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Joseph Johnson, Eric Brown and Eddie Dial, from left, paint the floor of the Coca-Cola Stage on Thursday while preparing for the start of the Riverbend Festival at Ross's Landing. The festival begins Friday.
I give them credit for trying something different. I think it will be a good thing, and having two national acts on the Coke Stage is a good idea."

Since the very first Riverbend Festival in 1982, organizers have been caught in what they call "Riverbend limbo."

On the main Coca-Cola Stage they book acts with name recognition and a song catalog that many people recognize. On the smaller stages they book a combination of oldies acts familiar to fans, and new acts that could one day be Coke Stage favorites.

The issue for Riverbend is that because of budget constraints and site limitations, they don't have the ability to book the often more expensive "tweener" acts -- the up-and-coming artists who are currently popular, perhaps have a hit or two, but who aren't well-known by the masses or who don't have enough material to hold a large audience for 90 minutes, which the main stage would require.

"We've always been a little frustrated by 'Riverbend limbo,' that middle area where an act is too big for the Bud Light Stage and not big enough for the Coke Stage," said Chip Baker, the festival's executive director.

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Riverbend 2015 online

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Kaleb Menzel, right, and Austin Nolan set up fencing Thursday around the Coca-Cola Stage while preparing for the Riverbend Festival.

This dilemma is the result of both the festival's layout along the Tennessee River and the festival's budget.

While the site along the 21st Century Waterfront creates an attractive backdrop, it only allows space for one large stage and some smaller stages. In other words, there are no medium-sized stages that would house the tweener acts.

To deal with that challenge, Riverbend is trying something new this year: Festival officials have added a tweener act at 6:30 p.m. on the main stage, ahead of the 9:30 p.m. headliner.

These acts are a combination of up-and-coming acts and established acts with asking prices that fall between the smaller Bud Light budget and the larger Coke Stage fee. Booked in the new slot this year are St. Paul & the Broken Bones, War, Leon Russell, Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick, Little River Band, Cole Swindell and Here Come the Mummies.

Baker calls this programming shift "a $300,000 experiment."

"What's interesting," he said, "is that what we will pay for that act [the 6:30 act] is what we used to pay for the main Coke act."

By far the biggest chunk of the daily entertainment budget is spent on the main Coca-Cola Stage act. The gap between headliner and the next highest paid is therefore sometimes significant. Some nights, in fact, the money spent on the headliner has far exceeded the totals for all other stages combined.

As recently as five to eight years ago, the headliners were paid in the $15,000 to $100,000 range. While Baker said Riverbend doesn't reveal what each act is paid, he said today's headliner fees can be two and three times that number.

Baker said the extra money to pay for the 6:30 acts is coming in part from the festival's "rainy day fund" and from the general budget. He said the festival has always drawn fans of country, Southern rock and classic rock, but has not been able to book newer acts that might draw a younger crowd, something he hopes the 6:30 performance will change.

"Part of it is us betting that it will expand people's desire to come so we can sell more admissions and concessions," Baker said. "We have a rainy day fund and we are drawing on that and we are taking a very calculated risk."

Chattanooga resident Tommy Lifsey plans to be in attendance on Friday for St. Paul & the Broken Bones. He's glad to see Riverbend adding the 6:30 acts.

"I give them credit for trying something different. I think it will be a good thing, and having two national acts on the Coke Stage is a good idea," he said.

Other changes are underway for Riverbend 2015.

This is the second year that attendees will need a wristband instead of a pin to enter. Baker said instead of volunteers manually scanning bar codes, however, festival crews have built kiosks with scanners that will be at each entry point. Festivalgoers can simply walk on through and scan the bands themselves.

"If they already have their wristbands on they can enter through the Power Ally entrance and avoid the longer lines at the main entrance [on Chestnut Street] near the Tennessee Aquarium," Baker said.

Festival and events around the country have made the switch to wristbands that use either bar codes or a radio frequency identification chip. Baker said the hope is that over the next three or four years, they will be used both to facilitate purchases and to provide demographic information to event organizers.

Attendees can load them with money like a prepaid debit card, for example, or go online to register theirs while providing information such as age and where they live. The bands and the scanning process used by Riverbend have been developed locally in a collaboration with EPB, Friends of the Festival, Airnet and Barcom.

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Raul Mendez, left, and Maurice Thurman use a motorized device to hammer tent stakes while preparing for the start of the Riverbend Festival.

"It's cool because it's not new in the field, but we are making our own system," Baker said.

He added that while the local group is developing their own system, he wants to let others in the industry take the lead on certain aspects.

"Eventually we will switch from using tokens to using the wristbands for making purchases. We like being out front on some things but not when it comes to money."

Baker said the continuing construction work to repair sections of the waterfront will not impact the festival. Officials had said the work would be done in time for Riverbend, but weather and other factors have delayed the work.

"It was an aggressive schedule that didn't work," Baker said.

The repair area around the Passage is fenced off.

Another change this year is that Bessie Smith Cultural Center leaders use Riverbend's expertise and policies for handling money and ticketing for the Bessie Smith Strut. The center is funding the event and will manage it, while Riverbend will handle staging, fencing and gating.

The Strut has been held on the Monday night during the Riverbend Festival almost since that event's beginning. But there was some question as to the future of the annual event after gate and concession money went missing after last year's Strut. More than $42,500 was stolen from a desk drawer at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center. A worker at the facility later admitted taking the money and eventually returned $39,921.

The Strut this year will be a gated, ticketed event as it has been since 2012. Admission is $10 for all attendees.

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

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