Was Riverbend 2019 a success?
What will next year look like?
Those are questions I've heard since the event started last Wednesday. My answer then, as now, is, "It depends on how you want to view it," which I realize sounds like waffling and I don't mean it to be.
I had a good time and enjoyed several shows. But, I've almost always had a good time at Riverbend and I've seen some terrific shows there over the years.
This year, The War & Treaty were every bit as amazing as I expected. Brandon "Taz" Niederauer was the real deal, Larkin Poe was also terrific and I got to hear Macklemore do "Thrift Shop" again, so that's a win.
And like so many other people I encountered there, I enjoyed the somewhat milder weather and way smaller crowds. Being able to walk right up to a vendor to buy a beer or water and then sit quietly on a bench watching the river roll by was pretty great.
But did it feel like a new or different festival? No. Walking by vendors asking me to register for this or that or trying to sell me something still feels like running a gauntlet. I have no animosity for the folks there trying to make a living, but I don't attend a music festival looking to buy something for my home.
And here's the thing: They help define the mood, atmosphere and the fan experience at the festival, and give it that carnival or county fair vibe instead of the big-time music festival. I'm sure they help fund the festival, and there-in lies a big problem ongoing.
Smaller crowds and fewer days are great, but they also mean less revenue. In my opinion, the biggest issue facing Riverbend is that it is not sure what its mission is or who its audience is. If it makes sense to maintain the county fair atmosphere and to try to appeal to everybody, embrace it; but for the folks willing to spend a couple hundred dollars to attend a music festival, and even travel to do so, there is an expectation that goes along with it.
They expect a much better stage than the Coke Stage and they expect a curated lineup of acts and fan experiences that makes sense from top to bottom. They expect the same thing regarding the entire experience, meaning vendors that share in the overall mission.
The average fan — not the vendors, nor the sponsors, nor the VIP patrons — needs to be the No. 1 priority. Making changes this year is a big first step, but there is more work to be done if Riverbend is to become a big-time music festival the city can embrace.
Contact Barry Courter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6354.