Sonoma Music Festival canceled due to low ticket sales
By DAN TAYLOR | Sep 1, 2016

Organizers of the Sonoma Music Festival have canceled this year’s annual rock ’n’ roll weekend scheduled for Oct. 7-9, citing low ticket sales.

Country star Toby Keith and vintage rockers John Fogerty and the Steve Miller Band were booked as headliners for this year’s festival, which was to have been held at the Field of Dreams in Sonoma.

Even though festival founder Bruce Cohn hopes to bring it back next year, its cancellation is another difficult passage in his public career, following the forced sale of his Glen Ellen winery and the end of a long run as manager of the classic rock act The Doobie Brothers.

Ticket sales for the festival, for 28 years known as the B.R. Cohn Fall Charity Concert, were down drastically this year. Tickets went on sale June 1, priced from $89 for floor seating to $600 for a seat onstage.

“If you look at our sales, we normally sell a thousand VIP seats for the weekend, and we’ve sold 288,” Cohn said. “We would have sold 4,000 tickets total, maybe 5,000 at the most. With that, we would’ve had a huge loss at the end.”

Last year’s festival drew an estimated 11,000 music fans to the Field of Dreams over three days with headliners that included Gregg Allman, Ringo Starr and Chicago.

Until last year, Cohn held the festival at his B.R. Cohn Winery in Glen Ellen, attracting an estimated 140,000 concertgoers to Sonoma Valley over 28 years, before moving it to downtown Sonoma in 2015 after the winery’s sale.

The Press Democrat reported in 2015 that Cohn, 69, was forced by Bank of the West to sell his Sonoma Valley winery and approximately 70 acres of vineyards to Santa Rosa-based Vintage Wine Estates as his debts mounted to about $25 million. Cohn retained 21 acres of the adjacent Trestle Glen property, where he lives with his wife, Laurie.

Ultimately, Cohn, who was able to keep his winery through two divorces, said last year it was difficult to compete “in this new environment where bigger entities with more resources are taking over.”

At that time, Cohn described a vicious cycle where he had to pour too much money into paying off the interest on the loans, even after refinancing at least five times. He tried bringing in buyers on his own to no avail.

The B.R. Cohn winery, founded in 1984, became a high-profile destination in 1987 when Cohn began staging his classic rock festivals, which drew as many as 6,000 people over two days each year, and brought to Wine Country a new segment of visitors. It was a natural move for Cohn, given his long career as manager of The Doobie Brothers.

Name acts who played the festival over the years included Graham Nash and David Crosby, Bad Company, Willie Nelson, Huey Lewis, Leon Russell, Taj Mahal, Heart, Bonnie Raitt, Grand Funk Railroad and many more.

Cohn attributed the decline in ticket sales for this year’s Sonoma Music Festival to competition from the Coachella rock festival in Indio Oct. 7-9 and Oct. 14-16.

“This is the result of a circumstance that was not foreseeable,” Cohn said. “What happened was that as we’re putting tickets on sale, as we normally do, the Coachella festival, with the biggest acts in the world, was booked on the same weekend.”

He said that especially cut into the sale of higher-priced VIP tickets, many of which are normally bought by out-of-state visitors.

“Half of the people that come to this are from out of state,” he said. “The folks who have been good to us all these years and have come from all over the country to support this event opted to buy tickets to see the Rolling Stones, The Who, Paul McCartney and Neil Young instead of coming to our show, because they are classic rock aficionados,” Cohn said.

Grammy-award winning rock band The Doobie Brothers have been a mainstay of the festival but were not scheduled to play again this year. Cohn managed the band from 1970 until his contract was canceled in 2015.

“The day after the show here last year, they told me that 45 years was enough. That was the end of our relationship,” Cohn said.

Cohn said organizers still hope to bring the Sonoma Music Festival back in the future.

“This is the end for this year,” Cohn said. “It’s not the end of the festival if we can salvage it. We’ll have to see where we end up. I’m working with my board of directors to come up with ways to make sure everybody is properly reimbursed.”

Cohn declined to say how much money is owed for the canceled acts, the venue and other costs.

Starting Oct. 1, ticket refund information will be available at

The site for the music festival is on city-owned land leased to the nonprofit Sonoma Valley Field of Dreams, which maintains several softball fields, a baseball diamond and a soccer field there when the property isn’t used as a music venue.

For about a half-dozen years it was the site of the Sonoma Jazz+ festival, but there was an entertainment hiatus until the Sonoma Music Festival took over last year.

Richard Goertzen, president of Field of Dreams, declined comment on the impact the cancellation will have on the nonprofit’s budget, but said the event last year helped put the organization back into the black.

To help cut the festival’s losses, and improve chances for its return, Cohn said he’s asking ticket holders, particularly those who bought VIP passes, to write off the ticket price on their taxes as a charitable donation to his nonprofit organization, rather than requesting a refund.

“If we can do that, then we can do the show again,” Cohn said.

Staff writers Clark Mason and Bill Swindell contributed to this report.

You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or On Twitter @danarts.

Music lovers gather for the Sonoma Music Festival in 2015. (JULIE VADER/ SPECIAL TO THE SONOMA INDEX-TRIBUNE)