Over the past few years, the team behind Bluesfest Windsor crafted an award-winning music festival that would draw thousands to Riverfront Plaza in the Rose City every year, reaching new heights on an annual basis. And in 2020, things were going to get even hotter, with concerts planned by Snoop Dogg, The Saints and Sinners Tour of 90s rockers Tea Party, Moist, Headstones and Big Wreck, along with pop superstars TLC and Ace of Base.
But all that came crashing to a hault when COVID hit.
In an effort to keep the music going, Bluesfest Windsor’s team launched LiUNA! YUNITY, a series of virtual Front Porch Parties with international stars like Todd Kerns (Slash), Colin MacDonald (The Trews), Jeff Martin (Tea Party), Neil Osborne (54-50) and local celebs like Billy Raffoul, Kelly Authier and Alexa Carroccia, among others. The series ran from May until the end of 2020.
Closing off the horror show that was 2020, the Bluesfest crew teamed with several organizations and the government, to produce a special New Year’s television program hosted at the Capitol Theatre in Windsor and simulcast with performances from homegrown talent from around the province – on the TVO network, available online and across terrestrial television – seemingly replacing the annual New Year’s program from Niagara Falls.
The New Year’s Show was not only a success with viewers from Windsor, but from all around the world. It presented the city in a way it had never been seen before, as the epicentre of cool.
But without festival dates in 2020 and 2021 and the huge success of the YUNITY series and New Year’s broadcast, we couldn’t help but wonder what the future holds in store for Windsor’s largest summer festival.
We checked in with Rob Petroni, President of LiUNA! Bluesfest Windsor for this in-depth discussion to see what lies ahead.
What’s the future for Bluesfest?
The future for Bluesfest is this, it’s a simple answer. It has nothing to do with the pandemic, although the pandemic certainly did fast forward our plans exponentially, I would say. Bluesfest Windsor is a nonprofit organization, it’s still set up, we still have our board and our executive director, we are marketing and throwing all of our events under what is now called YUNITY.
So, our first one was New Year’s Eve, and we have a few plans for what we have next New Year’s Eve that we’re already planning, although it won’t be Ontario based, it’ll be much, much bigger than that. Hoping quite honestly, not just to be in Canada so that’s already in the plans. We’ve been talking to agents and other promoters, trying to get something for frontline workers in September.
We’re being told September may not be the right time and maybe October. So, it all depends on vaccinations and all kinds of things. We are planning right now to throw an event, end of September, beginning October in Windsor, and either at the Riverfront Plaza or at the various BIA’s, maybe four of them over four weekends. We’re considering having them free in the BIA’s and/or a ticketed event at the Plaza.
But either way, we’ve morphed into a tourist destination, a tourist attraction trying to get more people to visit Essex County and grow the region that way.
You said it was kind of in the works anyway. Take me through the process of, how it went from Bluesfest not happening to becoming what it’s becoming?
So, I’ll tell you another thing since the global pandemic, I am shooting straight from the hip now. So, Bluesfest is an awesome festival. It’s been around for a very long time, 20 something years. We started, as Bluesfest International, then we started a new one called Bluesfest Windsor and its grown year over year.
Our last event cost $1.3 million, so it’s growing a lot more challenges, a lot more headaches, but it’s growing. It hasn’t outlived its usage, but we’re learning very quickly that when we throw a festival, in Essex County competing against Michigan, Detroit, it’s very hard to do unless you are targeting the entire population, not just a certain genre.
So, it went from just Blues, to Blues & Rock, to Blues & Rock and Hip-Hop, with each day being a different day. Most destinations, people that buy a ticket to come to an event that is the same genre, or the same style, at least, so that they can come for the weekend as opposed to one night.
There are a lot of Rock fans that don’t want to see Hip-Hop. A lot of Hip-Hop fans could care less about Blues. So, we’re trying to make it, I wouldn’t say family, but more user friendly, something that everybody would like.
We have been researching events that you can see online everywhere and they’re successful – A Symphony Orchestra with a DJ and a choir, with singers, all one show like a Vegas style show. So, if you like the Symphony Orchestra, you’re going to love it.
If you like performers, you’re going to love it. If you like a DJ playing with a Symphony Orchestra or just a DJ, you’re going to love it. So, we’re really moving towards that. Now in that two and a half hour, three hour show with some lead up to it and some other performers, were hitting every genre at the same time, minutes apart from each other.
So, you’re going from a Blues song to a Rock song, to a Pop song, to a Hip-Hop song, to the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, to different singers, to Country, and you’re hitting everything.
You throw in some performers and now you have a Vegas type act, and that is literally what YUNITY was intended to be. We did it a little bit on New Year’s Eve, although we used Ontario-based performers.
I don’t know if you got a chance to watch it, but the numbers on social media were so astronomical that I can’t fathom them. We’re up for awards all over the province that we’re going to find out about here soon – the Provincial Government, Municipal Government, TWEPI and us, we’re all very pleased with the outcome. The performances were incredible and it’s too bad we were all locked in our homes to watch it, but at least we had something to do on New Year’s Eve.
We’re trying to come up with an idea like that, where everybody is entertained. Whether you’re 75-years-old or 19-years-old, you’re going to enjoy the show and experience rather than a concert with one band.
As this develops, what does this actually mean, in terms of somebody going to the event in Windsor/Essex or coming to the event.
Same thing, we’re working with a lot of promoters and a lot of ticket agencies about what that looks like. There’s talk, of course, of a vaccination card, and we’re told for sure, this year everybody will have to wear a mask.
So, we met with a group yesterday to order 10,000 masks, that say YUNITY. But along the same lines, other events that we’ve seen are when you purchase the ticket, you’re told you have to be vaccinated to enter. In other events, not that we’re thinking about this, but in other events, you’re actually signing a waiver. Things have changed so much.
Because people are so worried about being taken to court or sued. This is coming moslty out of the US, but we still don’t know how it’s going to shake out here. It’s still too early to tell. I’m hopeful that by late fall, we’re going to be able to hold an event of some sort, outdoors. Maybe not a crowd that you would want to attend in 2021, but if you started with 5-7,000 people and grew over the years, as we come out of this, then at least it’s a start.
There are a lot of people that reach out all the time that are missing this stuff. It’s good food for the soul to go to a concert, I think of all of the concerts that I was going to go to in 2020 and said, I’ll go next time, but that’s not going to happen. This time, it’ll be “Oh, there’s somebody playing? Let’s get the ticket today. All right, I’m not worrying about the rain. I’m not worried about it. Let’s get the ticket today.”
As YUNITY develops across North America, where does that position Windsor?
Windsor shone at the New Year’s Eve event. We were the host. It was born in Windsor. It marinated in Windsor during COVID over a number of conversations, Zooms, telephones, Facebook, a couple of beers, and a glass of wine or two. But the idea is to make Windsor the destination for an event like this. We’re looking at an event that would bring in people from not just Ontario, not just North America, but from different countries.
And that’s a European feel.
It’s exactly a European feel. Everything that we are researching is a European festival. Everything that we are looking at is a European festival.
And in some places, not outdoors, but indoors, they’re actually changing temperature. It’s going from hot to cold during the event, which adds a whole different level of entertainment, when you’re adding temperature to it.
So, we’re looking at something sophisticated, something that has to be rehearsed.
Not just somebody getting on stage and doing their thing because they have rehearsed it, and they have crafted it. But we’re looking at the Tea Party, for example, who did this in Australia with a Symphony Orchestra and sold out three nights in a row. So, we’re looking at doing the same thing.
Take the band away, bring in a DJ that fills in the music to an orchestra and bring the singer in from the bands and then add a choir. I think you’ve hit almost everything that you need to hit make it two and a half to three hours long – 8 to 11 and you have some lead up acts, before, maybe one after but that is the main show.
How about things that happen around the event?
2021 COVID, we can’t do anything but move forward. We have discussed and looked into and drawn out how we make the footprint of Riverside Plaza bigger.
One of the ideas is to shut down Riverside Drive. That’s one of the ideas – with screens. You have a different experience up there or a second stage that has a completely different feel, where not only is there a stage but you’re inside, it’s covered, you’re in a completely different venue, inside the same venue. That is exactly what we’re shooting for.
I think a lot of people wonder how that Riverfront area was planned out?
You’re talking about the new setup – the new format, the new layout of everything, how they’re putting in the trees? And that’s a great point.
No, the City of Windsor is not doing that alone. They have reached out to all of the festivals, everybody that rents the space and asked for their input, and listened to their input. There are some people that feel that it may not suit their needs for a whole bunch of reasons.
For us, where we’re going, it’s perfect. It’s more of a European feel; it’s broken up into three different sections. One being the main bowl, the middle section, which is raised up a little bit as a shaded area with some trees, the third area is your mingling where you’re getting your drinks, where you’re buying your food, where you’re kind of getting away from things. In the middle area, you can put blankets down. The ticketing/entrance is changed, now it’s on the east side with a full building, offices that house all your ticketing folks, all your money in a safe place to be, with turnstiles. It’s more of an event center than a plaza.
I think the city did a fantastic job in the design of it. First was moving that wall to where it was always supposed to be – closer to Riverside Drive. So, that’s added some space. I think for us, it works out very well. I’m looking forward to when it’s completed.
Again, I say it all the time, this is not BS: performers that come from all over North America, when they see that venue, they are amazed and had no idea that we have it. It is such an amazing backdrop. It’s a canvas that you can do anything with, to be quite honest.
Then you have Riverside Drive up top, the possibilities are endless there. Not to mention the parking lot on the east side. On the west side, we’re considering fencing the whole area off and putting, different Jazz performers and something a little bit different. As you’re walking through vendors, as you’re walking through a footprint that is much bigger – five/six times bigger.
Is Bluesfest turning into something new?
This is Bluesfest morphing. This is the evolution of Bluesfest and you’ve been watching it evolve. There was always, do we just do all Blues? Do we do all Rock? Do we do Rock one year and then do Blues next year? Do we change it up that way?
We tried four different days, four different genres, and that worked, but honestly, for 2020 we really broke up the genres into weekends and put the genres that fit closely together.
That was the first time we actually we put artists where they fit as opposed to putting an artist and making a format based on their availability. This time, it won’t be that at all. It will be if you like this artist, they will be there. If you like the Symphony Orchestra, they will be there, if you like a choir, if you like a DJ, they’re all there at the same time. It’s not just one singer; it’s a number of them. It might be able to be 10 or 12 different singers from different bands, performing a couple of tunes with the backdrop: you’re hearing it in a different light completely.
It’s a big endeavor. It takes a lot of teamwork. It takes a lot of practice; you have to get it right and they can’t just show up and wing it. There’s a lot of rehearsal time. It’s a lot more expensive. But honestly, I think the music fans have gotten to this point.
We know that you can go to Detroit and buy a ticket to see an artist for $700, but here in Essex County, $700 is out of the question. But $35/40, you’re not going to get that $700 show – we squeeze a lot out of $35, $40, $50 that you’re not going to get it in other places. I think now if we put on a Vegas style, European style show, it will command a bigger ticket price that will actually pay for the costs of the event.
We won’t be scrambling every year, relying on sales of everything else to get us through. If not, for beer sales and all of our sponsors, Bluesfest or YUNITY can’t happen. At $1.3 million dollars to put the event on and ticket sales being about $200,000, you do the math – you’re in the hole, and you’re not selling $1.1 million worth of beer, wine, cocktails.
The $750,000 in sponsorship dollars that comes in every year helps get you through getting some bigger artists and putting on a better show. What we’re trying to do now is let the ticket prices pay for the show. So, that we don’t have to lean on the community, as much and make it a tourist destination for Essex.
With this event, morphing from Bluesfest to something else, is really exciting and new.
YUNITY! Everything we’re doing now is branded as YUNITY. We discussed quite possibly, just so that people know it’s the same team, the same volunteers, the same sponsors that it may be in the first year “Bluesfest Presents” and then taper it off, or we might just go straight to YUNITY.
If we have the event in September, October, it’ll probably be a Bluesfest presents, powered by a big sponsor. If we just go straight to the New Year’s Eve event, that one’s YUNITY – one we believe is going to be so big, that we’ll be able to drop the Bluesfest presents.
The New Year’s Eve event was watched by people worldwide. We had somebody that messaged us from Iran. It was all over the world, not just locally, and people saw it. It put Windsor on the map; it put a lot of tourist destinations across the province on the map.
The frontline workers did a fantastic job in doing that. Obviously, on that night when I was watching it, it was the first time that I saw it. We spent the entire time hoping that everything went well. When we watched it for the second time is when we got to enjoy it. We only saw a few things that were pre-recorded.
Little teasers, that we saw like, the Roberta Battaglia piece with the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, which was incredible. But it was more of a something for everybody type of show. We had Loud Luxury and Roberta Battaglia. Although there were some pieces where people didn’t like a DJ, but everything else they liked.
How much of the year was put into that event? Because to most people, it just kind of appeared out of nowhere.
I can tell you quickly, on March 13 of last year, I was flying home from Las Vegas, from the CONEXPO. While I was in the air, I had Wifi and I received an email on Friday, March 13, that when I landed, I had to quarantine for 14 days.
I got that from my employer. This was before, because I think we shut down on the 17th, so I was shut down while in the air before I landed, and we quarantined for two weeks. While I was quarantining, although I was working, I asked what do we do for Bluesfest. The discussion was, are we going to do it? Aren’t we going to do it? Are we going to end it more quickly? Why don’t we do something that’s televised?
So, we quickly put something together, approached the City of Windsor and TWEPI which were always on board, the Provincial Government. We wanted to do something on the long weekend in May, and it got bumped to the long weekend in July. Then the long weekend in August. Just before the long weekend in September is when we hooked up with, I call them the producers, Jeffrey Latimer and Barry Avrich, who were considering doing the same thing. We were married together by the Ontario government.
At our first meeting, we said why don’t we do New Year’s Eve, and that’s how it happened. So, all of the planning went in, all of the budgets went in, all of the gazintas, money wise went in. How much it was going to cost?
I’m going to say the very end of November is when we got the green light, like the actual signatures to go ahead.
Up until that point, part of the rules with the funding is, you can’t reach out to any artists, you can’t reach out to any sponsor, you can’t let anybody know this, because if it doesn’t happen, we can’t put our necks out on the line, then have to pay people for no event.
Literally from December 1 until December 31, what you saw is as it happened.
A little known fact was that is was supposed to be at Caesars on the 27th floor in that beautiful room that they have on the balcony. What happened? We went to red and quite quickly we went to gray.
The film industry is exempt from these lockdowns. A number of us wanted to be at the Capitol Theatre to begin with, and that’s where we ended up. It’s really hard work from the mayor’s office to be able to pull this off and the Premier’s office to get us to the point where we brought in a COVID specialist. We limited the maximum amount of people in the Theatre to seven, I believe. We weren’t even there – we watched from home. We would have been over the number.
It started March 13, but the idea morphed and December was when we had the OK to do it.
Then when we reached out to our community partners and raised a half a million dollars. The Provincial Government kicked in north of a million dollars and we put it on.
It seemed like “Hey, we have an idea, let’s do New Year’s Eve”. No. It was stressful.
The Capital Theatre never looked so good. There was a lot of Windsor pride that night.
Absolutely. It’s a beautiful Theatre. When the producers saw the Capital Theatre, they immediately knew this was the place. It was even a one-day shy of their 100th anniversary.
I think one of the producers said “this is a message from God”. It was perfect. It looked incredible. I went the day before to see the setup, but it was hard to picture because I’ve never been part of a television production.
You could tell it just looked different the way they had it set up. When I watched on television, I’m like, wow, this is actually Windsor. When they came through the Princess Margaret gates after the first number and flew into the Theatre, it was pretty emotional. It was very cool to highlight Windsor.
I don’t want to say finally, because we do a lot, there’s a lot of people who do a lot of great things here. But for an event that’s broadcast, it’s province-wide, it’s country-wide, it’s worldwide. It was incredible. I’m so happy that the Windsor Symphony Orchestra was part of it. They agreed immediately when we asked them and gave them the idea. I think it went well. Windsor shone that night, it really did.
The best part of it was the amount of pride.
We don’t like to brag, right? We just get things done. We go to work, we come home, we do what we do, we don’t like to brag and every now and then it’s okay to be a little bit boastful. It’s a beautiful city. Listen, we have some gems here: the riverfront, the Theatre, you just go to a WIFF event and watch the transformation of the downtown. It’s incredible. And we did it in four weeks. If we had six months to do something, it would have been 10 times better. Now literally planning has begun and we have a lot of time to get this right.
It sounds, like its more work for you actually.
Believe it or not, the planning process is a lot more work to have something like this televised, it’s a lot more stressful, because it’s live. If something goes wrong, like the internet goes down right now, we can do this interview again, but not during a live event. It’s a little bit stressful that way. But in comparison to actually throwing a festival and worrying about every aspect of it, especially people’s safety, the fact that there’s alcohol, I would say that a festival is much more stressful. Its two completely different animals.
I really like both, but when the event is going on, there’s nothing left for you to do as a planner. At the event there are just so many fires to put out and it’s just a different animal.
When we watched the New Year’s Show the second time, it was awesome. We got to see, and get to listen, as opposed to, is it going to get cut off? Are we going to lose our internet connection? Is a truck going to go down? Yeah, it was fun.
A lot of people don’t quite understand your job.
Balance. LiUNA is my career, Bluesfest/YUNITY is a love for the community and to raise funds for charity and to boast about Windsor/Essex. At LiUNA, I have a fantastic team – the best ever, I would say, North American wide, our region is Ontario to the East Coast. It’s a fantastic team on autopilot. Everything is taken care of meticulously. Bluesfest/YUNITY is the same thing. It’s not me. It’s not my wife Carol. It’s not Jeff Burrows. There are 100 people, at least, that have a little piece that do it very well.
One person takes care of limos, one person takes care of vendors. We have 100 people like this, one person takes care of riders, and one person takes care of getting them across the border. So, that is a great team. It’s a fun team. Everybody does it for the love of it because it’s a volunteer position. How do you get a better product than people that actually want to be there as opposed to have to be there because that’s their job? Volunteers are awesome.
You can’t fire them. Because they’re volunteers. It’s a group of people in both organizations that just come together. And we pull people from LiUNA all over Ontario that come to volunteer as well, our members back it 1,000%. It’s something that makes us very proud. LiUNA has nothing to do with Bluesfest or YUNITY, other than up to now, it’s the main sponsor.
A lot of the volunteers come from LiUNA – not all of them, maybe 15% – so one has nothing to do with the other. If somebody came in and said, “Hey, we’re going to give you x amount of dollars, to be a sponsor” and upped it by 10 times, then it would be the whatever YUNITY fest brought to you by LiUNA. So, it’s completely different.
Carol, on the other hand, is like the Maestro that oversees all of that. And my little piece is, I pick the artists, while talking to other people, getting their opinions, doing those contracts, but then I’m done until I literally raise enough money through community partners. Then at the event, I probably have the easiest job, because I deal with all of the tents, make sure they have their food, make sure the water is there, make sure the ice is there, and then go around, welcome people to Windsor. I probably have, by far, the easiest position on the site. It’s not easy to balance, but it is a balancing act – you plan.
During and leading up to the event I sleep at the office, I shower here, I change here, but it takes plenty of time. So, a day isn’t just eight hours for me. Monday to Friday, it’s 12, 16 hours.
You must be satisfied and happy to see how far Bluesfest has progressed?
It’s a great question. Nobody, that puts on the event is truly satisfied. And I’ll tell you why, because we’re always trying to make it bigger, better and more entertaining. For example, nobody knows that up until literally the last minute of the 2020 festival that was cancelled, that we had Snoop Dogg. I think Snoop Dogg would have been a game changer. It would have brought in a lot of tourists.
At the last minute, we lost Snoop Dogg. We replaced Snoop with an artist that everybody said, oh my God, how did you get it? It wasn’t Snoop Dogg? How did you get so and so. That’s amazing that you have so and so. But all of us are like we had Snoop Dogg. I think the trick is to just never be satisfied.
We always wanted it to grow. There are some smart people in our group, not me, that say grow it slowly. Don’t go from here to here, grow it slowly. Jeff Burrows is probably the biggest proponent, then Carol (who’s the main force behind Bluesfest and also Rob’s adorable wife) is the second biggest proponent – you can’t go from zero to 100 in two years.
It has been growing slowly. And I guess when you look at it, the only way it can grow is slowly, because just bring in new partners year after year is a slow process. If you keep those partners and make them happy, then they keep coming back. They’re loyal. Yeah.
So, are we proud of it? Yes.
Are we proud of it during the event? Nah.
When we watch clips and see things like the coverage from 519 Magazine and other media outlets, yeah, it’s a source of pride. When we’re in the middle of a lockdown and the memories come up from last year, three years ago, like oh my God, that was actually pretty cool.
For more information on Bluesfest/YUNITY check-out BluesfestWindsor.com