"The anxiety, the stress, the insanity of it all -- we were ready to throw in the towel," says The Do Lab's Dede Flemming of the California festival's challenges during the pandemic.
Lightning In a Bottle will not happen in 2021 due to the ongoing pandemic.
Festival organizers The Do Lab announced today (Mar. 1) that the longstanding California festival, which takes place annually on Memorial Day weekend, will join the ranks of events like Coachella, Ultra Music Festival and Movement in cancelling for 2021.
The announcement follows a challenging year for festival promoters, particularly independent festival promoters like The Do Lab. Started in 2005 in Los Angeles, the company is operated by Josh, Jesse and Dede Flemming. The brothers faced backlash last March when they announced the cancellation of Lightning In a Bottle 2020 with a statement saying they would not be able to offer ticket refunds, but were working on a ticket crediting system to apply for following years.
The trio now say this statement came amidst "an absolutely devastating 48-hour period" as the live events industry collapsed in real time with the onset of COVID-19. Over a three-day period last March, The Do Lab cancelled LIB 2020 and laid off nearly its entire staff, with the brothers placing a freeze on their own salaries while scrambling for money that they could use to offer the partial ticket refunds outlined in a subsequently amended refund policy. By that time, the company had been hit with a pair of class action lawsuits related to their original refund policy. (Similar suits were brought against SXSW and Ultra Music Festival and other major entities like Stubhub.)
It was a nightmare scenario during which the brothers seriously considered ending Lightning In a Bottle altogether. But while the last year has been extremely difficult, it's also given the Flemmings time to reflect on what they do, why they do it, and how they can do it better in 2022.
"We really want people to understand just how fired up we are to rebuild," Dede Flemming tells Billboard. "If anything, the last 12 months has made us realize just how passionate we are about what we do, which is creating experiences for people. Having to that put on hold has been arguably the hardest part of all of this. We love building and creating moments for our fans, just as much as they love experiencing them, and without those moments, life has felt very flat. Though it's been incredibly challenging, we, and LiB will come out better for it, and we think 2022 will be the best festival we've ever put together."
Here, the Flemming brothers discuss the past year, rebuilding trust with their fans and their optimism about the future of Lightning In a Bottle.
The announcement that LiB 2020 was cancelled and that you wouldn't be able to offer refunds came on March 21 of last year, and it seemed like things really hit the fan in terms of people not liking the options you presented. What was that like for you, and why did you decide to initially play it that way?
Dede Flemming: First, we decided that we just had to come out and be honest. With how devastating and emotional all of that was, the first announcement was that we can’t do this festival in May. We tried to leave it a little more vague, because we didn’t want to say it was cancelled, we also didn’t want to say it was postponed. We just needed a little more time to wrap our heads around it, because it was so abrupt.
When we inevitably said that we can’t do refunds, that was at a place of extreme honesty. Our business was devastated by cancelling. The business model for an independent promoter, even some of the big guys, is that you sell a ticket and use that money to produce the festival. Once we sold all those tickets, because we made that cancellation in mid-March and our festival was in May, we’d spent the money producing the show. We just looked at the economics of it and were like, "We can’t refund people. There is no out here."
Then what happened?
DF: We talked about, "What if we just postponed and made all of these tickets good later?" That’s like jumping off a cliff, because those millions of dollars that were already spent aren’t coming back in when we have to reproduce the festival, so it’s putting ourselves in an impossible situation for the future. With the whole mindf--k of the 48-72 hours that led to that email, the three of us were just like, "We don’t want to do this anymore." The anxiety, the stress, the insanity of it all -- we were ready to throw in the towel.
As in, you didn’t want to do the festival ever again?
DF: Yes, that was the conversation we were having. You just have to imagine how intense it was. We didn’t want to do it anymore. There was a moment where you throw your hands up.
Josh Flemming: The business is already very, very stressful. It’s hard to turn a profit and keep it going, and [this situation] just threw a wrench into it.
DF: At no point was it, “We don’t want to do this anymore, and we want to screw everybody." Our hearts were bleeding for the people who bought tickets to the event. Our ticket buyers and our fans invest in us and in this festival, and we failed. We felt like failures. That was what was really crushing for us. You’ve watched us for many years now, over a decade. I think you’ve seen how we’ve put this company and this festival together, and it’s bootstrapping to this day, because we love it. When you look at the business side of it, the margins are so small and so fickle, and everyone still does their simple math and thinks that everyone who throws a festival is a millionaire, but they don’t realize how hard it is. This was the one thing that would absolutely crush any festival, and it is crushing plenty. That’s what we were going through that first week.
DF: No. We realized, "Hey, this isn’t going to work." We didn't feel good about not being able to refund people and make people whole, so we were already strategizing on what are we going to do and how are we going to make this right. Then the lawsuits happened, and that was just really salt in the wound and a giant pain in the ass to have to deal with, because as we dug deeper into the lawsuits, the people that were named in the class action lawsuit didn’t even know that they were named.
There’s a cottage industry for class action attorneys that are fishing for stuff like this, where they can come in and lawyers make all the money and the people really don’t. That’s kind of what happened in this case. So we didn’t adjust things because of the lawsuit, we had adjusted things prior to it, but was again bad timing, and it made it look like the lawsuit was influencing our decision making, and that was just another thing we had to deal with.
You guys were able to pool money for ticket refunds from government loans, artists returning their deposits and some money earned through your virtual festival. How was that money disseminated?
DF: At that point we wrote all the people [who requested refunds] and said, "We can offer 50 percent of your money back, or if that doesn’t work for you, you can opt into coming in 2021 or 2022." There was a good percentage of people who accepted both of those options. Unfortunately the lawsuit depleted money what was in the refund pool, so the lawyers got more money than the ticket buyers did.
Jesse Flemming: The lawyer that created the class action lawsuit, we ended up being forced to settle with them. The lawyers were like, “Look, just pay us and we’ll go away." That was the easiest option to get out of the whole thing, so we settled with the lawyers and they took the money and whoever was in the class action, it was probably like a dozen people, they all got a little bit of money and that was it. (The trio of law firms involved in these suits did not respond to request for comment.)
As you said, you sell a ticket to the festival and then invest that money into making the festival happen. How does the festival actually turn a profit?
DF: I’ve joked before that LiB and most festivals are really the most expensive, elaborate operations to sell ice, coffee, pizza and beer, because at the end of the day, that’s where your margins are. It’s not in selling a ticket to a festival. You’re building a 7/11 so you can have people come and buy all the stuff inside the store. It’s impossible to make money on tickets alone with the way the industry is set up. So yes, you’re spending that money as it comes in, and you hope at the end of the day that there’s a little left over.
As you now look to 2022, what's the status of The Do Lab? Is it just you three at the moment?
Jesse Flemming: There’s four of us. We kept one employee on at a reduced salary to run all of our human resources and a lot of our business inner workings. We needed to keep that person, just to keep the wheels turning, but we’re pretty small and we’re scattered, with all three of us in different places.
We’re doing a ton of Zoom meetings like everyone else. We’ve sublet our office in downtown L.A. to cut that expense, and the company is just a lot of spreadsheets at this point. We’re just slowly figuring out how to turn it on again, because it’s a big machine to run a festival like this and an organization like The Do Lab. We literally cut all of our expenses, even all the little accounts like Slack. Everything is paused. So we’re slowly firing up the cylinders one by one, and trying to get things going again.
What cylinders come on first?
Josh Flemming: Marketing. Our marketing staff who were employees started their own marketing company. We just got them into contract. One thing that’s come out of this is that a lot of our employees have started their own businesses. So now, instead of bringing them back as employees, they’re excited to come back as independent contractors with their own corporations or LLCs. In a way, it’s kind of a good stepping-stone for a lot of people to get out of being an employee. But marketing is the first step for us and making that big timeline in trying to figure out our strategy to rebuild.
DF: Thankfully, because of the way that we are as an overall family and organization, although we had to let everyone go, we still have everyone’s support. We can still call up contractors and old employees and bounce things off of them, and they’re happy to contribute because they still believe in what we’re trying to create and we still have their support. I think [our online festival] DGTL LIB was a huge indicator of that. Everyone rallied behind that and volunteered for that.
What have you learned from this entire experience?
DF: A lot. Initially, I would say to take a step back and really take a look at the big picture before making any announcements or decisions, because we feel like we made a huge misstep right off the bat, and that really set us behind. I think we also learned to stop and take a breath. We’ve been on this hamster wheel for 15 years, and although this is devastating for everyone that’s missing festivals and for us as a company, we are enjoying being able to take a step back and reflect and look at how we’re going to come back. We’d like to come back a little bit differently and try and to not reinvent, but re-envision what LiB is. That’s a bit of a blessing for us.
What might those differences be?
Jesse Flemming: The festival has been growing for quite awhile. We had a few really big years -- 2017 and 2018 got pretty big. I don’t want to say too big for our britches, but it’s really easy to start accommodating all the people and lose sight of what some the original ideas and ethics and visions were. We want to get back down to the down and dirty, really interactive, homegrown vibe. We don’t want to be a really big stage festival that starts to feel corporate. We want to feel more underground. We’re really starting to steer it back in that direction. Even if it does end up having 20,000 people again, we want to create more experiences for people to mingle and interact in small intimate ways. That’s really what we’re focusing on right now.
Josh Flemming: Like Dede said earlier, we were ready to throw in the towel. We were so stressed out and we were like, “Screw this. People aren’t even appreciating what we’re doing, so why are we trying to do it anymore?" We’ve had plenty of time to cool off and go stir crazy doing nothing, and we’re really excited to come back and build this show and rebuild our audience. We know we have to get back out there and build trust again, but we’re taking it very seriously. It’s very important to us, and we’re really excited to do it. We’re looking forward to the show in 2022. We think it’s going to be special, so hopefully people trust us and come back.
In terms of building trust, is there anything to do beyond just throwing a great event next year?
DF: I think we’re still trying to figure out how to build that trust. We want people to know how deeply sorry we are that we had to be put in the position we were put in and that we made some of the decisions we made, because they were made under duress. Starting to rebuild that trust is in telling our story and being transparent. That’s what we wanted to do all along. We were being transparent, but it just backfired. They didn’t like what they were hearing.
We want people to understand the story, the pain that was behind all the decisions we made. Rebuilding the trust is going to be doing what we do, throwing a great show and letting people know we’re not giving up; we’re not quitting on them. We’re going to keep creating, because that’s what people need more than ever right now.
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