The sound of music: Booking big names for the Foothills Fall Festival no simple task
By Steve Wildsmith | (email@example.com)
If the majority of factors about the Foothills Fall Festival are subject to change on a year-to-year basis, two things are all but guaranteed when the announcement of a lineup is first made.
Organizers can set their watches by it, because within minutes of the announcement appearing in The Daily Times, broadcast on WIVK-FM and posted to Facebook, the masses will cry out — most in excitement, but a small number, loud though they may protest, in complaint. In fact, it didn’t take 30 minutes before the first complaint about this year’s lineup made its way to the event’s Facebook page after an announcement was made at 8:15 a.m. July 1.
Granted, for every negative comment, there are a hundred excited folks who snatch up tickets the day they go on sale. Still, you can’t please everyone, organizers realize.
Most of the time, ticket sales are the ultimate arbiter of whether a potential fanbase approves of a festival lineup, but even that is in a state of flux these days, according to Bob Raleigh, corporate program director for Cumulus Media, the parent company of WIVK-FM, the country radio station in Knoxville’s that’s been a partner of the City of Maryville since the first Foothills Fall Festival was held in 2000. (As an aside: popular WIVK drive-time deejay Ted “Gunner” Ousley is a Blount County resident and a fixture every October on the concert grounds.)
“The music industry, like the radio industry, has changed dramatically over the past 10 years,” Raleigh wrote in a recent email interview with The Daily Times. “The business models have all been rewritten. The artists are taking more control of their careers and product by either forming their own independent label or signing with independent and smaller labels because they can get a better deal for the sale of their music. Digital downloads have changed everything.
“It’s now about the song — not the album. Previously artists really didn’t make that much money off record sales. They made the bulk of their income through concerts, touring and merchandising at those concerts. They are now making deals to make more money from song sales.”
As the financial landscape of the music industry changes, so does the way artists like Rascal Flatts, which performs on Sunday night, Oct. 13, to close out the 2013 Foothills Fall Festival, make their decisions to accept an offer to perform at an event like downtown Maryville’s biggest annual event.
Sponsors lend a hand
Before an offer can be made, however, the money must be there to ensure the artists will get paid.
“Whatever we pay in artist fees, we have to cover in ticket sales,” said City of Maryville Community Relations Manager Jane Groff. “Tickets are priced to break even. There’s a certain amount covered by sponsorship, and after that it’s a dollar-for-dollar match.”
Those numbers are fluid from year to year, and after a slow-growing budget deficit during its first few years (the festival lost money, as expected, but by years three and four, the festival itself was in the black), the City of Maryville transferred funds and wiped the slate clean in 2007. That year, the festival posted record revenues, and ever since, the event has been a self-sustaining one — thanks to a combination of ticket sales, sponsorship dollars and miscellaneous revenue from vendors fees in the ArtWay and food court areas.
Without sponsorship funds, the festival would be a very different event than the one it’s become. Festival organizers lost both GreenBank — which was acquired by Capital Bank — and Ruby Tuesday, the Maryville-based restaurant chain that had been a part of the festival since the beginning.
“Ruby Tuesday contributed around $30,000 annually in cash, plus in-kind contributions such as logo design and printing that helped us establish our brand,” Groff said. “Last year, that sponsorship loss would not have affected us if ticket sales had lived up to previous years, because we know enough to plan around things like that. But that year, we also lost GreenBank, which contributed $25,000 and was the corporate-level sponsor for Adventure Land.
“So between them and Ruby Tuesday and a couple of other minor losses — there’s always a turnover, but we have a really good retention rate of presenting-level sponsorships — we were down around $80,000, and there wasn’t an opportunity to recover. That resulted in a loss (of $153,500) last year, which we were able to cover with our fund balance.”
Ruby Tuesday declined to comment for this story.
“We understand the changing environment of business and are truly appreciative of the years that Ruby Tuesday and GreenBank contributed financially to the festival to help make it what it is today,” Groff added. “We’re also thankful for the people associated with those companies who still provide labor support and are willing to help out in other ways.”
Other companies, however, have stayed the course. First Tennessee not only provides funding from its charitable foundation (established in 1993, the bank’s charitable arm has given $55 million to local nonprofits since its inception), it’s provides a ticket outlet in Blount County for residents who want to buy a three-day pass while they do some banking. DENSO, Cherokee Millwright/Massey Electric, ALCOA Inc. and Clayton Homes continue to donate to the festival, and for good reason, according to Audrey Saunders.
“Our company values are on the backs of our name tags, and one of those, which really rings a bell when it comes to the festival, is that we take care of the environment and the communities we live in,” said Saunders, who heads up corporate communications for Clayton Homes and is the company’s point person for the festival. (She’ll be on the grounds at Adventure Land that weekend, painting faces with co-workers.)
“We’ve done that, and we’ve done as much as possible with corporate sponsorship, from educational areas like the Clayton Center for the Arts to the Clayton-Bradley Academy, the first STEM school right here in Blount County that kicked off in July,” she added. “Every time we do the Foothills Fall Festival, we not only donate for the sponsorship itself, we set up a tent every year with volunteers from the office, and they love it.
“We try to be a huge part of our community, and getting the opportunity to have our employees go out and meet with people in the community helps us become a true part of it. That’s something we’ve been doing ever since the 1950s. We embrace where we’re from.”
Ins and outs
While sponsorship donations stayed roughly the same from 2010 to 2011 — dropping from $218,205 to $201,360 — the decline in 2012 was matched by a drop in ticket sales as well. Ticket sales revenue brought in $556,661 in 2011 but only $382,965 in 2012, and combined with the $50,000 drop-off in sponsorship dollars, that brought the festival into the red for the first time since 2006.
To compensate, organizers went back to a tried-and-true formula that worked so well in previous years: classic rock and contemporary country. At this point, certain readers might be scratching their heads and asking, “Why didn’t they do that all along?” The short answer: It’s complicated. A number of factors play into booking acts with the star power of Rascal Flatts, Raleigh said.
“Obtaining an ‘A’ list artist for this festival or any appearance is not as simple as calling them up and asking them to pop on over,” he said. “Artists aren’t walking around the hallway looking at the bulletin board for a place to perform. Scheduling an artist, even newer acts, requires several steps and requires a great deal of early planning. Most artists are booked for concerts at least six months or a year in advance.
“In most cases, the artist themselves don’t know where they are scheduled. That’s handled through artist management, concert promoters and talent agencies. What we generally do when we work the festival is usually put together a ‘wish list’ of artists that would be possible draws. We look at past schedules — when was the last time the artist was in the area and how well did they do — and potential appeal to the biggest audience. Once that list is put together we then check with the labels and talent agencies to find out if the artist is available for the dates of the festival. Availability is the biggest piece of the puzzle.
“Are they already booked on a tour? Is that tour close enough for routing through East Tennessee? Do they already have other commitments booked?” he added. “If they are available, then we begin to work with the agency and the label to negotiate the best possible deal.”
Thanks to WIVK’s longevity on the air (the station signed onto the FM airwaves in 1965), reach (its 91,000-watt transmitter can put the signal into Virginia, western North Carolina, southeastern Kentucky, northwest South Carolina and northern Georgia) and esteem in the industry (WIVK has won numerous Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music awards), the station has developed a long-standing relationship with Nashville.
Legendary acts got airplay and air time on WIVK when they were just starting out, and boutique labels that are now heavy-hitters in Music City were sending their albums to WIVK long before they did to any other station.
That works to the advantage of the Foothills Fall Festival on occasion, according to Raleigh.
“Sometimes we can get the festival a reduced rate because of our relationship with the artist,” he said. “Sometimes the agency will offer a reduced rate because they need to fill an open date between shows that may be in the area so they can offer a ‘one-off’ deal so they can fill that date. Each deal is different depending on the circumstances.”
Sometimes, those deals are subject to change all the way up to the festival itself: In 2008, Willie Nelson agreed to perform but backed out shortly after the announcement was made; in 2002, the week before the festival country artist Travis Tritt canceled his appearance, citing laryngitis. (He rescheduled and performed a show at Theater in the Park in April of the following year.)
This year, before Blues Traveler was announced as Friday night’s headliner, fans took to Facebook begging for country acts Florida-Georgia Line, Luke Bryant or Lee Brice to be booked. As Raleigh pointed out, however, such stars aren’t sitting around waiting for the phone to ring; Brice’s Tennessee Valley Fair performance earlier this month was already on the books, and Florida-Georgia Line representatives were mounting a major headlining tour that would include an upcoming November date at the Civic Coliseum in Knoxville.
And even if the Florida-Georgia Line boys were drumming their fingers, hoping they’d get a gig offer for the second weekend in October, that doesn’t mean the money would be in the festival budget to afford them.
“We have to look at what’s going on in the market,” Groff said. “Usually our headliner opportunities are what drives the budget for the year. Once we figure out how much the headliner will cost, the remainder of the potential revenue is allocated to other artists. We also try to add something into the lineup each year that will appeal to a diverse audience.
“While we understand ticket demand is dependent on the majority’s preferences, we would also like to believe that we offer something different at least one night each year to try and appeal to the preferences of others. There’s nothing we don’t look at each year when making financial and programming decisions. Occasionally, though, it just boils down to luck.”