Sound of Music organizers get $200K loan from Burlington, Ont. amid financial struggles

A picture from the 2022 Sound of Music festival in Burlington, Ont. Sound Of Music Festival

The non-profit responsible for putting on Burlington, Ont.’s. premier annual music event in the city centre is getting a six-figure short-term loan to keep the event going.

Sound of Music (SOM) organizers approached city council on Tuesday seeking $200,000 in “interim financial support” for 2023, citing lost sponsorship revenues amid lingering struggles caused by the COVID pandemic.

“A great deal of our sponsorship partners were unable to join us this year due to their own pandemic recoveries,” festival executive director Myles Rusak told city councillors.

“As a result … we did find ourselves in a position where going into 2023 we’ve exhausted our cash reserves, which is why we are here today asking for the city of Burlington to help carry us through.”

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Rusak went on to say revenue losses amid supply chain issues also devastated the festival’s ability to generate a profit, despite record attendance at the 2022 event.

The city’s finance team recommended approval of the loan to address the SOMs short term cash flow needs.

The one-time funding for 2023 and consideration for a base budget grant increase are expected to aid repayment of the money in the next year, according to a city finance report.

During the vote, Ward 6 councillor Angelo Bentivegna expressed some concerns over the timing of the loan request suggesting the city’s committee and organizers need to communicate potential financial issues sooner.

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“We need to work collectively with this council, with the board and with staff to ensure that this thing becomes healthy and viable,” Bentivegna said.

“But not on the 11th hour. And that’s really my biggest concern here.”

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Mayor Marianne Meed Ward told councillors juggling grants and revenues for such an event is “not like a regular business model” working like clockwork every month and that revenue and expenditures can be wonky at times.

“One of the things I’ve learned in my 12 years around this table is that we don’t get to pick the timing of challenges that come to our door,” Meed Ward said.

“We don’t get to choose. We just get to respond to to them. And I think this is a cry for help that we must heed.”

Burlington’s current annual operating budget provides just over $100,000 annually to the SOM festival with “in-kind” support in the form of staff to manage traffic, WI-FI access, additional power and the free use of Central Park field.

SOM also receives dollars via provincial and federal government programs.

Rusak said further complications surrounded the ‘Live On The Lake’ concert — a fundraising lead in show for SOM — which failed to meet expectations, selling only 900 of the estimated 2,000 they were hoping to move.

“I think that had a lot to do with people still being a little cautious about purchasing tickets,” said Rusak.

“So many shows over the past two years were cancelled or rescheduled. There was no refunds for some. I think people were a little gun shy.”

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The director says he expects Live On The Lake will have to move to a bi-annual show to mitigate further financial risks, although a final decision has yet to be made.

“That’s why I say focus on what we do well, which is Canada’s largest free outdoor music festival, nine days of free music,” said Rusak.

“That’s what we’re going to be focusing heavily on in 2023.”

SOM broke its own attendance records in 2022 coming out of the shadow of the pandemic, drawing an estimated 416,000 compared to the 225,000 it drew in 2019.

The financial impact to the community is ballparked at about $32 million in revenues generated for city businesses, according a third-party study — almost $20 million more than the festival’s previous best.

The event also employed 36 “full-year” jobs and 600 volunteer positions in 2022.

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