Ahead of any music festival, the stage is set for things to, maybe, go wrong.
Poor weather could wipe out attendance, performers could under-deliver, beer could sell out too early or the event could, for whatever reason, not draw as many people as predicted.
“When you’re putting on a festival, there are always risks involved,” Jason Gilliland, director of events for the Downtown Davenport Partnership who also does consulting for area festivals and events, said. “And you just try to manage them as best you can.”
Things went very wrong this summer for two high-profile Midwest music festivals.
The first-ever Newbo Evolve, an arts and music festival held Aug. 3-5 in Cedar Rapids, featured headliners Maroon 5 and Kelly Clarkson and priced three-day tickets at $400.
The festival lost an estimated $2.3 million, according to stories reported by The Gazette newspaper. The loss put festival host Go Cedar Rapids, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, into so much debt that the organization later folded.
A month later, in early September, LouFest was cancelled three days before the popular two-day event, with slated headliners such as Robert Plant, Kacey Musgraves, Modest Mouse and The Head and the Heart, was set to begin in downtown St. Louis. Organizers announced via a letter on their website that the fest was cancelled due to “financial hurdles” and a rainy forecast.
Such instances bring up the question: Could Quad-City music festivals similarly crumble?
When it comes to music festivals here, there have been wins and losses.
The Mississippi Valley Blues Society canceled the Mississippi Blues Festival in 2015 because of financial hardship. At the time, society president Steve Heston said the organization had been hit hard by having to move the festival from LeClaire Park in downtown Davenport due to Mississippi River flooding. The blues festival has since returned from the one-year hiatus.
In June 2017, Steve Whitney, an Iowa native and Los Angeles-based film producer, brought The Muddy Fest, which mixed rock ‘n’ roll acts such as Sublime with Rome with motorcycle rides, to Centennial Park in Davenport.
“The ‘Field of Dreams’ saying, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ doesn’t always work,” Gilliland, who helped put on the fest via his consulting company, Hive Events Consulting, said. “A lot of people don’t understand that when you’re having festival outside or at a park, expenses add up very quickly. You’re building a small city.”
The fest didn’t return for a second year. Whitney said he hopes to bring a version of the festival, minus the motorcycles, back in June 2019.
“There were a lot of learning curves in the first year,” he said. “What we did learn was the town can support a music festival.”
That is one reason that the Downtown Davenport Partnership ended River Roots Live after 12 years of hosting the summer fest at LeClaire Park.
Kyle Carter, executive director of the partnership, said the festival, which came with a budget of $400,000, was no longer “sustainable.”
“There were multiple years where we were not hitting budget,” Carter said. “Rather than fold, we came up with another model.”
About three-fourths of the River Roots Live budget went toward production costs, including things like staging, lights and portable bathrooms. That left about $100,000 to spend on talent.
River Roots Live was replaced with the multi-day Alternating Currents, which was held for the second year in August and comes with a cost of about $150,000, most of which is covered by sponsorships and grants, Carter said.
After hearing about what happened with Newbo Evolve, which had a total cost of $3.8 million, Carter said, “the model was flawed” and that he was “sad to see that bad of an outcome.”
“With us being a nonprofit, we are comfortable with a certain amount of loss, but not losses that would wipe out our entire organization,” he said.
Something big vs. smart
Most of Alternating Currents’ 100-plus events are held at downtown Davenport venues and bars and restaurants, which eliminates a hefty amount of production costs. Alternating Currents’ main expense in August was a concert at the Adler Theatre featuring headliner Dr. Dog. About 600 tickets were sold for that show, out of 2,000 available seats at the theater.
“Financially, that concert fell short,” Gilliland said. “But that’s not going to determine if we’re going to have another one next year.”
Sean Moeller, who puts on several annual music festivals, said he understands wanting to do “something big" with a big budget.
“But there’s a difference between that and doing something smart,” he said. We don’t do festivals where it’s going to hurt us that much if we don’t sell enough tickets.”
That goes for Moeller’s upcoming GAS Feed & Seed Festival, which will feature more than a dozen musical acts on Nov. 15-17 at the Triple Crown Whiskey Bar & Raccoon Motel and the Stardust.
Moeller said installments of GAS, which he has hosted three previous installments of since February 2017, cost between $12,000 and $20,000. None of the festivals have made money, he said.
“We're either going to break even or lose money and if we lose money, it’s a few thousand dollars,” he said. “You have to do the simple math to make sure you’re covered. You really can't count on anything going the way you think it’s going to go.”
Still, there’s a reason he and other organizers keep putting on festivals here.
“It’s a chance to showcase your town,” Moeller said. “Rather than bands just being in and out, they get to explore. And that helps them want to come back.”