Costs sink this year’s Underwater Music Festival

Attendees listen to music at the 2011 Underwater Music Festival near Gig Harbor. Photo courtesy of Setlist Music Solutions

The third annual Underwater Music Festival, which was expected to bring up to 10,000 boaters to the waters of South Puget Sound next Saturday, has become a victim of its own success.

But the good news, organizer Sean Hensley said, is that the festival will return in the summer of 2013.

Hensley said he had to cancel this year’s festival after being unable to raise about half of the approximately $27,000 he needed to put on the event, scheduled to be held Saturday, July 28 in the waters off Cutts, Kopachuck and Raft islands.

The event was first held in 2010 and attracted around 1,500 boaters, Hensley said. Last year it grew to more than 5,000 attendees and this year up to 10,000 were expected. With that came higher costs associated with Pierce County’s requirements for security, insurance and a $3,000 event permit, he said.

Hensley said he raised enough to cover the county’s requirements but fell short on the cash needed for a barge, sound equipment and to pay the bands scheduled to perform.

“The costs for law enforcement, safety and security, sanitation — all the stuff that comes with an event that large — is obviously growing,” he said.

The first Underwater Music Festival was organized by a group of college students and started as a backyard barbecue party, Hensley said. Then someone came up with the idea to have a band playing on the water, he said, and the event grew into an alcohol-fueled “mess.”

In 2011, Hensley, who owns music consulting and artist management company Setlist Music Solutions, offered to help organize the event and ended up taking it over. Last year’s festival, he said, had five bands playing on a 100 by 40-foot barge that faced the Sound so the music wouldn’t disturb people on land.

Attendees showed up from as far away as Portland. The event wrapped up at 6 p.m. and the barge was promptly towed away, Hensley said, to give boaters enough time to pack up and head home during before dark.

As far as he knows, Hensley said, there’s nothing like the Underwater Music Festival anywhere else in the country.

“There’s no other event that has multiple artists playing on the water and is family-friendly,” he said.

Hensley, who has a 4-year-old son, said he plans to keep the event family-friendly and will not take sponsorships from beer companies or others that don’t fit with that vision. The money raised for this year’s event will be used for next year’s festival, he said, and $500 of it will be donated to Crime Stoppers’ “Groove: Music for Youth” program, which provides musical instruments to underprivileged school kids.

Hensley plans to partner with the Northwest Marine Trade Association to lend the event credibility, and is optimistic that it will return next year and be a success.

“Every single sponsor has kept their money in the pot for next year,” he said. “There’s no question this event will stay around here. We just need to make sure from an organizational standpoint that we’re good with the local government.”

7 Responses to Costs sink this year’s Underwater Music Festival

  1. GH local July 27, 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    I normally wouldn’t take the time to respond but couldn’t let this one slide.

    As noted in the comments about “david” seems to have stepped up on a soap box and voiced his opinion about something that he clearly does not understand! This event has grown tremendously and because of that the cost has grown. There is no possible way to keep an event of this size low key. It was not the over promotion of the event…it is the fact that the county revised the verbiage from last year that made this event REQUIRE

  2. mikey bamboo July 27, 2012 at 9:35 am #

    Most of the houses on that side of the hill are near or over a million. Not sure how much of an impact that will have on the event in the future but I hope they can work it out. With regards to the permit…seems this event should be categorized as a marine event and thus requires a USCG marine event permit. I pull lots of CG permits but this sort of event is not a sailboat race and I would be ignorant to say I understand what is involved …but I amm very curious. Does anyone have any knowledge on this? Thanks, Mikey

  3. NWSoundgal July 25, 2012 at 4:01 pm #

    The UMF has been a wonderful South Sound event. However, with it’s rapid growth, and the newer & evolving county requirements and costs, it just overwhelmed the 1-3 family loving, multi-hat, multi-employed, part time volunteers (who had only a few hours a week to give). The GREAT NEWS is, with UMFs’ large ‘NEW’ TITLE SPONSOR/PARTNER, this fabulous water concert & boat rendezvous is to be RE-LAUNCHED, in big style, summer of 2013! Here’s a detailed article from the News Tribune – – “Growing pains contribute to cancellation of 2012 Underwater Music Festival”.

    Read more here:

    STORY –

  4. David July 25, 2012 at 2:36 pm #

    Mr. Hensley made the classic mistake of over promoting the event (specifically to the county) and driving up the costs to make it unsupportable. I thought one of the beauties of the UWMF was it was on the water…no permit required. If I go down to the county and ask for a permit for a huge event they are gonna give you a laundry list of things you need to do (insurance, security, etc) My guess is the insurance was one of the key costs. Who wants to insure an event with 10k people drinking with power boats and PWC. Sound like a recipe for an accident to me. Also buying insurance for one off events is way more than just having a corporate liability policy that covers events.

    I don’t think they even had a permit or insurance the first years. He should have kept the event on the down-low (out of sight and mind of the county) and passed the hat for one charity. But NO, Hensley has to go get corporate sponsors (who will want insurance to cover themselves) and put it under watchful eye of the police, coast guard and county. Over promotion kills grass roots events and the kids lemonade stand down the street.

    Smart corporate sponsors would rather donate directly to a charity rather than fund overblow insurance and security to fund a party that in the end probably have nothing to donate to a charity.

  5. South Sound Boater July 25, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

    I’ve been part of the UMF since it began and it wasn’t an “alcohol-fueled-mess”. It was a normal boating day out on Dead Man’s Island, on a fabulous sunny day, and we just happened to have some bands “donate” their time to play and get their names out there. Now it seems it’s become too much, requiring waaay too much money. I liked it when it was boaters having a great day on the water w/ some local bands playing great music. I hope Sean can pull it off next year, but I feel like the good ‘ole days are gone.

  6. Justin R. July 24, 2012 at 2:53 pm #

    I’m bummed it’s called off this year, but I am so glad they’re going to keep it family friendly.

  7. dave July 24, 2012 at 11:26 am #

    ’40-foot barge that faced the Sound so the music wouldn’t disturb people on land.’

    i’m sure everyone near can hear the music in the entire south sound … anyone that has spent time cruising knows you can hear a normal-voiced conversation on the opposite side of an anchorage.

    disturbing lack of life preservers being worn in the picture 🙁

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