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Remembering Eden Fest’s 1996 meltdown

January 15, 2015

20 years ago, Ontario's Eden Fest was hit with FBI raids, no-shows, and garbage fires.

Ontario’s recently announced large-scale, multi-day, camping-centric, Bonnaroo-related music and arts festival “HomeAway” [Ed’s Note: Later renamed WayHome] is receiving loads of hype, even if it’s best to remember that the last festival of its design and size in Ontario didn’t exactly go so well.

FBI raids, headliner no-shows, garbage fires: 1996’s Eden Music Fest may have had the very best of intentions, but after some serious mismanagement by its organizers, low ticket sales, and an underwhelming lineup, it may be the reason we haven’t had a festival like it since.

Back then, Coachella and Bonnaroo weren’t even on the radar yet. Eighteen years ago, weekend-long affairs like Glastonbury and Reading were exclusive to Europe. And no matter how much we pined for our own, it was just a fantasy. But then one May afternoon, CFNY’s Alan Cross let us know our time had finally come.

Promoted by Buffalo startup Eden Entertainment, Eden Music Fest promised a weekend of camping and partying at Clarington’s Mosport Speedway. Headliners were announced as the Tragically Hip, the Cure, and a third mystery act. Ontario had never seen a festival of this magnitude before.

The rest of the lineup was a perfect snapshot of 1996: Porno for Pyros, Live, Bush, Spacehog, Everclear, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Catherine Wheel, Goo Goo Dolls, Stabbing Westward, Spin Doctors, Ani DiFranco, and Seven Mary Three were among the fest’s biggest international draws, in addition to Cancon fixtures such as Sloan, Spirit of the West, the Watchmen, and the Odds.

The whole thing generated plenty of buzz, too. Early expectations for attendance ranged between 70- and 100,000. There were wild rumours about the much-hyped mystery headliner, and everyone had a theory: Pearl Jam? Soundgarden? Green Day? Red Hot Chili Peppers? The sky was the limit.

Buzz failed to translate to ticket sales. About 40,000 people showed up on Eden Fest’s first day. Another 20,000 unexpected guests would jump the fences, or wander in from one of Mosport’s many unguarded stretches of forest.

Even with the trespassers, Eden Fest’s crowd was mostly sedate, with the odd drug bust or drunk and disorderly. Over three days, only six arrests were made. Announcers (mostly local radio talent) teased the crowd between sets about the third day’s headliner. They also touted a second mystery headliner to the second stage.

In retrospect, if Eden Fest had ended at night two, it might have had a fighting chance for a repeat performance. Sets by Porno for Pyros and Canuck superheroes the Tragically Hip were essentially perfect. But Eden Fest’s final day was a thorough unraveling—from promoters, to talent, to Mosport Speedway staff, to the fans themselves. First, having had fewer ticket sales than were expected, vendors ordered less food and drink for the second and third days. Nearly 20,000 stragglers and a fully-comped city of Clarington later, and food had almost entirely run out by the early afternoon.

Then there was the situation with management. Eden Entertainment, basically a startup, wasn’t just broke; they were broken. A letter written from Mosport Speedway to the municipal government of Clarington revealed that they’d been stiffed by Eden Entertainment for operational costs. Mosport footed all of the cash themselves. Rumours about a cancelled headliner began to swirl amongst hungry concert-goers.

The lineup for the third day hadn’t done festival organizers any favours either. Even though the Catherine Wheel, Goo Goo Dolls, and Watchmen had played decent sets, it seemed that the whole day was hinging on a huge surprise. By 8 p.m., whatever was left of the crowd gathered for the weekend’s penultimate act: budding feminist folk icon Ani DiFranco. Poor, poor Ani DiFranco.

Before she could perform, two local TV hosts skulked on stage with an announcement—due to some complications, there wasn’t going to be a headliner. To make matters worse, they revealed that all along, the plan had been to bring together acts who’d played that weekend for a “super jam.” Oh, and here’s Ani DiFranco! Thanks for coming out everyone.

Robbed of a headliner, festival goers decided how to best dispose of a weekend’s worth of partying-related trash—light it on fire. The slopes on the outer edges of the camping areas were suddenly full of flaming garbage, with angry, wasted crowds dancing around it. It couldn’t even touch the rioting, looting and violence that would dominate Woodstock ‘99, but all the same—a festival that ends in garbage fires is probably a garbage festival.

The fallout of Eden Fest wasn’t pretty. Plans had been laid out for the festival to run a full decade. Rumours had already swirled among the press that U2 and Radiohead had been approached for 1997. None of it to be, as organizer Mark Drost was ruined. A year later, Drost would be the target of a massive raid by the FBI and local police for attempting to extort $2 million from U.S. Bankcorp.

He faced up to 20 years in a state prison and has since dropped off the face of the earth. All indications suggest that the festival’s mystery headliners—the acts the entire weekend had been built on—had been red herrings all along. If a band or act had been approached, that’s about as far as it went.

It would be another decade or so before festival culture permeated North America. Coachella, Bonnaroo, even Montreal’s Osheaga took years to grow to the massively attended spectacles they are today. At the time though, this was an innovative concept. Unlike its Euro counterparts, this festival had a web presence. Performances and interviews were livestreamed, and pictures and videos were uploaded and shared in realtime (and they probably used RealPlayer). All of this is standard fare in 2015 but was very difficult to pull off with dial-up in 1996.

For whatever reason, the Eden Fest website is still up–frozen in time, the people who put the whole thing together all simultaneously dropped their shit and bailed. (We strongly urge you to click through take a look around.)

There’s no other way to remember Eden Fest but as an abject failure. What started out as the dawn of a new era for live music in Ontario wound up a cautionary tale, and with Home Away approaching, hope Eden Fest will hopefully remain an isolated case study about completely fucking up a music festival.

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