WILMORE — When Ichthus Festival fans last gathered in the festival field off U.S. 68, they heard some dire news about the Christian music event.
Ichthus Ministries was in a financial crisis, and the organization was putting its 111-acre festival site up for sale. The hope was it would be bought by someone who would lease it back to the festival so the event could go on. Ichthus needed to get out from under the overhead of maintaining the site if the show was to go on, anywhere.
On Wednesday, fans began to gather again at the site, driving past "For Sale" signs now spattered with mud and dirt from a year of display.
The farm didn't sell. Finances are still a big issue. But the show is going on.
"We're still not in a really strong place, financially," Ichthus Ministries director Mark Vermilion said last week. "Here are the things that have not changed: We still have financial need. We still desire to sell the land. We still desire to sell the land to someone who will lease it back to us, preferably."
And that needs to happen, Vermilion says, for the event to be able to boast marquee acts while not significantly raising ticket prices.
Like many other struggling Christian rock festivals, Ichthus tried lowering the star power while raising prices, and it didn't go too well.
"In 2009 we had a diminished festival," Vermilion says, grimly. "So what we did in 2010 was come back with our best lineup ever and lowered the prices.
"What people think about the quality of the festival is very important. So to keep that quality up is to keep the Ichthus name strong."
This year's lineup includes several headliners with appeal to mainstream music fans, including Switchfoot and The Almost, which opened the festival Wednesday night, and Red, which headlines the festival's rock night on Friday. It also boasts stars such as Family Force 5, Tobymac and Chris Tomlin, some of the biggest names in Christian rock.
But keeping the marquee bright isn't cheap.
"Artists fees are the lion's share of our festival budget," Vermilion says. "A lot of people don't realize how much artists cost, especially headliners. The rest of the stuff around here, the tents, the porta potties, the food, they'll go up in small increments. But the artists are the wild card every year because they continue to go up in price."
Vermilion declined to provide a festival budget or give a ballpark fee for a headlining artist, saying that, contractually, artist fees are confidential.
Ichthus is looking at ways to raise revenue other than raising prices for the event, which is $99 for adults for the entire weekend. One of those ways is to address a bane of many festival-goers' experiences: portable toilets.
"It's called the premium potty pass, or PPP," Vermilion says with a laugh. For $25, festival-goers may get a pass to use deluxe portable bathrooms that are fairly close to indoor facilities with sinks and air conditioning.
Also, the festival is looking at possibly offering backstage tours, though at the time of this interview, Vermilion said plans for that have not been solidified.
In addition to generating revenue, the festival has cut costs, including downsizing its staff from seven to three part-timers, among them Vermilion, who also teaches at Asbury University. That staff ramps up to full-time as the festival approaches.
At the end of the festival, Vermilion says, the intention is to pay all artist costs and other expenses as soon as possible. Not doing that, he says, hurts the ability of the festival to put on an event. But doing that can depend on how many people show up.
The festival budgets for 11,000 to 14,000 paying attendees each year, with a couple thousand more volunteers who don't pay to enter, Vermilion says.
Last year, the festival broke precedent by making a financial appeal to patrons from the main stage on the final night. Vermilion says that probably will become a regular facet of Ichthus. This year though, he says the appeal will be spiked with hope and a glimpse into the future.
"We're going to announce some things on Saturday night that we have planned for the next year," he said. "And we're going to begin showing people some things we've been working on that go past the Ichthus Festival: Things related to media, things related to other events, and we've been working on those things since the last event.
"We really do believe that if we can get through these months where financially we're still struggling, there's an incredible future for this ministry, and it's going to look somewhat like it did in the past, but it's also going to have a more fully orbed impact on people's lives."