Ichthus organizers hope to attract more local fans

Dove Award winner Chris Tomlin will play the Ichthus Festival on Saturday, June 18. It's been designated as Community Day, with discounted admission. performers at this year's Ichthus Festival in Wilmore.
Dove Award winner Chris Tomlin will play the Ichthus Festival on Saturday, June 18. It's been designated as Community Day, with discounted admission. performers at this year's Ichthus Festival in Wilmore. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Ichthus Festival is focusing on a new market: Central Kentucky.

During the past four decades, the Wilmore Christian pop music festival has drawn fans from all over the Eastern United States and even farther away.

Ichthus CEO Mark Vermilion points to the festival's heyday 10 years ago, when entire sections of the camping area would be made up of people from Michigan. Now, just a handful of the event's more than 10,000 patrons are from the Great Lake State.

And the same is true of Georgia, Illinois, Virginia and other areas more than half a day's drive from Wilmore.

"Our market has shrunk to a 200-, maximum 250-mile radius of Wilmore," Vermilion said.

Two big factors contribute to that.

First, there's everyone's favorite headline: gas prices. If you think your SUV can drink up the fuel, wait until you try filling up a church van.

Also, the number of festivals and similar opportunities to see Christian bands has increased, so audiences are finding they don't have to travel as far to see favorite bands. Even in Central Kentucky, where Ichthus used to be the sole annual Christian music event, other attractions such as two one-day festivals in Lexington — September's Questapalooza at Quest Community Church and March's Winter Jam at Rupp Arena — have given music fans other opportunities to see many of the same acts.

And in some ways, while there is still free camping on site and four straight days of rock at Ichthus Farm, the event is marketing itself to locals as an attraction similar to those one-nighters.

It started last year with a festival-opening "Community Night" featuring chart-topping artists TobyMac and the Newsboys. This year, Ichthus is offering two days geared toward locals. The festival will open June 15 with a Night of Worship featuring praise superstars Hillsong United. Three days later, it will close with Community Day, letting single-day attendees access the festival for a discounted price.

Both days are $25 each, if tickets are purchased by June 10, or a Night of Worship/Community Day package is $40.

"There will always be people who want to come for the full three- and four-day experience, and we believe that's where real community happens," Vermilion said. "But we also want the people from Central Kentucky to look at Community Day and say, 'That's my day.'"

To give people the full festival experience, Vermilion said, June 18 has been designed to be attractive to Mom and Dad and their teens.

"There's a very strong, radio-friendly lineup on the main stage," Vermilion said, noting artists such as Britt Nicole, Matthew West and headliner Chris Tomlin. Others will include hard rock on the Deep End Stage and hip-hop on the Edge Stage, and Christian pop virtuosos such as Phil Keaggy on the Galleria Stage, the hit addition to last year's festival.

"It's the only stage where there's seating, and there's a coffee shop attached to it," Vermilion said. "It's a singer-songwriter type of atmosphere of music you can experience at a higher level."

This year, Vermilion said, the festival is trying to create a lot of focused atmospheres, including a day of hip-hop on the Deep End Stage on June 16 and hard-core music on the same stage June 17.

In the overall lineup, Vermilion touts acts that are new to Ichthus, such as The Almost, or that haven't been around for a while, like Anberlin.

The festival is hoping to build on a successful 41st edition that saw attendance jump 60 percent over a disappointing 2009 festival. That success was fueled by an all-star lineup that included Switchfoot and Casting Crowns and reduced ticket prices.

Still, despite 18,500 paid attendees, the festival lost money.

"That's been the tough thing for all festivals," Vermilion said. "Even if you get the crowd you want, it's still tough to break even."

This year, Ichthus hopes that a scaled-back budget and a larger local crowd will help balance the books.

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