It was promised as not just the biggest concert, but the biggest event in Toronto’s history—but the Imagine Concert never happened.
Everyone we talked to, on and off the record, told us the same thing over and over again: the good intentions were there. So, what wasn’t? Time, money, and the connections needed to put it all together.
“It was close a couple of times, but it was always ‘We’ll have the financing in two days,’” says Artie Kornfeld, who helped put together Woodstock, and who was initially, along with Montreal artist David Kam, one of those organizing Imagine.
“The hope was there, but I didn’t see the bricks falling into place,” he says.
Keeping score at home? Before we even heard about the festival around New Year’s, it was to be a five-day event planned to coincide with the G8 and G20 conferences. Then it was three days, then two. Then it was pushed back to July. Then September.
But still, we kept the faith. Almost every move, especially dodging the G20, had a semblance of sense behind it, even if the gears weren’t exactly turning smoothly. We crossed our fingers, and waited for the news that somehow they’d pulled it off and signed a couple of awesome acts.
Even after announcing an uninspiring list of second-tier performers, the festival pushed on for a couple more weeks, putting tickets on sale and angling to secure financing, if not sign a major act. Then, finally, they used that little box on their Facebook—the one no one knows what to do with, on the left-hand column—to announce the festival’s ignominious end.
Kornfeld says he’s been out of the loop for months, though the concert’s website still touts his presence. He recalls the positive vibes when he came to town in the spring, and would have come back if he thought Imagine could be made real. “I would have gone back in July. I would have come back next week if I thought there was a chance to save it,” he says. Instead, he jumped from the sinking ship.
David Kam, who conceived the event and is still sticking with it, says a fraudulent bank deal lead to a big financial hit and funding never stabilized. In fact, he says, funding that might have allowed the show to proceed came in a mere three hours after the postponement was announced.
“It actually was extremely close [to happening],” Kam says. “We just ran out of time. If we had more time, we would not have had to postpone. Certain things are supposed to be in place, and it was much harder than we thought.”
KISS was the biggest band the festival came close to signing, Kam maintains; Imagine even got past the point of a letter of intent. Imagine’s new Arizona-based “Peace Ambassador,” Tina Michelle, drops the name of the Black Eyed Peas as another band that was interested.
But there were other forces at work. Kam didn’t have the connections and experience to navigate Imagine’s way around a corporate-driven industry.
“What we found is that there were companies already embedded in the music industry that didn’t want a competitor on the market,” Kam says.
But a lot of the bands who already have touring deals also have clauses allowing charity concerts, Kam says. With more time to set something up, that would have been an opening Imagine could’ve taken advantage of.
The concert is not cancelled, merely postponed, Kam and Michelle say. Already, they say, they have “strategic partners” ready to go forward, and they’re building a committed team for 2011.
But for all the behind-the-scenes brouhaha, Kam and company have to contend with the contracts they signed, both with Downsview Park and the artists. The Downsview contract allows the date to be moved, Kam says. That’s good news, since they seem to be treating this year’s effort as a sort of good learning experience.
They haven’t picked a new date yet, since this time they’re trying to book headliners and find a date that works for them—the headliners, that is—rather than trying to shoehorn everybody into something pre-ordained.
That still leaves the bands who signed contracts when there wasn’t stable funding on the table. An email sent out to performers by concert promoters OVCM, obtained by Torontoist, shows the organizers trying to placate performers, hoping they’ll wait for the relaunch and not sue for breach of contract.
The letter, from OVCM Vice President Kris Christie, reads:
We realize that this sudden cancellation has put artists in an unfortunate situation which may result in loss of revenue from this event as well as the possibility of not having time to rebook and we are deeply sorry for not being able to resolve this situation. We acted with all good intentions and did everything possible to overcome many challenges including the loss of multiple investors and sponsors due to a number of unforeseen circumstances, the cancellation of many festivals, the G8/G20 and the repeated reports of the decline in the market which created uncertainty for those wanting to financially support this unprecedented undertaking.
Upon securing the necessary funds we would like to honor your contracts for next year should you wish to participate once the new date is confirmed and announced. We assure you that all contracts will be renegotiated with deposits made immediately upon signing and again we deeply regret this truly unfortunate situation.
Christie rightly points out this has hardly been a banner year for the concert industry, with the revived Lilith Fair cancelling dates, and local stalwarts like Edgefest and Virgin not even trying to stage something. But that doesn’t change the fact that Imagine is out an amount “much higher than $100,000,” Kam confirmed.
Performers were recently sent an addendum to their contracts, also obtained by Torontoist. It contains five new clauses outlining rules of confidentiality and allowing both parties to renegotiate the contract in good faith if the date is moved. Also, artists can’t talk to media without going through the concert organizers.
Of course, the new conditions only take effect for artists who sign on. There’s the rub.
Iron Butterfly’s Rhino Reindhart must not have gotten the memo. “Me and the posse were just getting on when the Canada people pulled the plug, the bastards,” he claimed on his Facebook wall. “[T]hey lost every band’s deposit, and no air tickets what a joke to play with our lives.”
Kam admits things will have to be worked out with some of the artists, but he remains optimistic.
“We’d rather have people that are truly for the vision than people who were complaining even when the dates were right,” Michelle adds.
For all the fixation on the bands and the concert, Kam and Michelle contend the real issue was losing focus on the big picture.
“We were looking at it as a global event that would impact the world…what ended up occurring is you get into logistics and it becomes just a big concert,” Michelle says.
“This is a movement, not just a notion, so it’s an ongoing initiative.”
Imagine was supposed to be accompanied by the Earthship Summit, sort of a huge eco-conference, and their sights should have been set on getting acts that understood that vision, rather than merely wanting to lend their names, Michelle says.
Kornfeld applauds Kam’s vision and intentions, but also describes him as a “loose cannon” when it came to logistics.
Kornfeld also echoed some of what Michelle said, noting that the original Woodstock acts were not superstars when they were booked. Hundreds of thousands of people could have come out to Imagine, no matter who the bands were, if the event was done right, Kornfeld says.
For all his frustration, Kornfeld also believed the festival could be something more special than just another musical get-together—something that could have left a real legacy for Toronto and for Downsview Park.
“This could have been a Mecca where people come every year. It could have been a peace park,” he says.
Kam says there were also doubters before the Wright Brothers took flight. Michelle concedes the proof in the pudding will be the unveiling of a new, real date.
No matter what, there is some good to come from this.
It was Kam’s idea to auction off guitars for charity. Mike Carparelli, whose company donated the guitars, tells us it’s still going forward independently. The Damien Hirst guitar will hit the block at Christie’s in London in the fall, with proceeds going to War Child. It was initially hoped that the guitar would be autographed by celebs and then played on stage at the festival, upping its value, but it will now go au naturel. Hirst’s stuff often goes for mega-millions, and even without all the trappings, it should at least raise several hundred thousand dollars.
The other completed guitar, by Jim Warren, was autographed by the Beach Boys the other week and it will also be auctioned, but in New York, later this year. The proceeds from that one will go to Amnesty International.
Another three or four guitars could similarly be set up with A-list artists in the coming weeks and months, Carparelli hopes. As has so often been the case with most things Imagine, nothing’s been finalized.
Illustrations by Roxanne Ignatius/Torontoist.