As you read this, our city center is waist deep in the throes of the one annual event that makes downtowners wanna flee like rats on a sinking ship—Riverbend. This “one-of-a-kind” festival infiltrates our riverfront with teenagers, good ole boys and funnel cakes the likes of which resembles more of a county fair on steroids than the “internationally award winning 9 day music festival!” as its website claims.
You see, in order to be a relevant music festival, you have to change things up and keep things current—something Riverbend refuses to do for the sake of maintaining its one-of-a-kind status. And, prideful as they are, festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza, Beale Street Music Festival, Voodoo Festival, Hangout Festival and Bonnaroo are running circles around our city’s slow-moving behemoth with top-notch acts which make millions of dollars in profits seemingly appear out of thin air.
Here are some of the differences:
1. Festival Length: Nine days is obviously too long, as every other festival mentioned is contained to a long weekend at best. Why so long if everyone else has already realized it just isn’t cost-effective to go past a single weekend?
2. Acts: This year Bonnaroo, for example, has Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Phish headlining. All current, relevant acts. Riverbend’s top names include Goo Goo Dolls, Charlie Wilson (of the 70’s Gap Band) and Foreigner. Nowadays, Foreigner really is living up to its name as the only original member left in the band is currently recovering from heart surgery and may not appear at all. If so, Riverbend has officially booked it’s first tribute band to the Coke Stage. Many of the other 97 acts are local bands that play live around here all of the time, so any true “music festival fan” has seen them perform like, last week.
3. Audience: Two types of people make up 80 percent of the Riverbend audience—my teenage daughter and my senior citizen parents, neither of which spend a dime at the festival. Every other music festival caters to the 25-45 age demographic—beer-drinking music fans with lots of disposable income.
4. Ticket Prices: Bonnaroo and Riverbend each claim to host 100-plus bands. In order to see top-notch talent, true music festival-goers are willing to pay a couple of hundred dollars a ticket. Bonnaroo says it attracts 70,000 attendees at roughly $200 each. Riverbend says it attracts 650,000 at an average of $32 each. Doing that math, Riverbend therefore claims to earn one-and-a-half times the ‘Roo in ticket sales, although I’ve never seen big acts like the Police or Bruce Springsteen play Riverbend. Hmmm.
5. Armbands vs. Pins: The most common question you’ll hear anyone around here ask during that fateful week is “do you have a Riverbend pin I can borrow for one night?” This means that for every pin they sell, there are roughly an infinite number of attendees with access to it. A nontransferable armband—the staple of every other music festival—means more actual tickets sold and more money in the kitty.
6. Community Involvement: Bonnaroo donates sacks of money each year to the city of Manchester in order to help support their host community and make up for the sheer hell its citizens endure for four days each summer. Maybe I’m not paying attention, but what have Friends of the Festival directly given back to the city of Chattanooga in the past 30-plus years?
You’d think a festival of 30 years would learn from its peers and rethink or retool for the sake of improvement rather than lean on tradition. If we could take a page from the current edition of the Music Festival 101 textbook and create something even more sought after than Bonnaroo, just think of what that would do for our city.
Chuck Crowder is a local writer and general man about town. His opinions are just that.