Could Lexington support a huge, mainstream music festival? Insiders say yes

Contributing Music WriterJuly 12, 2012 

Trombone Shorty performed with Orleans Avenue at the Spotlight Lexington festival on Sept. 26, 2010.

MATT GOINS

  • IF YOU GO

    Forecastle Festival

    When: July 13-15

    Where: Waterfront Park, 300 E. River Rd., Louisville

    Tickets: $57, $65 for single day; $159.50 for three days. VIP packages available.

    Learn more: Forecastlefest.com

    FEATURED ACTS

    Select performers on each day of the festival. Go to Forecastlefest.com for a full lineup.

    July 13: Bassnectar, Sleigh Bells, Lucero, Beach House, Atmosphere, The Head and the Heart, Rebulution, Abigail Washburn

    July 14: My Morning Jacket, Andrew Bird, Girl Talk, Galactic, Dr. Dog, Real Estate, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Justin Townes Earle, The Features, Daniel Martin Moore

    July 15: Wilco, Neko Case, Clutch, Beats Antique, Ben Sollee, Deer Tick, Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires, Cloud Nothings, Mike Doughty, Kelly Hogan, Moon Taxi

  • IF YOU GO

    Bunbury Music Festival

    When: July 13-15

    Where: Yeatman's Cove at Sawyer Point Park, E. Pete Rose Way, Cincinnati

    Tickets: $46 for single day, $93 for three days

    Learn more: Bunburyfestival.com

    FEATURED ACTS

    Select performers on each day of the festival. Go to Bunburyfestival.com for a full lineup.

    July 13: Jane's Addiction, Airborne Toxic Event, Foxy Shazam, Minus the Bear, Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band, Ra Ra Riot, O.A.R.

    July 14: Weezer, Gaslight Anthem, Manchester Orchestra, RJD2, Grouplove, DJ Spider, The Bright Light Social Hour, A Silent Film

    July 15: Death Cab for Cutie, Guided by Voices, Neon Trees, Will Hoge, Mick Boogie, City and Colour, Lights, Maps and Atlases

It's enough to make you feel like your party invitation got lost in the mail.

This weekend, Louisville and Cincinnati will host major outdoor music festivals that are expected to draw audiences in the tens of thousands. One, Louisville's Forecastle, is celebrating its 10th anniversary, having been cultivated from grass-roots beginnings. The other, Cincinnati's Bunbury Music Festival, will make its debut as a full-grown performance event. Both will run on multiple stages for three days and nights capped by such popular headline acts as Wilco, Jane's Addiction and the Louisville-bred My Morning Jacket.

But what about Lexington?

The city has flirted with smaller-scale outdoor events including 2010's Spotlight Lexington that were popular with crowds but proved financially unsustainable. And nearby Wilmore has hosted the huge Ichthus Festival, which caters to the contemporary Christian music industry, for decades.

But could a contemporary music festival even remotely equal in design and scale to Forecastle and Bunbury ever thrive in Lexington?

The consensus of local festival organizers and music professionals is yes. But realizing what is now little more than fuel for fantasy and conversation comes down to two primary factors: keen organization and a considerable amount of money.

"I don't think there are any real logistical hurdles that would stop Lexington from being able to present this kind of event," said Roy Cornett, who is the chief organizing force for the Festival of the Bluegrass, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2013. "But it would come down to leadership and money. Those are the only things that would stop us."

Spotlight is dead, Boomslang is 'boutique'

Spotlight Lexington, a series of free national and regional concerts presented during the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games on temporary stages erected downtown, proved effective in drawing large audiences. Though different in intent and design from ticketed and more youth-oriented festivals, Spotlight underscored the appeal of large-scale outdoor music events.

But it proved too expensive to keep afloat. Plans for a 2011 follow-up Spotlight event were canceled. It is, as of now, a dead event.

"It kind of collapsed under its own weight," said Kip Cornett, who served as chairman for Spotlight Lexington. "It took so much organization, so much logistic control and so much funding for everything from the scope of the stage itself to the acts. It became very difficult to make it work financially."

If a series of free outdoor events can't survive past its inaugural season, is there any hope for a multi-day festival requiring admission? In some ways, that question has been answered by the growing popularity of smaller festivals such as the WRFL-sponsored Boomslang, which will enter its fourth year this fall.

Boomslang's growth cycle bears more than a passing resemblance to Forecastle, an event that began in Tyler Park in Louisville with little more than an afternoon's worth of local performances and whatever fans and friends who could be encouraged to attend.

"The thing about Boomslang is I don't think we would want it to grow to the level of where Forecastle is now," said Boomslang founder Saraya Brewer. "The charm is that it's a kind of boutique festival. WRFL's whole mission is to give a spotlight to bands outside of the mainstream, in essence, non-commercial bands.

"But I do think there is an interest in a Forecastle kind of event, especially if it starts at a smaller, grass-roots level. Just look at all of the festivals downtown, especially Latino Fest," she said, referring to the Festival Latino de Lexington, staged every September downtown. "I mean, people come out to events like that. People want to be outside and want to be downtown. There is definitely a strong enough population of people here who are interested in the culture of those kinds of events. It's definitely possible. But it will take a lot of work upfront."

It's all about headliners

Not everyone believes the incremental build of an event like Forecastle is necessarily the right model for a festival. Local musician and recording producer Duane Lundy said the primary appeal of a festival, especially a large one, depends on the drawing power of its headline acts.

"We have so many great artists here in Lexington," Lundy said. "We have a ton of amazing artists. And the local thing would be a nice feeder into a festival. But it inevitably becomes about the larger acts. I don't know if we could start off in baby steps the way Forecastle has.

"You really have to put a great deal of thought into these things, much more so than adopting the idea of 'If we just put on a festival anywhere, people will come out.' You have to make it more of an event. You have to get very creative with it. You have to make it easy for people. And you have to make it as inexpensive as you possibly can. And the truth is all those things don't always marry into one another."

A plan in the works

One local organization, the Lexington Area Music Alliance, is developing a plan that would deviate from the conventional music festival format entirely. Already in development is a weeklong event that would preface next summer's anniversary of the Festival of the Bluegrass. But instead of a large, cost-prohibitive celebration, its proposed design would utilize music happenings that are already fixtures within the city.

Specifically, the LAMA event would team with the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, Southland Jamboree, Red Barn Radio and downtown's Thursday Night Live, all of which would devote that week's music to bluegrass, if they don't do so already. All of that would lead directly into the Festival of the Bluegrass.

"What we have come around to is almost an organic thing," said LAMA president Tom Martin. "Rather than trying to fit a big square peg into a round hole and say, 'This is how a standard festival is done,' regardless of whether or not it completely works for us, this is the opposite. This is taking advantage of what we already have and packaging it as a festival. And what that does, inherently, is promote what we're already doing here."

The interest is here

But whether any prospective festival would be a grass-roots gathering designed for growth, a large event with Forecastle-like possibilities or something incorporating already active programs from the community, local music enthusiasts seem to agree on one central point: interest in outdoor concert activity during the summer months runs high with Lexington audiences.

"I don't think a music festival is outside the realm of possibility for Lexington," said Brewer, the Boomslang founder. "It may not become quite as big as something like Forecastle. But I think it's a really fun possibility. There are enough bright minds here to pull it off, as long as those minds are willing to devote their entire life to building something like that."

Kip Cornett said, "We just need to find a way to do something that is a little bit more own-able, different and more appropriate to our heritage as opposed to just another music festival. Can we find another way to do this and not be another 'me too' festival? I think the answer is yes. We just haven't found the right formula."

Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.

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