After four editions, Lexington's Moontower Music Festival has closed.
“You book artists and vendors and things with all intentions that it’s going to be successful and that you’re going to do it again the next year,” festival director Kaelyn Query said Tuesday, in a candid interview. “This was the fourth year, and it didn’t happen that way. It was no lack of anyone trying.”
By Query’s account, the festival suffered a one-two punch of logistical disasters in 2016 which contributed to a serious drop in ticket sales last year, reducing box office and other revenue sources such as concessions. The festival was severely in the red after 2017.
“We had to shut the doors,” Query said.
David Helmers, who became one of the co-owners of the festival in 2016, said, “Being truly local folks who love music trying to produce that event, we were less immune to the ups and downs.
“To have played a part in this event that brought acts like Trombone Shorty, Moon Taxi, Drive-By Truckers and others to Lexington was a thrill for me, and something I was very proud of.”
Moontower started in 2014 at Equus Run Vineyard in Midway as an outgrowth of LexEffect, the event management company Query founded. With a mostly local lineup topped by Moon Taxi, the event showed growing pains but potential. In 2015, the festival moved to Masterson Station Park for several reasons, including its higher-profile location and easier-to-manage laws regarding alcohol sales.
“It was never going to be a Forecastle-esque thing,” Query said, referring to Louisville's three-day rock and pop extravaganza in July. “We always wanted it to be a locally-focused festival that brought in some larger acts, but also supported local artists and vendors and makers and food and all of that.”
The third edition, in 2016, appeared perfect. Nearly 7,000 tickets were sold for the show topped by Trombone Shorty, Drive-By Truckers and Manchester Orchestra.
But there were major problems with alcohol sales, including a ticketing and distribution system that confused customers and 90-plus degree heat that caused problems with kegs, making beer difficult to serve.
“It just became this mess, with people waiting an hour and a half for drinks,” Query recalls. “It was a disaster. Beerpocalypse.”
Query says she and the festival staff spent nearly two weeks replying to complaints about alcohol sales, and there was a completely different system in place for 2017. Facing a significant deficit, she brought in two investors: Helmers and Mike Scanlon, who bought 25 percent shares in the festival.
Hopes were to get the festival back to even in 2017, when Umphrey’s McGee, Benjamin Booker and Cherub topped the bill. Both Query and Helmers recall it as an idyllic day with few hiccups and great music.
But attendance plummeted to less than 3,000.
“For a small, grassroots, home-grown festival, that’s hard,” Query says. “One really bad year, and you’re done, and it was. We could not meet our obligations, and after the festival, when we realized we were significantly in the red, we started assessing.
“People loved Moontower, so we hated to just walk away from it. And we certainly didn’t want to leave anyone standing, holding the bag for our event ... We tried to bring on some new investors and partners, but it’s hard to sell an insolvent business.”
So the festival folded. The Moontower LLC, now separate from LexEffect, is in the process of closing.
“People keep saying to me as an entrepreneur, this is what happens,” Query said. "You take big risks, and there’s not a safety net, a pit of money there to help you out if something’s wrong.”
Many other events, Query and Helmers note, have the support of media and entertainment companies that can help soften the blow of a bad year.
Moontower's demise leaves a void in the Central Kentucky market, which does not currently have a rock-oriented festival. Helmers, a music fan who travels to events, such as the New Orleans Jazz Fest and just-finished Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester, Tenn., said that while Moontower did not work, he thinks a Lexington rock festival should be able to find an audience.
"The potential for a music festival here is great," Helmers said. "We live in a very unique and wonderful place, and I believe we can celebrate that with a first-rate music festival that presents great musical talent while showcasing the very best that our region has to offer."