For 37 years, Chattanoogans kicked off summer with a multiday music festival.
In 2019, facing dwindling attendance and financial losses, organizers cut the event to four days - but it still lost more than $2.3 million that year. The COVID-19 pandemic forced a two-year hiatus.
Now Riverbend Festival is back - and it's "crazy different" from past years, organizers said.
"This is more like a brand new event in many ways," said Executive Director Mickey McCamish, who started leading the Friends of the Festival, the nonprofit organization that runs Riverbend, in 2019. Friends of the Festival also produces the Riverfront Nights summer series at Ross's Landing.
The festival reduced its length and footprint, offering three days of music, Friday through Sunday, to a limited crowd and focusing on the fan experience with VIP extras like more bathrooms and concession areas. Rather than a "something for everyone" approach when it comes to music, this year's Riverbend has also narrowed its field, focusing on R&B, singer-songwriters, country and indie rock.
McCamish and Mitchell Hall, director of operations for Friends of the Festival, both said they believe the festival is moving in the right direction and one that puts Riverbend more in line with other music festivals around the country.
And while past Riverbends had a heavy emphasis on drawing fans from Chattanooga and surrounding counties in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, Hall said with the changes, there has been a greater push via social media on attracting people outside this area. Almost 58% of sales have come from this area, but a little more than 6% of buyers have come from Nashville, Knoxville and Atlanta.
The remaining 35% have come from places like Staten Island, New York; Miami; Seattle; Quebec, Canada; Dallas and Bowling Green, Kentucky; among others.
After the pandemic hit, McCamish said he and the board made the tough decision to sell most of Riverbend's assets, including the building it owned and most of its lighting, staging and fencing it used to stage events. The festival also reduced staff to just McCamish and one other person.
Plans were already underway to retool Riverbend following the 2018 festival, Hall said, and the organization has relied heavily on the results of a survey to find out what people wanted from the festival. About 3,000 people responded, and the event that kicks off Friday at Ross's Landing is a reflection of those answers, he said.
"They wanted free water, more areas for sitting, less crowds, shade, a cap on attendance and specific types of music," he said.
Respondents also were clear that they wanted the stages brought down to at least eye level for a better fan experience.
Musicians will no longer perform on a tall barge in the river that was the main stage - a point of contention for artists and fans alike who complained it was too high and too far away from the crowd.
"We made the changes that we could," McCamish said. "For example, it's June in Tennessee, so it's hot. We understand that, so we found ways to provide water, even though it cuts into our own [bottled] water sales."
Once spread over nine days and with unlimited wristband sales, the festival will now take place Friday-Sunday with a capped capacity of 15,000. Instead of almost 100 acts, there will be 23, and they will perform on the Coke Stage located on the lawn near the Tennessee Aquarium and the Bud Light Stage located under the Olgiatti Bridge. The Chevy Stage will be on the lawn next to the Tennessee River.
Hall said the survey asked people to list the top five artists they'd like to see and the types of music they'd prefer. As you might expect, answers included financially out-of-reach artists such as Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake, but that feedback was used as a guideline, he said.
Riverbend was known in the past for mixing classic rock artists with newer country acts along with acts that were either on the way up or in the twilight of their career.
Survey respondents said they wanted more current acts, and Friends of the Festival hired Mike Dougher and Chris Cobb to book the talent this year. Dougher has booked bands for almost four decades at the Sandbar, Rhythm & Brews and Songbirds locally, and Cobb is well-known in Nashville for the shows he presents at the Exit/In venue and Live on the Green festival there.
"Their experience and expertise has been invaluable," Hall said.
Headliners this year are Brothers Osborne, Cage the Elephant and Jason Isbel, as well as a host of other acts that appear regularly on other festival lineups such as The War & Treaty and Grace Potter.
Also on the bill is country singer/songwriter Elle King.
"I love this lineup," she said in a telephone interview this week. "In fact, this is the one festival I wish I could come down there for all three days and just be a fan."
McCamish said some tough decisions have been made for this festival, and he understands that not all fans are happy about it. Since its inception, obtaining an admission pin, or later a wristband, was as easy as asking your co-workers or neighbors to borrow theirs.
If you did actually pay for one, the cost for the entire week of entertainment was less than $30 for many years. This year's wristband started at $95 and is now $115, and the price will increase to $135 at the gate once the festival begins. Day passes are available for $75 and will be on sale for $90 at the gate once the festival begins.
And, McCamish said, there are no freebies.
"I have been beat up" with people calling asking for free ones, he said.
City officials, state representatives, friends, everybody it seems expects to get the same thing they've gotten in the past, he said.
Robin Derryberry, who handles publicity for Friends of the Festival events, said organizers knew the no-freebies issue would be a challenge, as would the banning of portable chairs. But she said Riverbend is adopting many of the same policies and practices found at nearly all other festivals.
Derryberry said for years festival organizers have received complaints about chairs because attendees used them to "hold" spots close to the stage for extended periods of time, which can be obstructive to views of others festivalgoers. The chairs also got in the way of security and staff.
McCamish said he realizes people are often resistant to change, but that change is needed if the festival is going to survive.
"We have a lot of history we've got to overcome," McCamish said. "We know that, but people are excited about this lineup and this new direction."
Derryberry said VIP tickets sold out in the first week, and the one-day tickets for Saturday sold out this week.
"I think when people come Friday and see all of the changes and how well things are, we'll sell out Sunday as well," she said.
Hall said he believes fans will enjoy the better fan experience with more space to spread out, more VIP areas, a craft beer garden and better sightlines and access to the stages, but also some of the new things like lockers for rent that will allow for stowing things like blankets and jackets but that will also have phone charging capabilities.
"We will also have a marketplace with merch including a Riverbend T-shirt with all of the acts listed," he said. "I don't think we've ever offered a lineup T-shirt before."