Chattanooga’s Riverbend Festival on ‘temporary pause’ for 2024; Riverfront Nights expands

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Mickey McCamish talks to members of the media Monday.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Mickey McCamish talks to members of the media Monday.

On the heels of a revamp that shortened its duration and raised its pricing, Chattanooga's Riverbend Festival will be put on hold in 2024, Friends of the Festival announced Monday.

"Like other independently owned and operated music festivals across the nation that are going on a temporary pause, Riverbend is reevaluating and restructuring in order to be successful in the future," a news release said. "Riverbend has celebrated 40 amazing years, and it will never go away; however, it's time to go back to our roots — to music that is authentic to Chattanooga. We're dedicated to our mission, and the next time Riverbend's gates open, audiences across all demographics will have music they can embrace and experiences they've come to expect."


The Riverfront Nights series, normally held over seven weeks in July and August, will expand to 15 Saturdays of summer, according to the release, providing free music at Ross's Landing from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend. Its schedule will mirror Nightfall, a free concert series produced by Chattanooga Presents that has been held Fridays at Miller Plaza since 1988.

(READ MORE: Day one of Riverbend 2023: 40th anniversary of Chattanooga festival draws crowds)

Friends of the Festival produces the Riverbend Festival and Riverfront Nights, along with a handful of other downtown events. Guest surveys and record-setting crowds at Riverfront Nights this summer led to the expansion of the weekly concert series, Executive Director Mickey McCamish said in a phone interview.

"Riverfront Nights was tremendously successful this year, more than any other year," he said. "It got us thinking, perhaps this is just exactly what Chattanooga wants. It caused us to look at this as maybe we need to move in a different direction with Riverbend, at least for 2024."

Financial concerns may also factor into the decision. In its 990 tax return for 2022, Friends of the Festival said it lost $170,862 last year. The Riverbend Festival generated revenues of nearly $3.36 million in 2022 but had expenses of nearly $3.53 million.

McCamish deferred comment on the 2023 tax return until the festival's accounting firm "works up the numbers." The organization's fiscal year ended Sept. 30, he said. Under IRS guidelines, the nonprofit organization has until Feb. 15 to file the 990 form.

(READ MORE: 2020 Riverbend Festival canceled; Riverfront Nights event rebranded)

Riverbend was also canceled in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic, but the festival was already showing signs of stress. In 2019, facing dwindling attendance and financial losses, organizers cut the event to four days and raised ticket prices, a move that put it more in line with the structure of other area music festivals, including Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennessee, and Moon River, which moved to Chattanooga from Memphis in 2018. Riverbend still lost more than $2.3 million that year, according to Chattanooga Times Free Press accounts.

In November 2020, Friends of the Festival reduced its staff from seven to two and began liquidating assets such as lighting, staging, fencing and the building it owned. The move was made to streamline operations in the hope of surviving as an organization by presenting a "different festival" in the future, board Chair Mary Kilbride said at the time.

Monday's announcement also included a list of eight national festivals on hiatus this year, including Nashville's Live on the Green, which is produced by independent radio station Lightning 100, WRLT-FM. On Facebook, station President Lester Turner cited costs and demands as challenges too great to overcome for the 2023 festival.

Riverbend's hiatus will give the Friends organization a chance to examine what is and isn't working with the festival, McCamish said.

"It gives us time to take a real close look at Riverbend and decide exactly what Riverbend should look like and do it right," he said. "To be upfront and honest, we're a community festival. It's difficult for us price-wise to compete with the Live Nations of the world. Their buying power is so much stronger than mine. It's difficult to compete to bring the artists in at an affordable price I think the Chattanooga community would be willing to pay for."

(READ MORE: Live Nation fully acquires AC Entertainment, names new president of regional office)

Live Nation produces the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, which has often coincided with Riverbend in June, and the Moon River Festival, held in September.

Festivalgoers should keep in mind that Riverbend has changed dramatically since it originated in 1982 as a five-night festival in venues across the city, Friends of the Festival board President Becky Browder said. Earlier incarnations included powerboat races and the Bessie Smith Strut, and the duration has ranged from five to nine to three days.

"Things have changed with Riverbend over a period of time," she said by phone. "COVID killed us for two years. We came back from that with a more curated type of festival."

Changing customer expectations in the wider market led board members to hit pause in 2024, Browder said.

Riverbend timeline

— 1982: Bruce Storey and his Variety Services company are hired to produce a new festival modeled after Spoleto Charleston Festival in South Carolina.

Walter Breland is named chair of the first board of directors.

— August 1982: Riverbend debuts with a six-night event spread over several venues, including a chamber music concert at the Tivoli, a hot-air balloon launched from Vine Street and a children's film festival at the old Kirkman School near what is now AT&T Field. Some events were free, and some were ticketed.

— 1983: Admission pins are introduced for the first time.

— 1992: Storey is replaced as director by Richard Brewer, co-founder of Variety Services.

— 1999: Chip Baker is named the new executive director.

— September 2019: Friends of the Festival board of directors announces changes after 2016-18 festivals lost money, including cutting the event from nine to four days, nearly doubling the price of admission from $45 to $80, eliminating corporate admission sales and requiring wristbands be used for all purchases. The event is also moved to late May instead of mid-June.

— October 2019: Chip Baker announces his retirement after 20 years as executive director.

Mickey McCamish is named executive director. Songbirds staff is brought on to help produce the event and to book a lineup.

— March 2020: COVID-19 forces Riverbend to postpone.

— June 2020: The 2020 festival is canceled. Friends of the Festival rebrands Riverfront Nights as Chattanooga Unite: Healing and Uniting on the River and puts its energies into producing the free six-show summer series.

— June 2021: The festival is postponed another year because of the pandemic.

— June 2022: Riverbend returns as three-day festival with an attendance cap, a focus on VIP experiences and a more narrow musical field.

— June 2023: Riverbend is held over three days, with a new cashless policy.

— October 2023: McCamish announces Riverbend will go on hiatus in 2024 to give organizers time to evaluate what customers want from the festival.

"It's a different environment than when Riverbend was the only thing going," she said. "Things have evolved over time. There's free music every weekend, festivals all over the country."

Riverfront Nights will kick off May 25 at Ross's Landing with the official Jimmy Buffett tribute band, A1A. Weekly programming will include food trucks, more family activities and an expanded children's play area.

"Maybe this is really what Chattanooga wants," McCamish said. "It's free. It's downtown. It's pet-friendly. It's family-friendly."

(READ MORE: Day two of Riverbend attracts locals, die-hards as festival celebrates 40th anniversary)

Once Riverfront Nights' 2024 lineup concludes, McCamish and the Riverbend board will evaluate next steps, he said.

"Riverbend served us well for 40 years," McCamish said. "Maybe it needs to take a different shape."

Contact Lisa Denton at or 423-757-6281.

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