DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — Everybody in this Minnesota lakes country city is saying it. It's been the talk of the town for weeks. It is topic 1A among the town's leaders and the regular Joes and Janes.
WE Fest is being sold.
One problem: Nobody will confirm it publicly, even though they will willingly tell you privately it's happening.
This makes it a tough story to report. But, this being a column, we can speculate some and use that as an escape hatch if it turns out to not be true.
The overwhelming speculation on the street in Detroit Lakes is that WE Fest, the once-gargantuan country music festival held since 1983 at the Soo Pass Ranch south of Detroit Lakes, is being sold again.
The locals hope this sale works out better than the last one, at least in terms of attendance and Minnesota niceness.
Maybe don't hold your breath on the second one, if the rumor/speculation turns out to be true.
Word is, including from some people who work on the WE Fest grounds who've been told to expect an announcement soon after this year's festival concludes this weekend, current owner Townsquare Media is selling to Live Nation, a Beverly Hills., Calif.-based concert promoter and ticketing company.
Messages to both Townsquare and Live Nation were not returned.
The question is: If the sale occurs, can WE Fest return to its former glory?
Townsquare bought WE Fest from music promoter Rand Levy in 2014, four years after Levy bought out partners Jeff Krueger and Chyrll Sparks to become sole owner. Krueger started WE Fest in 1983, with Levy and Sparks joining him in 1985.
The festival mushroomed into one of the biggest country music gatherings in the United States, drawing crowds of 35,000-40,000 per day for three days. Some of the biggest acts in music passed through Detroit Lakes.
WE Fest had its detractors, too, and justifiably so. It was also a drunk-fest, sometimes an underage-drinking fest, and there were several sexual assaults reported over the years. A Minnesota woman successfully sued WE Fest after being raped by a security guard in 2006.
But it remained a popular destination.
The grumbles started in 2014, after Townsquare bought WE Fest.
To hear longtime WE Fest-goers and vendors tell it, Townsquare immediately began to turn the festival from a gigantic but still rough-around-the-edges and local-friendly festival into a stiff, uptight event in which locals were squeezed out in favor corporate interests. Ticket prices increased. Area companies and part-time workers who used WE Fest for extra income were shuttled aside for out-of-town vendors. Attendance appears to have dropped off the last couple of years.
None of this should've come as a surprise. Townsquare Media is a giant company, based in suburban New York City. It counts nearly 320 radio stations among its holdings, making it the third-largest radio owner in the country. It bills itself as a "media, entertainment and digital marketing solutions company that owns and operates ... radio stations, live events and digital, mobile, video and social media properties."
Townsquare Media is traded on the New York Stock Exchange, reporting revenue of $434 million in 2018.
In other words, the East Coast suits don't care if the local company that rents portable toilets loses out when Townsquare ships in port-a-potties from the Twin Cities.
At first glance, a sale — especially if it's to Live Nation — might not be an upgrade.
Live Nation is even bigger than Townsquare, with reported revenue of $10.8 billion in 2018. It is a global concert promoting giant, the company claiming that 93 million fans attended its music events last year.
And here's one all music fans should love: Ticketmaster is a division of Live Nation, providing a key area of growth. Ticketmaster managed 400,000 events that delivered 500 million tickets to fans in 28 countries in 2018, according to Live Nation's annual report.
WE Fest would be a barely perceptible blip in Live Nation's portfolio. There seems little chance Live Nation would treat WE Fest with any more tender loving care than Townsquare has.
Which is farther from Detroit Lakes: New York City or Beverly Hills?
And we're not talking miles.
It wouldn't seem to make much difference.