industry, beginning with the purchase of his first rig at age 18 and building Woodstock, Ontario's Contrans Corp into the largest publicly-traded trucking company in Canada.

In 2011, after selling his business, he started Toronto-based live entertainment company Republic Live and put on what is now the biggest country music festival in Canada, Boots and Hearts. In 2014, he and wife Eva Dunford -- who leads the creative and festival merchandising areas of business -- purchased Burl's Creek and proceeded to inject "ten of millions of dollars" into the forested area that can now accommodate 100,000 people and 33,000 cars -- and on-site camping. 

The three-day Way Home Music & Arts Festival, Canada's equivalent to Coachella, was the first big festival staged there, and while it took a "pause" in 2017, Boots and Hearts is still going strong, headlined this year (Aug. 8 to 11) by Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert and Maren Morris. Republic Live is also putting on the inaugural Big Sky Music Festival July 20, featuring Alabama, Travis Tritt and Diamond Rio.  

The Rolling Stones show includes an all-Canadian lineup of The Glorious Sons, Sloan, The Beaches, One Bad Son and a late-night post-Stones set by Dwayne Gretzky.

Stan Dunford spoke to Billboard about the difficulties of switching careers, why he purchased his own live event property, and what having the Stones at his space means to the future of his company.

What made you enter the concert business and start Republic Live in 2011?

I felt a little too young to retire and was wondering what my next chapter of my life would be. Someone brought the idea to me that there wasn't a multi-day camping outdoor festival in Ontario. There may have been a couple of small ones around. It felt like there was a need for it and, fortunately, I had the capital to invest in it. I had discussed it with some of the veterans in the business and they all warned me that was a very expensive proposition and a long-term thing. In order to succeed, you need to have the ability to weather the storms. 

We started with a rental facility called Mosport that held around 25,000 people. Our initial goal was to do a multi-genre festival. As a first-time festival, no one knowing who you are and knowing whether they're going to get paid or not because of other bad experiences with promoters, I couldn't get the acts.  It was frustrating as hell because we were ready to go and we couldn't get the artists to perform. 

Were you always a music fan? You ran and built this trucking company, but would you attend concerts?

I'm gonna make you laugh.  The first time I ever attended a festival was my own [laughs]. I'd never been to one in my life. However, having said that, I was a singer in a band when I was young, took singing lessons, sang in church.  On my mother's side, my great grandmother was a musician that toured with the orchestras across North America and she played the violin and piano. My grandmother was a studio pianist. My aunt was a singer. So music was a big part of my mom's side of the family and always was a big part of mine. I actually was crazy enough to believe that I was going to make my living as a singer. I never really had the time to go to festivals. I worked my ass off my whole life and was committed to what I was doing. I never seemed to have time for a holiday, let alone a festival.

You started Republic Live and launched Boots and Heart initially at Mosport. How did you put together your team or did you personally reach out to booking agents? 

Boots and Hearts was the afterthought. One of my relatives was friends with [since retired NHL player] Mike Fisher and Carrie Underwood. We were having trouble even getting country artists, but they reached out to Carrie and she agreed to headline the first-year festival. Once we had her, then everything else started to fall in place pretty quick.  As far as the team goes. believe it or not, we had not one person on our team, not in sponsorship, marketing, that had any previous experience operating a festival. Every one of us was walking in the dark. The talent side of it in order to solve that part, we hired an agent from the U.S. to book the talent [Amy Bryan of Reach].

Besides the difficulty of getting the talent, what were some of the things you were surprised about or didn't anticipate, whether it was bylaws or safety regulations or parking issues and traffic? 

There were a lot of them. One of the ones that stands out in my mind is the garbage/waste.  I had no idea this place was going to look like a landfill after it was over. We were very fortunate with traffic. We were able to handle it reasonably well and it got better each year. We made a lot of mistakes. Fortunately, the attendance or the customers never saw it. 

The first year of Boots and Hearts was also the worst possible weekend for weather that you could ever have short of a hurricane; it was torrential rain the entire three days. Tables and chairs were washing through tents. We have pictures of Tim McGraw standing on the walkout in the pouring rain, playing his heart out. Thank God for country artists; they're the hardiest and most accommodating group of artists of any genre of music that I've ever seen. Then just never give up. They played the pouring rain. 

That was probably the single biggest reason why, after losing as much money as I did, I kept going was because watching these crowds of people come over the hill into that bowl to watch that in the pouring rain and stand there soaked to their ass just absolutely blew my mind. I had no idea that people would ever weather that type of situation.

What was the thinking in purchasing Burl's Creek? I know the previous owner had staged some concerts there like The Tragically Hip (2012) and Jack Johnson (2008).

We actually outgrew the Mosport facility. We had more demand than we had room.  By year-three, we were having to sell out with a lot of people missing out and wanting to buy a ticket. I said we've got to have a bigger facility. Not many promoters in North America actually own their own facilities. I just thought it was a huge advantage.

There were only two facilities in the province that were licensed to hold these functions and one of them was Burl's Creek, which I had looked at previous to renting the Mosport facility, but after speaking to the owner the place was not going to meet our requirements. So I walked away from it, went to Mosport, but after that, when we outgrew it, I came back to the gentleman and we made a deal. Then I proceeded to spend tens of millions of dollars on this property and turned it into something that everyone -- you don't have to take my word for it, but a lot of the managers and some of the biggest bands in the country, and a lot of the actual festival operators came and have seen our facility -- conveyed to me that "Stan, we could only dream of having a facility like this."

Explain for those who haven't been there, what is appealing about this space? It's close to 600 acres.

It's the setting. I built amphitheaters after I bought the property. Our main bowl, the person that's standing at the back of 80,000 people doesn't have to be 7 feet tall to see. I built the bowl for the second stage as well, put all the road systems in.  I think we're the only venue in Canada that has 100 percent underground fiber optics throughout the whole facility. On a beautiful evening, it is truly a magical place to see your favorite artists.

The Rolling Stones are my favourite artist.

Seeing them in a stadium is a totally different experience. Here [Burl's Creek], I don't know what other word to use other than magical. It's so beautiful and it's so lush; the sun going down and the stars are coming out, it's just a wonderful place to watch your favourite artist.

Is the whole area zoned for festivals or just a portion of it?

The event grounds is zoned for the event. The surrounding land is zoned for camping and RVs and some entertainment. There's two types of zoning to it.

The amphitheaters that you built can accommodate what size act? 

Our second stage is perfect for 5000 to 20,000 people. It's even more intimate than the main bowl. It's another beautiful part of the property that's very intimate. Our Big Sky Festival this year, we're not anticipating we'll have more than somewhere between five and 10,000 people at it. And that'll be a perfect introduction to a new event.

How did you feel when you heard that The Rolling Stones tour was postponed because Mick had to undergo emergency surgery? I bet that made you gulp.

It sure did.  I was worried about it all along, even the initial deal, that something would happen that would interfere with our plans. And sure enough it did. At that point, had they not been able to play the venue, I would've been out all of the money we invested in marketing, and commitments we made to vendors. But we were encouraged to stay the course and I'm glad we did. Having The Rolling Stones here -- aside from the excitement of the Stones themselves -- for us, one of the biggest portions of the excitement is the fact that it puts Burl's Creek on the map in as big a way as you could ever do it. After the Stones have played here, people will have a hard time arguing that we don't have a facility that could accommodate anyone. 

How many people are you expecting?

We're hoping for somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000. 

Are there adjustments that you make for an older crowd that typically don't like festivals, standing for long periods, fighting huge crowds?  

For sure. The single biggest difference is just for the reasons you pointed out. We've never done a single-day event of this scale ever. So this is another learning curve for us. But we have grandstands built here now; it is like a stadium outside. So for those that don't want to stand, they can purchase seats. Ironically though, the majority of the tickets that are sold are GA tickets that are going to be standing in the bowl.

If people wanted to just go to the back and sit cross-legged and watch the stage and the screens from there, is there enough space for that?

Yeah. The further back you get, the more leisurely people get. There's not much room to sit down and cross your legs if you're in the front half of the bowl.  It's going to be elbow room only because that would be the avid fans. But the further back you get, the more room they'll be to sit down and watch it. They are sitting on beautiful grass. If they're there during the day for the opening acts, we have an all-Canadian group of bands that are going to be playing all afternoon. The Stones are on in the evening. 

AEG Presents is doing the Stones' U.S. tour. This is their only Canadian date. How does the partnership between Republic Live and AEG work?

We've purchased the show so the risk is ours, but AEG has been extremely helpful and so have the Stones. It's in everyone's interest that this be a memorable and epic experience for everyone. So no one wants to see anything fall off the rails. AEG has been intimately involved in helping us with marketing and with every aspect of the show. At this point, everybody is on-side and happy and just waiting for the day.

For someone who could've retired after you sold your trucking business, how has it been getting in the music business?

It's been more difficult than I thought it would be, for sure. I shouldn't have been surprised because it takes a lifetime to get good at something. It a lot of mistakes and a lot of learning and a lot of passion. At this stage of my life, it's taken longer than I thought and It's been more difficult than I thought. People ask me all the time, "What do you think of these people getting into the music business?" And I say, "I hope they hope they can weather the storm because it's a long process. It's a very, very costly process."


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