In the days leading to this year's Forecastle, JK McKnight feels less like the founder and figurehead of Kentucky's most prominent homegrown music festival and more like someone a bit medical in his methodology.
"We're all like a big group of surgeons at this point dealing with our specific area in the festival," the Louisville native said. "My days now are filled with lots and lots of checkboxes. I imagine everyone else's here are, too. But that's good. The good thing about where we are at our evolution now is everyone on our team has been on it for several years, so they know the systems and they know the processes. That eliminates a lot of things that can come up last second."
From its 2002 beginnings as a neighborhood event in Louisville's Tyler Park, Forecastle has grown into a three-day festival now staged downtown in the 85-acre Waterfront Park. This weekend's lineup will feature such esteemed headlining acts as Sam Smith, Widespread Panic and the hometown heroes of My Morning Jacket, along with prominent up-and-comers like The Lone Bellow, The War on Drugs and Kentucky-bred country renegades Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton.
"Throughout the history of Forecastle, we've moved venues every three years," McKnight said. "Whenever you move venues, I don't care how great of a promoter you are or how much you know festivals, it's difficult. There are things that come up in that process that have to be ironed out that a lot of times you don't realize until you get outside. It's pretty unprecedented that we've been at one venue now for five years. That's never happened before.
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"When people come outside, we get this feedback like, 'The site is perfect. Everything is great.' Well, it didn't happen by chance. That happens by pushing in that screw a little bit further every single year until you finally got it tucked in there well. Waterfront Park is such a great venue. I don't ever see us leaving there."
With the growth came an alliance with several key sponsors and one highly visible partner, the Knoxville-based AC Entertainment. Overseen by veteran promoter Ashley Capps, the organization is responsible for the launch of several nationally visible festivals, the most recognizable being Bonnaroo. AC Entertainment became a co-presenter of Forecastle in 2011.
"A lot has changed with Forecastle since then," McKnight said. "It's gotten a lot more sophisticated. There was a time as little as a couple of years ago that I was overseeing 19 different departments for the event — everything from visual design to the concessions to partnerships to insurance and vendors. Since the partnership, we've really been able to delegate things."
Partnering with AC meant McKnight could focus on "brands, not bands." That meant working on strategic partnerships for Forecastle — specifically, sponsorships.
"I booked the festival for about eight years. Relinquishing those duties was something I was really happy to do. Strategic partnerships, sponsorships, whatever you want to call it, that's what's in my blood. Operationally, it's what I think I'm best at. It's working with brands, local and global, and integrating them into the festival in a meaningful and tactful way. I feel much more comfortable in that world than many of the other worlds I've had to step into to get this thing off the ground."
While the AC partnership has been integral to the festival's growth, it also has allowed Forecastle to maintain a strong community spirit reflected in the abundance of Kentucky-bred acts within the performance schedule — a lineup that this weekend will also include Louisville's Houndmouth and Bowling Green's Cage the Elephant. McKnight said that ideal has been easy to uphold as so many representatives from the AC offices have become so taken with Louisville.
"I think once they got here, they immersed themselves in Louisville. Once they got acclimated to the site and the city, they understood what we're doing," he said. "They got the DNA of Forecastle. That's why the local culture we express on site is good, and the regional culture, too.
"I want people that come in from Tennessee and Ohio and Indiana — 49 states and 2,400 cities, at this point — to feel some sense of ownership of the event once they get here. I want them to see something that really radiates with them.
"Look, I would have burned out years ago had I not been able to find a like-minded partner out there I could work with that understood the vision and also just loved Louisville. I mean, the whole team at AC is just enamored with Louisville. They know more restaurants here now than I do. That blows my mind."