Humboldt County’s long-running festival could go awry as the company’s parent company blows another of its high-profile sponsored events.
This year it would have been 35th birthday of Reggae on the river, the decades-old live reggae bash in the redwoods that set the standard for annual California outdoor music festivals. Long before there ever was one Coachella, a Outside Countries, or a Lightning in a bottleReggae on the River was the great-grandfather of all festivals, drawing crowds of music lovers north to the Emerald Triangle since 1984 for three frenzied days of live music, ganja and Rastafari vibes.
But Reggae on the River has just hit rock bottom. After deep-rooted investors from High Times Productions bought the rights to operate the festival last year, High Times has abruptly canceled this year’s event – with artists already booked, licensed and ticket sales underway. The move felt like a slap in the face to the fans and the Mateel Community Center for whom the event is an advantage, and leaves Reggae on the River an uncertain future.
You might think of High Times as just a magazine, but it’s become much more since its 2017 $70 million acquisition by a group of investors including Bob Marleyhis son Damian. The company is now a larger conglomerate called High Times Holding Company that has publicly traded shares, a High Times Media arm that aggressively buys up other publications, and a High Times Productions company that owns the nationwide High Times Cannabis Cup events.
Which makes it odd that High Times Productions has now botched three events in California in less than ten months. High Times canceled a Sacramento Cannabis Cup in October 2018 because they didn’t have their license before advertising the event. At a 4/20 SoCal Cannabis Cup this year in San Bernardino, weed sales permits were rejected at the last minute, reducing attendance and forcing card dealers to refund their money.
And now High Times has canceled this year’s Reggae on the River, in just the second year of its six-year sponsorship deal with the festival.
High Times said in a statement: SF Evergreen that “we want to help the Mateel Center bring Reggae on the River back in 2020 and hope to work closely with the local community to keep this great event going.”
That could be difficult, though, as Reggae on the River’s fate could end up in court. The Eureka Times Standard reported immediately after the cancellation that the Mateel Community Center found that High Times had violated their contract.
A spokesperson for the community center said: SF Evergreen that “Mateel’s board of directors is currently reviewing their options regarding the production contract.”
Much to their credit, the Mateel Community Center has just confirmed that they will be hosting a replacement event that weekend called Mateel Forever: Reggae Legacy, with this year’s Reggae on the River headliner still intact. “We will have Toots and the Maytals at the Mateel on Saturday, August 4,” says the spokesperson. (That show will be in a different location than the traditional outdoor venue.)
That spokesperson added that High Times was unable to reverse the festival’s long-term cash losses. “They were concerned that there wasn’t enough local support and ticket sales, and they lost money last year,” she says. “Based on the lack of local support and negative feedback they had received this year, they decided to cancel.”
At its peak in the 1990s, Reggae on the River was a premier festival that drew more than 15,000 to the grasslands of the Humboldt-Mendocino county border, routinely booking superstar reggae acts such as Sly & Robbie, Femi Kuti, Jimmy Cliff, and Bunny. wailer.
“There was a festival in the Redwoods where they had great bands in an outdoor place by a beautiful river and it was cheap and really cool,” said Steve Heilig, one-time music writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, The rhythm, and Huffington Post, who covered the festival’s early years and eventually went on to manage the backstage hospitality space.
“You would have a single day where you would have Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear and Israel Vibration,” he tells me. SF Evergreen. “Each of these would be headliners at any festival, but they would just be lined up one after the other.”
Reggae on the River began in 1984 as a benefit for the Mateel Community Center after their previous home in Garberville, California, burned down in 1983. French’s Camp with redwood groves, ample outdoor parking and a river bend with a giant swimming hole.
“They called it ‘Hippie Pee Creek’ that weekend,” Heilig jokes. “The locals said, ‘Don’t go swimming downstream from the festival, just go up a bit and it’s beautiful.’ ”
The festival expanded to two days in 1991, then to three days as it got bigger. International reggae stars regularly swam in the river and mingled with the fans, and Reggae on the River had a certain secret weapon for attracting great talent.
“Artists were really excited to get there and get the local Humboldt cannabis,” Heilig says. “Some of them also got their wages that way.”
But the festival’s growth proved difficult to manage, as larger crowds led to frequent fistfights and an ongoing touch problem for the women in attendance. “The drugs changed, there was more crank,” he tells us. “I won’t say it was Altamont or anything, but it was different.
“The locals I knew who were part of its creation and production for the first 20 years didn’t even go anymore.”
Management power struggles plagued the event, and by the mid-2000s, Reggae on the River was losing money every year. The 2007 event was canceled and the following years changed venues several times as debts mounted and the Mateel Community Center openly considered canceling the event altogether.
Enter High Times, which signed a six-year sponsorship of Reggae on the River in 2018 that “assumed all responsibility for the upcoming festival’s talent lineup, marketing and monetization.” The cash infusion seemed like the savior of the festival, and Arrested Development, Israel Vibration and the Original Wailers were all booked for last year’s big Reggae on the River comeback.
The comeback didn’t go as planned as High Times reportedly lost $1.6 million last year. In response, they raised 2019 prices for sales booths, planned a “Cannabis Village” in hopes of making up for their losses from the sale of marijuana, and obtained permits anticipating a capacity of as much as 9,000.
Ticket sales remained bleak and High Times canceled the 2019 event, casting doubt on the future of the 35-year-old festival. But the Humboldt County community is determined to keep Reggae on the River afloat.
“The Mateel Community Center owns the Reggae on the River trademark and is committed to the Reggae on the River brand,” the spokesperson said. “A brand that originated in Humboldt, it plays an important role in reggae music worldwide and is widely known on the annual festival calendar in the reggae community. The Mateel Community Center plans to continue the legacy.”
Reggae on the River has previously survived cancellations for a year, so this may not mean curtains for the venerable festival. It could survive under a different name, or maybe High Times will somehow still restore it to its former glory. But for now, it looks like Reggae on the River could be swept away by the currents of a bad business partnership.