Riverbend 2019: A new day begins for the 38-year-old festival

The Dolphin tow boat motors upstream with the familiar Riverbend Festival's Coca-Cola stage Tuesday morning is route to its performance resting place for the 2019 Riverbend Festival. / Staff photo by Tim Barber

Faced with a changing landscape both in its downtown Chattanooga riverfront location and the music festival scene, the Friends of the Festival board of directors had a choice when it came to the future of the Riverbend Festival it produces every summer: Keep talking about making changes, or rip the Band-Aid off and get it done.

"Therein lies the crux of the issue," Executive Director Chip Baker said.

The board chose the latter after a comprehensive study at the end of the 2016 festival. Baker said while the study didn't offer a definitive solution, the goal was to make changes by this year, and he believed they needed to be substantial.

"We knew people wanted it shorter, and we knew they wanted it better," he said.

"My favorite saying is, 'If you don't like change, you're going to hate irrelevance.'"

The board discussed everything from moving Riverbend to a different time of year to holding it over two weekends instead of every day for nine straight days as it had been.

Eventually, they landed on reducing the 38th festival, which is set to begin Wednesday, from nine days to four, and the number of stages from five to four. They also added more fan experiences such as a whiskey bar and the same Ferris wheel used at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee. They also decided to nearly double the cost of admission, among many other changes. All were done to allow the festival to book better, more relevant acts and to create a better "fan experience," Baker said.

It's a big change, and Baker knows it, calling this a transition year designed to move Riverbend from a "mom-and-pop festival into a big-time music festival."

"Things have been evolving, and that's the word I would use, in this town musically over the last 10 years. We could see what was going on. As our community has evolved, people have told us they wanted more and they were willing to pay for it.

"So we needed a plan, and we came up with one and we are sticking to it. It is so easy to stay in one direction. Change can be difficult, or it can be an opportunity and that is how I see this. It is a lot of change all at once, but it is a transition to a big-time music festival."

Riverbend does not release attendance numbers, but nightly estimates range between 30,000 and 50,000 in recent years. He said he expects the crowds to be smaller than in years past, "but for lack of a better term, of a higher quality."

The changes have not come without consequences or criticism from people writing on social media who note things like, "you doubled the price and cut it in half. No thanks."

Baker said he anticipated that and that glitches are expected and part of the process, but it still stings for Joe "Dixie" Fuller.

Fuller has been with the festival for 33 years as production and talent coordinator, meaning he has been primarily responsible for booking the acts.

He takes the criticism personally and isn't shy about saying so.

"We have fielded a lot of complaints," he said. "I've done this for 33 years and seen a lot of changes, but not as many or as big as this year."

Fuller acknowledges change was needed.

"Maybe it is played out," he said. "I don't think so, and I don't want it to be the case. Our primary goal is to entertain people. Our desire is to make the festival better and for it to continue on, so we are looking at ways to make it better. This is a first step, and next year it will be even better. I know we will have a better [artist] booking process, and we will start earlier."

Change, especially when you have been doing something for so long, can be like trying to turn a barge around in midstream, and Fuller and crew are finding it often comes with unforeseen new challenges. For example, the date change was done to get away from the June dates of Nashville's CMA Fest, which is the week after Riverbend, and Bonnaroo, which moved to June 13-16 this year to avoid CMA Fest. The three ran concurrently or overlapped for many years.

Baker said Riverbend officials considered moving it to the week after Bonnaroo, but the city is hosting the Chattanooga Waterfront Triathlon that weekend.

"We talked about working with them, which they were excited about," he said. "How cool would that have been? But there is not enough space."

For Fuller, who uses many of the CMA Fest's same set riggers, the guys who do the climbing to install lights and speakers above the stage, moving Riverbend to Wednesday through Saturday has created a new challenge. CMA Fest pays the riggers about 50% more than he does. Also, Memorial Day is Monday, and that is a key load-in day.

"That means time-and-a-half in wages," he said.

"Our crowd is so afraid of change. Not that they don't want change for the better, and we have listened to every single suggestion and complaint. We looked at so many different scenarios and fielded a lot of ideas. My thought is we'll try it this way one time and see how it goes. It's damned if you do and damned if you don't, but we couldn't continue doing the same thing and getting the same results."

Baker said downtown development has necessitated some of the change and that a smaller festival suits the current site better. In addition to calls for a shorter festival with better talent, he has heard complaints that the Coke Stage is not up to current standards as compared to other big-time festivals.

"It is iconic and suited for that site," he said.

He points out that when the riverfront was renovated in 2005, it was done with the Coke Stage and Riverbend in mind.

"It is one of the carryovers from Riverbends past," he said.

As the area is developed, Riverbend will continue to adapt, he said.

To book the four main headliners, Riverbend also enlisted the services of AC Entertainment, the same Knoxville-based promoters who co-produce Bonnaroo and the Moon River Festival at Coolidge Park. Fuller continued in his role booking the acts on the other three stages, as he has in the past, with the help of Bob Payne, the man mostly responsible for booking local acts on the Chevy Stage.

"Did it hurt my feelings?" Fuller said. "Yes, it did. But we all just want to put on the best festival we can so that people will be entertained. That's the bottom line, and that's what it's all about."

Baker said AC, which is majority owned by industry giant Live Nation, has more buying power because it books a lot of bands and for several dates at a time.

AC delivered Weezer, Lionel Richie, Keith Urban and Macklemore for this year's festival.

The smaller stages also have some big-time acts, including Larkin Poe, Jimmie Allen, The War & Treaty, LANCO, Black Stone Cherry, Old Crow Medicine Show and Brandon "Taz" Niederauer.

Barry White, president of the Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau, said he believes the changes will benefit the festival and the city.

"I think Riverbend really listened to its customers and clients about revamping it this year, and we are excited to see the changes. Riverbend has been a staple in our community for a long time, and I think the changes will strengthen the experience for locals and visitors."

Having a shorter festival with better acts is an easier sell for his office as well, White said.

"It provides us a more defined and concentrated time period with fewer headliners, but of a different caliber," he said. "Before it was almost a case of having too much to talk about at one time."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.