Response to Riverbend Editorial - Good, Bad, Ugly

Monday, June 10, 2013 - by Bob Payne
Riverbend Crowd
Riverbend Crowd

I read with amusement an editorial written in one of our “local” news organization papers the other day. They went on to say how beloved Riverbend was in Chattanooga and how successful it has been. Then they tried to tear it down. Which is it? They mention that Riverbend doesn’t draw well from outside Chattanooga. That may have something to do with the tremendous support Riverbend gets locally. Or, it could have to do with the fact they do almost no advertising outside the Chattanooga area.  

They also mention Bonnaroo, another very successful festival a few miles up the road. They say we can’t attract the kind of acts Bonnaroo gets because we don’t appeal to the 18-35 demographic that travels to festivals. I thought it might be because Bonnaroo charges nearly $300 for a ticket and Riverbend charges $32. (My personal opinion is that Riverbend should go to $99 a pin and get a few bigger acts and maybe weed out a few of the kids that parents dump out there for Riverbend to babysit each night on the cheap. Dixie Fuller and Jeff Styles do an amazing job with the budget they have from the $32 pin.)

The writer then goes on to say that Riverbend gets bland acts that are “not compelling enough to excite anyone.” Yet, the biggest complaint Riverbend hears each year is that it is too crowded. Take a look at some of the pictures of Riverbend. It looks like a whole lot of excited people to me. 

Let’s just take this year, for example.  Jake Owen & Florida-Georgia Line, the day one headliners are both huge and relevant, as both received honors just days before the festival began. On day one of the festival, FL-GA Line still had the number one song on Billboards country chart. Skip to day two. CeeLo Green. One of the hottest properties in TV and music, he is. He has five Grammys in the past 3 years. How abut Brandy? Well, she hasn’t had a number one song in 7 months. Oh well. How about Dierks Bentley, you say? If ten Grammy nominations in the past 4 years isn’t enough, how about 3 CMA nominations THIS year?  Skynyrd. Freebird. According to Friends of the Festival, Skynyrd holds one of the top spots in Riverbend sales in the 32 years of Riverbend. Skynrd alone has an average concert ticket price of $51.86 according to Pollstar. Not bad – a Riverbend pin-holder can go see them for $32 and still catch many of the nearly 100 other acts. Ok. How about this Gavin DeGraw fellow? Check out his popularity and get back to me on that one. O.A.R. – there’s a loser, right? Well, not really. They are one of the hottest festival headliners in the country. O.A.R. is so hot, they have been to Bonnaroo a few times. So much for not attracting acts that draw well.

Speaking of Bonnaroo – they have one big act that has an average ticket price higher than just Skynyrd. Paul McCartney. (Source – Pollstar)

If Riverbend had Sir Paul, haters would say we have a washed up 71 year-old rocker who hasn’t had a hit in 30 years. Riverbend took a bunch of heat for the Beach Boys a couple years ago, but when Bonnaroo had them last year – well, it was just too cool. They didn’t even have John Stamos.

As for attendance figures, the writer disputes the Riverbend estimates of crowd size. Here is some info to digest - 

1.    Pin Sales…apparently, the writer took Riverbend’s admission revenue and divided by $32 to get their number of 50,000 pins sold. What they have left off is the fact that 1000’s and 1000’s of pins are sold for $26 – the corporate rate when you buy 100 pins at a time or more. There are some companies in Chattanooga that buy well more than a thousand pins a year. This lowers the average pin price significantly and thus raises the number of pins by quite a bit. Oh yeah, don’t complain that some people get a better deal – anyone can get that deal by just buying a hundred pins. In fact, one day per year, the public can even buy them one at a time for $26, right before Christmas at the mall. 

2.    What about pin trades? Let’s say Riverbend uses 10,000 blue widgets a year. A widget costs $3. Instead of writing a check for the widgets, Riverbend trades pins and badges for them. The widget company gets 1000 pins and Riverbend saves writing a big check for lots of blue widgets.  The widget company gives the pins out to employees and their good clients, creating good will for the widget folks and concession revenue for Riverbend. It’s a win-win for both parties, and there are tons of services and suppliers that utilize this service, raising the available pin count by thousands again.

3.    The super-secretive Form 990 that the paper’s special sleuths have uncovered, available only to 99.9% of the world, takes about five minutes to find and research. It didn’t say much about the hundreds, maybe thousands of passes given at no charge to the artists and their guests. It is a perk of playing Riverbend. A pass for each band member and a pass for a family member. Some of the bigger bands get many more. So, the pin count continues to rise.

4.    Want to find another quick 1,500 pins? Look to the volunteers – they get one just for helping out. And, so it goes, until such time that Riverbend’s attendance estimates really aren’t a stretch.

What about Mr. Baker’s salary? According to the writer of this precious little story, Chip Baker averages a tad higher than $190K per year. The first thing to realize is that like most CEO’s, he reports to a board of directors. According to the 990, the Friends of the Festival board of directors consist of some of Chattanooga’s finest citizens. It is a diverse list of people that includes highly respected folks from businesses all over Chattanooga.

My guess is that the Chipster doesn’t set his own pay – the Board of Directors does that for him. Bear in mind, the festival was not in great financial shape when Mr. Baker took over a few years ago. Now, according to the news organization that wrote the little scandal column, they are criticizing Mr. Baker for getting Riverbend into great financial shape. It seems to me, that having one year’s reserves is just good business, and I bet the board of directors is happy with that. Any other reasonable person would call that “good stewardship” of a business, especially a non-profit. Festivals fail all the time. Not Riverbend, as it is one of the oldest and biggest in the USA.

The “massive cash reserves” they mention is a mere one year in reserve. Consider that the festival’s income comes in just nine days, a two or three-day rain out could prove devastating. But, Riverbend has that rainy day fund just in case. That is usually called good planning and good management.  Start paying out a couple hundred thousand a year in police costs and watch that rainy day fund disappear like printed newspaper ad revenues.

Ask the recipients of the $91,000 that Riverbend donated to charities if that was “a bit puny”. Friends of the Festival is a non-profit as well, and didn’t have to donate anything. While you are at it, ask the hundreds of paid workers at the festival if they hate it as much as the guy that wrote the column. Ask the thousand plus volunteers who keep coming back year after year if they hate it. Ask the concessionaires who rely on Riverbend for a chuck of income if they hate it. They must really hate the festival, as many have come back for 20-30 years.

In conclusion, I believe it to be just another Riverbend whiner spouting nonsense. On one hand, they talk about how incredibly successful the festival is financially, and on another hand they say they should “work to draw headliners that would attract more people to Riverbend.” On one hand, the article says “These issues will hang over Riverbend like the hot June haze until Friends of the Festival is either willing to address them or the festival collapses because they are ignored.”  Weird, since they spent half the article talking about how successful the organization is.

(Bob Payne is not employed by Riverbend or Friends of the Festival. He receives a small compensation (not even enough for a 1099 or W-2 or even enough to pay for his gasoline) and he gets a few passes to the festival. He serves on the Artist Selection Committee for no pay, comprised of local radio station folks, musicians, and business people. He has been a long-time supporter of Riverbend, and loves and supports Nightfall and other local music events. His favorite Riverbend quote, possibly attributed to a local news organization editor, is, “Nobody goes to Riverbend anymore – it’s too crowded.” These are all his opinions and do not necessarily represent those of Friends of the Festival or anyone else. He loves Chattanooga and live music. Say something detrimental about the festival or Nightfall or local music and he will come back with reason and facts to dispute you.)


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