No Festivals! Economic pain is deep and wide

Phil Goldsborough’s food truck Longshot Lobsta makes as much money at any of Louisville’s three-day major music festivals as it does in an average month. Even when it rains and even when the heat index is above 100 degrees, he sells out at those events. People have already made a financial commitment to be there, and they need to eat, which always results in big profits for Longshot. Now, with all mass gatherings canceled for the foreseeable future, Goldsborough has lost quite a bit of financial security this summer. 

“It’s hard to say because we haven’t got into the season yet, but I think it’s going to be a struggle without those,” Goldsborough said. “I can’t read the future, but I’m going to have to hit the streets more so than I have before. What the music festivals allow me to do, is take some time off.”

Although the cancellation of Forecastle, Louder Than Life, Bourbon & Beyond and Hometown Rising for 2020 was necessary, it has dealt a massive blow to an entire economic ecosystem of people and businesses and the city itself.

Musicians haven’t performed live since early March, and now they’re going to miss out on their most-profitable season.

Stage crews and sound people are out of work and will be through their most consistent time of the year.

Hotels and nearby restaurants are losing what are normally massive boosts.

Major music festivals, and the smaller ones that fill out the rest of the warm months, are the lifeblood of the summer entertainment economy, and now they’ve disappeared for a year.

These festivals are so ingrained in Louisville’s economy and identity that Mayor Greg Fischer uses them to market the city. 

“They’re a big part of the rhythm of who we are,” Fischer told LEO. “They’re a big part of our attraction strategy, both for people to visit and leave tourism dollars and for people to move here, for businesses to be attractive here.”

And there’s the immediate “economic consequence” as well, he said, adding that Forecastle and the three Danny Wimmer Presents festivals generate about $22 million a year for our local economy.

And those missing dollars are financially suffocating on so many levels.

In the limelight and behind the scenes

Musicians are the most obvious demographic affected. They lose out on sizable paychecks and the ability to reach large audiences, but it goes much deeper than that. Since the streaming giants have taken over how audiences listen to music, there’s less money for most musicians in creating studio albums. That means they make the bulk of their money on the road, and festivals, for many bands, are the anchors and the biggest opportunities. White Reaper keyboardist Ryan Hater said that touring musicians generally revolve their entire schedules around festivals.

“I’d say a lot of bands, especially at our level, probably make the bulk of their income from festival summer runs,” Hater said. “Every band kind of builds their summers from May until August, maybe even until October, on these festivals and it’s definitely a huge bulk of revenue that’s lost for everyone in the music industry.”

Chris Thomas, who manages Louisville acts Houndmouth and Jack Harlow, said that musicians are trying to find new revenue streams to replace what they usually make from the festival circuit, but he doesn’t see how anything could sustainably work.

“Most of them have applied for unemployment in their respective states,” Thomas said. “All of them have sat down and thought, ‘How can we make money until when we can tour again?’ Everyone’s trying to figure out how this new livestreaming world can make sense. I’ve seen a lot of artists perform livestream shows for free. I’ve seen people charge tickets for it. I saw one indie artist do a ticketed show for which they probably made up to $40,000. But, at the same time that indie artist probably gets more than $40,000 at each festival. And I don’t know how many times they can recreate that livestream show and make that much money. How does that become a consistent thing?”

While a nice payday definitely attracts musicians to the festival circuit, for many, it’s equally about the opportunity itself.

 The first music festival Hater ever attended was Forecastle in 2008, so when White Reaper played there seven years later, it was a special experience — one that put some momentum behind the band.

“It was the biggest crowd we had played to, at that point,” Hater said. “It does a ton, not only for exposure of the band, but also morale for young artists, to be recognized on that level and it gives you a lot of energy and excitement, especially when you get to play a hometown festival and all of your friends are there. It’s really an experience that’s unrivaled in today’s music world. And for a lot of young bands, that will be the first time they play to a big crowd.”

White Reaper playing their first set at Forecastle in 2015. | Photo by Nik Vechery.

Letting more people in

Jecorey Arthur, a local musician, teacher and activist, has performed several times at Forecastle, both under his hip-hop moniker 1200 and as part of several singular, Louisville-focused sets. During his solo set in 2016, he brought a youth choir onstage to back him. He’s also performed with Dr. Dundiff & Friends as well as Teddy Abrams and members of the Louisville Orchestra at the festival, and he set up the West End Showcase there in 2018. Arthur, who is running for Metro Council in District 4, said that with the cancellation of Forecastle, local up-and-coming talent will lose an opportunity to get on a national stage that is in their own backyard.

“It was always important for me to utilize that platform — me kind of kicking the door in and letting in as many people into that space, because it is one of our only nationally-recognized arts industry settings, where we can have those sort of connects and touchpoints,” Arthur said. “So, with Forecastle not happening this year, we’re definitely losing some of that access.”

Festivals are enormous operations with many behind-the-scenes workers who make sure everything happens and on time. Stage crews, sound people and all sorts of logistics experts and techs are responsible for making sure musicians can stroll on stage and play their show without any hiccups. White Reaper has now played dozens of festivals and Hater said that these people are the foundation of a good event. 

And now they’re out of work.

“You have people that have been working festivals like this since the late ’80s, people who have built their entire stability and career off of the six months that they can go on the road and travel,” Hater said. “It’s definitely going to make a huge impact on those people and those are kind of the unsung heroes of the festival circuit.”

‘A nice chunk of money in the bank’

Alene Day, who is a freelance runner and artist transporter for festivals and venues, has worked at Forecastle and all three Danny Wimmer Presents festivals. She said that the consistent work is what makes festival season so important for her.

“The festivals are unusually large chunks of days, which usually we don’t get very often,” Day said. “I’m rarely back-to-back-to-back days, so it’s nice chunks of money, that is rare in the business, because you usually, in my position, you’re in there one day, maybe two, if there’s a preproduction day. The festivals, especially the Trifesta, is an entire month of work.”

Day has also been the primary runner, essentially a concierge for touring musicians, for Production Simple for a decade, and she also takes gigs at The Louisville Palace, but it’s the Forecastles and Louder Than Lifes that allow her to prepare for the lean months.

“It really gets a nice chunk of money in the bank for that slow time of year, which is the winter,” Day said.

Just like the bands, the crew is going to miss out on seeing a bunch of friends.

“The community that you have at the festival is so awesome and we get to see each other once a year and we look forward to it and that being-together is going to be so sorely missed and that’s what we’re all the saddest about when we talk,” Day said.

Day also stressed that many people will be affected by this. Hundreds of people benefit from every festival. They’re each a  micro-economy made from scratch.

“It’s its own city that gets built up and broken down,” Day said.

Jecorey Arthur, aka 1200, brought out a youth choir during his Forecastle 2016 set. | Photo by Nik Vechery.

Beyond the stage

Summer festival season makes up 75% of Mendy Frohlich’s business for her company cherryredevents, which provides bar services and staffing to Forecastle, her client for 13 years, and Abbey Road On The River, among others.

“It’s a very big hit for me,” Frohlich said about the cancellations. “I’m still trying to process it all, to be honest with you.”

And her concerns go beyond herself because she employees between 25 and 75 bartenders per event. “All of those bartenders are obviously going to be missing a lot of money this summer and fall,” Frohlich said.

“A lot of these people have been with me for 12 or 13 years,” she continued. “It’s all the same bartenders. So, these people have been working these festivals for me for so long, so this has become part of their yearly income that they factor in.”

Ryan Cohee, owner of Red Top Hotdogs, said that 50% of his business in the summer months comes from festivals and events such as the Kentucky Derby and Flea Off Market. Red Top has had a food truck for about seven years, and Cohee also opened a brick-and-mortar location a year and a half ago on Logan Street. Although the restaurant is offering carryout, Cohee said that, without the summer festivals, he’s going to have to change how often he uses the truck.

“I’m not a guy who goes downtown and does the everyday hustle, because of the festivals, but I might just have to do every day downtown when the city opens back up,” he said.

While Red Top generates a lot of income from the festivals, each event is also a branding opportunity, as they essentially get to advertise in front of Louisville residents and out-of-towners.

“I got people from Frankfort and Lexington that will travel, just because they had Red Top at Forecastle or other festivals,” Cohee said. “I call my food truck a billboard that makes me money.”

Difference between in the red or black

After opening the pizza restaurant Lupo, co-owner and head chef Max Balliet had a lot less time for his food truck, Holy Mole.

“In a lot of ways, events like Forecastle were the last holdout for what I would do with the truck,” Balliet said. “It’s definitely crippling the Holy Mole business, but kind of only in the sense that that’s all we do anymore.”

But, last year, Lupo decided to become more versatile, so they built a pizza trailer with a double-deck oven in the back and took it to Forecastle and all three Danny Wimmer Presents festivals.

“The festival set up was our first attempt to grow the brand,” Balliet said. “It was us saying, ‘OK, we have this brick and mortar, it’s done pretty well, we would like to have some sort of mobile concept where we can show off what we do outside of the restaurant.’ And the first year was pretty successful for us. We nearly paid back our investment of what it took to build the rig, just from doing those events.”

Since the trailer tested well last year, Lupo was planning to expand to more events this year, something that would have helped them fend off the tough winter months.

“From a bottom line perspective, this is all extra cash generated for Lupo,” Balliet said. “There’s definitely lean months in a restaurant, and being able to go out and drum up a few thousand bucks worth of business, it can be the difference between being in the red or the black.”

Louisville’s national profile 

While some major music festivals, such as Bonnaroo, take place in the middle of nowhere, the Louisville festivals have always been relatively close to the center of the city. Forecastle is smack downtown on the waterfront, a quick walk away from several restaurants, bars, hotels and museums. The three Danny Wimmer Presents festivals happen at the Kentucky Expo Center, which is only a short drive from The Highlands, Germantown, downtown and other trendy neighborhoods packed with businesses. And just by the sheer number of fans that the festivals bring in, a lot of money trickles all over the city.

“It’s kind of like the Derby,” Fischer said. “People come and our restaurants get a big bump, our hotels get a bump, our local independent businesses get a bump, our craft breweries are a big part of this, bourbonism is introduced to a lot of people through these festivals.”

One of the closest places to get beer and food outside of Forecastle is Against The Grain Brewery and Smokehouse, which is attached to Slugger Field on Main Street. Co-owner Sam Cruz said that the three-day music festival is one of ATG’s top two weekends of the year.

“We’re talking six figures,” Cruz said. “But the lead up business and the marketing that we receive from that adds a pretty significant bump for us as well though.”

Against The Grain, which is open for carryout, also ships its beer to 43 states and 25 countries. Forecastle helps them develop an expanded loyal customer base.

“There’s a lot of awareness for us because of that event,” Cruz said. “Not only in Louisville, but we’re also talking about other states. People from North Carolina recognize our beer because let’s say they came and saw Ben Folds or whoever was there, well our beer is in that Kentucky Landing, so they end up coming and checking out our restaurant, or they see it out on market in North Carolina and pick it up.”

Louisville has undoubtedly worked to raise its national profile in the last decade, and a key aspect of that is getting people to visit. The last decade has also been the golden age of music festivals, so it’s safe to say that tourism and events like Forecastle, Louder Than Life, Bourbon & Beyond and Hometown Rising are an important way outsiders get hooked into the city.

“One of the things I’m proud about Louisville is that we’re not like anywhere in the USA in terms of a city,” Fischer said. “A lot of cities to me are pretty generic and we have a lot of soul and authenticity here and these festivals are a front door for people to experience that.” •