Every artistic event, from the most intimate performance to the most formidable of festivals, requires time to generate audience and community support.
Take Louisville's Forecastle Festival. Today it's one of the region's most prominent music and arts summits, a three-day event that attracts tens of thousands of patrons and some of the most critically lauded acts in the business. It began 10 years ago as nothing more than a neighborhood gathering with a budget of about $300.
Then we have the Bunbury Music Festival, which is introducing itself in Cincinnati as a full-blown, weekend-long entity without any growth period at all. But its organizer has overseen other prominent festivals and outdoor arts-related projects for the city. From those endeavors and after about two years of planning, he says, he knew exactly what he and, hopefully, Cincinnati wanted out of a festival.
What is curious, though, is that both festivals will take over their respective cities this weekend. Some might say separate events in separate cities will mean separate audiences, but summertime festivals traditionally appeal almost as much to the vacationing rocker and the road-tripping music enthusiast as to the locals.
"It's tough finding that perfect weekend during the summer," Forecastle founder JK McKnight said. "I get asked that question all the time. 'Why don't you do it at the end of June ... or in May or September?' The truth is there really isn't that much room. There are so many festivals during the summer. And you just can't look at festivals within, say, a 300-mile radius. You have to look at what is going on nationally."
Bunbury founder Bill Donabedian said, "I'll tell you the real reason this weekend was picked: Yeatman's Cove (the region of Cincinnati's Sawyer Point Park where Bunbury will be) was booked in some way, shape or form by a legacy event every weekend of the summer except for this one. It was really our only option. But I announced my dates a year ago. I told everybody we were coming."
This year's 10th anniversary Forecastle might come as a mild surprise because there was no official ninth year event, save for the more modest Halfway to Forecastle. That was staged last summer primarily as a reminder that the full-blown festival was getting an overhaul.
In 2011, McKnight teamed with Knoxville-based AC Entertainment, the organization behind, among other high-profile concert gatherings, Bonnaroo. That event is widely viewed as the template for the modern music festival. But the partnership was solidified too late to organize a 2011 Forecastle with the same drawing power as its 2010 incarnation (which featured The Flaming Lips, Smashing Pumpkins, Widespread Panic and Devo), much less one that could take an artistic step forward.
"I had worked on the 10th anniversary concept for a long time," McKnight said. "I was just waiting to implement the ideas I had. Then MMJ came into the conversation."
MMJ is My Morning Jacket, Louisville's foremost rock 'n' roll export of the past decade. With AC Entertainment on board, the band was enlisted as curator of sorts for Forecastle's 2012 roster and as one of its three headline acts (Wilco and Bassnectar are the others). Having a star Louisville band assisting a Louisville festival was paramount in maintaining a community feel as Forecastle continues to grow.
"That was a big focus this year," McKnight said. "Well, it's a big focus every year. The question is always how to merge a local, grass-roots event — which is what Forecastle has been for many years and still is, to a degree — with a kind of big-festival mentality. I've always said the strength of Forecastle is its ability to merge a big-festival feel with small-town amenities, hospitalities and conveniences."
Bunbury is an entirely new presence in the regional music festival landscape, but Donabedian is a practiced veteran. He organized Cincinnati's more showcase- oriented Midpoint Music Festival before managing a full schedule of downtown performance events at Fountain Square. All along, he had in mind the kind of large-scale festival he wanted to produce and present.
"I was just sick and tired of great bands going to other markets and never coming to Cincinnati," Donabedian said. "I figured with this kind of event, we can repair the damage by bringing these bands here to see our city and our audiences, and vice versa. Then we add in local and regional acts and make an event with some truly unbelievable ingredients."
Even with a reloaded Forecastle in Louisville and the indie- dominant Pitchfork in Chicago competing during Bunbury's inaugural weekend, Donabedian secured three marquee names to headline the festival's three nights: Jane's Addiction, Weezer and Death Cab for Cutie. As a result, audiences have been supportive of Bunbury since the formal announcement of the festival last year. Corporate support — at least initially — was less forthcoming.
"Audience response has been great," Donabedian said. "But from the corporate community, it has been kind of cool, to be honest. We live in a conservative town with conservative companies who talk about wanting to attract and retain young professionals but don't really get behind the events that strive to do that.
"But I think these companies are starting to hear their employees talking about the festival. They're crawling out of the woodwork and starting to say, 'What's going on?'"
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.