Forecastle Festival Takes Slow Road to Success

27 Jul

Brit Daniels of Spoon rocks the Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Ky.

There are two paths to festival success: open big or grow slow. While festivals like Bonnaroo and the rebooted Lollapalooza came out of the gate with impressive lineups in large-scale settings, the modest Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Ky., has slowly built a grassroots audience over nine years as its lineup and footprint have steadily expanded.

From July 9-11, more than 27,000 people filled 90-acre Riverfront Park in Louisville to hear Smashing Pumpkins, Spoon, Flaming Lips and Widespread Panic.

“The main thing that’s helped us is a grassroots following and having a unique story,” said festival founder JK McKnight, who has grown the event from a free local music gathering for 500 in 2002 to a national festival that draws attendees from nearly every state. “A lot of other festivals are started with a group of investors and businessmen who are basing it on profit potential, which is great. But we have a totally different story. We started off with nothing.”

McKnight said it cost around $1.5 million to put on the show in 2010, with 65 percent of that money going to the talent and the rest going to build the infrastructure for the site, which included erecting a power grid, bringing in water sources and staging. He didn’t release the gross for this year’s event, but said the goal is to eventually draw between 30,000 and 35,000 attendees. The event costs $150 for a three-day pass and $75 for a weekend camping spot.

Over the years, McKnight has hosted such national acts as Sleater-Kinney, Umphrey’s McGee, Girl Talk, Dr. Dog, Band of Horses and the Black Crowes. He’s also watched as his initial vision of creating camaraderie among local musicians has blossomed into a three-day festival that garners national press, with headline-worthy talent booked by Nederlander Entertainment.

The first Forecastle took place in 15-acre Frederick Olmsted-designed Tyler Park in July 2002, as a free event meant to celebrate the city’s diverse music community, put on by a then 21-year-old McKnight. With just $500 in overhead to produce the event, all the talent performed for free and the infrastructure was donated for a show that drew several hundred fans.

The next year, McKnight invited local visual artists to join in and an environmental element was added as the fest’s attendance tripled. In 2005, McKnight raised $60,000 to cover the costs, securing sponsorships from Patagonia and Red Bull, as well as local businesses for a show that attracted 5,000.

The show grew to two days in 2006 with headline acts including Sleater-Kinney, whose announcement of a split shortly after agreeing to play helped sell thousands of tickets overnight and garnered mentions for Forecastle in the New York Times, CNN, Billboard and MTV.

By 2009 an exclusive partnership with Nederlander was in place to help with booking and management, which resulted in attendance of 23,000 people from 44 states and six countries for the 2010 shows.

“We loved where he was going with it and we felt this was unique,” said Steve Liberatore, VP of Programming and Business Development at Nederlander Entertainment, which signed with the festival in 2009.

Liberatore would not discuss the talent budget, but said he spent “considerably” more than in 2009 and that the agents he worked with were fair with their guarantees, especially for acts who weren’t necessarily in their touring cycle. He also said that while there was no profit this year, Nederlander is confident that after a growth cycle, it has built an infrastructure that can result in profits in the future. — Gil Kaufman

Interviewed for this article: JK McKnight, (502) 472-7555; Steve Liberatore, (513) 421-4111

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