June 6-14 • 21st Century Waterfront, Chattanooga, TN
June 12-15 • Manchester, TN
In the months leading up to opening night, Riverbend organizers make the loudest noise promoting the Coke Stage headliners, but to draw crowds to the side stages, bands often must pull themselves up by their guitar straps.
Throughout the year, Friends of the Festival makes periodic headliner announcements, usually paired with the reveal of a prominent side stage artist. But for the remaining two-thirds of the festival lineup, it's a case of self-promote or -- potentially -- play to an empty house.
"As a local who has now played a side stage twice, I don't or can't rely on Riverbend to promote those [side] stages unless there's a bigger act on one of them, and then that's all you hear about," said singer Amber Fults, of Chattanooga.
Early Wednesday evening, Fults and her band, The Ambivalent Lovers, played to a crowd of a few dozen enthusiastic fans who gathered at the foot of the Volks-wagen Stage.
However, most of the people Fults could see on the lawn fronting the stage were facing the wrong direction. As she played, Fults said she could see them watching video screens streaming a concurrent performance on the Bud Light Stage by Allen Stone, who Friends of the Festival promoted in the first headliner announcement last December.
Without the benefit of such high-profile exposure, Fults said she sought to bolster attendance by "badger[ing]" people on Facebook and through an interview/performance on WUTC-FM the day of the show.
"Riverbend knows locals will do their own promotion, so why would they waste their time?" she said. "They think we should all take it as a great honor to be on one of their stages when honestly, it's just another gig where you have to compete for people's attention."
Talent and production coordinator Joe "Dixie" Fuller said the festival does what it can to help side-stage acts by linking to artists' social media and websites from the festival's page. Once the final Coke Stage announcements are made public -- which happened this year on March 20 -- organizers will "start going to other ways to let people know what else is coming," Fuller said.
At that point, it comes down to attendees taking the time to inform themselves and bands making the effort to promote themselves.
"Here's the thing, I wish there was a way to get the word out," Fuller said, adding that oftentimes a band's performance will pull in passersby who are intrigued by what they're hearing.
"There are a lot of people who just happen to stroll by and hear a band, say, 'That's pretty cool,' and stop then. I know there are a lot of people who come to the Unum Stage and won't go any farther into the festival than that," he said.
For some bands, secondary promotion by local media and the enthusiasm of an established Chattanooga fanbase are sufficient to pack the house.
North Carolina-based folk/pop trio Bombadil has played the Scenic City twice in the last year. Drummer James Phillips said those previous shows, along with local media coverage and a promotional performance at 212 Market earlier in the day, helped fill the Tennessee Valley Credit Union Stage on Sunday.
"It wasn't a sea of people bouncing beach balls, but it was great," Phillips said, laughing. "We had 200 to 300 people, which is good for us coming in from out of town. Normally, we can pull 75 when we come by ourselves."
Many festival attendees said they don't mind researching side stage bands before the festival -- "I Googled the artists I didn't know. It's 2014 for heaven's sake," wrote Chattanoogan Eric Brown in a Facebook post -- but some said that they would appreciate more information from organizers.
"Usually, the [festival's] bio will say something like, 'Rock band with eclectic influences of metal, jazz, country, blues and funk,'" said Bret Douglas of Chattanooga. "That tells me nothing about what the group will sound like."
Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at@PhillipsCTFP.