The 14th annual Celtic Music Festival, underway through Sunday in Ocean Shores and Hoquiam, offers a unique story of a successful combination of passion and purpose, patience and profits.
In 2004, when the Galway Bay Irish Pub had just left its cramped quarters on Ocean Shores Boulevard for a much larger location on Pt. Brown Avenue, owner William “Liam” Gibbons decided he finally had enough space to realize one of his dreams.
“I just love Irish music, and I thought a nice little festival might work in this town,” he recalled. Live music at the pub was nothing new for him, so he put together a three-day weekend event with five of his regular performers.
It wasn’t exactly Lollapalooza, but the singers Hank Cramer and Oliver Mulholland and bands like Grafton Street and St. James Gate did draw a hundred or so fans, virtually all of whom ate and drank, and the event was enthusiastically enjoyed by patrons and players alike. Naturally, the music lover in Gibbons believed that the only thing better than a bit of good, authentic Irish music would be more of it, and as the years went by, that became a whole lot more of it.
The event grew exponentially in 2008, when Gibbons added the Ocean Shores Convention Center as a second festival venue. Within a few more years, he was bringing in up to 30 bands and solo artists.
That would have been even more impressive if the festival, now broadened to “Celtic” music, storytellers and a vendors village, had been making a profit. However, that goal was still on the event horizon.
Chris Doyle, a Seattle businessman who spent 20 years “in the Burger King system,” has known Gibbons a quarter-century and came aboard as his partner in 2011, said the festival serves what he and Gibbons consider to be a bigger purpose:
“It allows us to keep all of our employees for the winter. We don’t lay anybody off.” Doyle explained that all Galway Bay employees work all days of the event, and look forward to that intense week and the money it brings them. This year, 14 Galway employees will be supplemented by 10 temporary hires, plus countless hours donated by 15 members of the non-profit Irish Heritage Club of Grays Harbor.
Doyle said the festival finally started breaking even four or five years ago, by which point it had grown to around 1,000 attendees. The last two years have shown a profit, with attendance of 1,700 in 2015 and 2,000 last year, at an event that now spans six days.
“Liam’s vision was to provide something for the business and our employees in October, that was the slowest month here in Ocean Shores, and marry that with his love of Irish music,” Doyle explained.
Their partnership has enabled the event to reach 2,000 festival-goers “by being able to split up the responsibilities, by having somebody who’s the visionary and marketer and someone who’s able to execute and do the operations, in addition to creating several layers of management.”
Talent is the biggest part, a third or more of a budget that has gone “well north of $100,000,” according to Doyle. Food and beverage costs are next, what with serving 4,000 pints of Guinness Irish beer, 3,000 pours of Jameson Irish whiskey and over 500 pounds of corned beef.
Surprisingly low is marketing costs. Gibbons explained that the event has achieved fame and a big following in the Irish music and heritage publications, and that has delivered a faithful audience from far beyond the North Coast. He estimates 75-80% comes from outside of Grays Harbor County.
Doyle added that the festival atmosphere is part of the draw and many bands attract their own devoted fans to the event. He also credited the festival sponsor, the Five Star auto dealership group in Aberdeen, which includes the event in its local advertising.
He added that the event receives huge help from Ocean Shores hotel/motel operators, with lodging for up to 100 musicians. “We couldn’t do it without them, that’s for sure,” he said.
Gibbons most enjoys booking the bands, and the fact that the festival has grown to the point that, “we’re very well known around the world now, and bands are contacting me constantly, wanting to play. I love the music and the fact that the people love this stuff too. I thought people might like it and I was right!”
Celtic Music Festival
By the numbers
• 3 venues, 9 stages, 5 artists and bands, first year; 29 artists and bands, this year
• 206 live music sets scheduled
• 24+ paid Galway Bay & temp staff; 15 Irish Heritage Club volunteers
• 4,000 pints of Guinness beer; 3,000 pours of Jameson whiskey
• 500 pounds of corned beef
• 100 attendees, first year; 2,000 attendees, last year
•10 years to break even
• 12 years to profitability
A detailed schedule and pricing information for the 14th annual Celtic Music Festival is online at www.galwaybayirishpub.com.