By Polly Keary, Editor
As city residents and officials question the idea of bringing back a festival that cost the city close to $36,000 last year, the man who organized it is offering to pitch in $20,000 of his own to make it happen.
The city has been considering granting up to $65,000 to the event, but the council seemed cool to the idea Tuesday, leading organizer Keith Brock to pledge financial support.
“I have now decided I’m going to come forward with $20,000 of my own money,” said Keith Brock, who put together last year’s festival as a sort of love letter to Monroe for the help he received while struggling through a difficult family situation when he lived in the area as a child.
He is now a successful career musician who divides his time between Monroe and Los Angeles.
The event, called “Dare to Dream,” featured a headlining lineup of some of the top studio and concert musicians in Los Angeles with John Popper of the band Blues Traveler as a special guest. Also appearing were two local bands. (Full disclosure; the author of this story was a performer in one of the bands as a backing musician.)
Last year, the city pledged up to $40,000 from the city’s Contingency Fund to produce the event, in the hopes that the event might make a profit and even help fund the creation of a permanent band shell at Lake Tye Park.
A committee of people from the Chamber of Commerce, High Road Promotions (which manages the Evergreen Speedway) and city staff worked with Brock to produce the concert.
The event took place Sept. 7 at Lake Tye Park, and 467 tickets were sold.
The organizers had hoped for a turnout of 2,500, which would have brought in $45,000 in ticket sales. They also had hoped to find $10,000 in sponsorship, and to bring in $2,500 from a five percent share of food and beverages sold, based on concessions of $500,000, with each attendee spending an average of $20.
The musicians were to be paid a total of $10,500, with $17,000 going to lights and sound. There was $2,000 budgeted for marketing.
In all, expenses were projected at $36,500; had the financial forecast been accurate, the city would have made about $26,000.
Lessons from last year
Some of the people involved in last year’s event wrote candid letters to the city detailing their impressions, including their theories about what led to the disappointing financial outcome.
“In the early planning stages, I was forecasting 500-600 people for a first time event in a brand new music venue,” wrote Doug Hobbs, head of High Road Promotions.
He wrote that he thought the projected audience numbers were unrealistic, given that a One Republic concert at the Evergreen Fairgrounds’ grandstands during the fair, the concerts for which his company also managed, sold about 2,500 tickets.
The fair spent about $80,000 on radio and television promotion, too, he noted.
“Monroe MusicFest invested in a website and printed materials, neither of which reached the masses necessary to hit those kinds of numbers,” he said.
Food and beverage vendors were hard to find, he noted.
Annique Bennett, director of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce, also wrote a cautionary letter, saying that she believed the city needed a business plan in place before proceeding with another event.
Last year’s concert wasn’t an easy sell, she said. The headliners, while perhaps known to some very informed music aficionados, had no major name recognition other than that of John Popper, whose band had several hits in the 1990s.
“Was it blues? Was it jazz? Was it a rock concert?” she asked.
The biggest lesson, she said, was the outcome of the event’s low-key marketing.
While the city promoted the event in mailings in utility bills, the chamber utilized its website and other tools, and High Road Promotions did what they could, the lack of radio and television promotion meant that it was hard to attract either an audience or sponsors.
That said, both Bennett and Hobbs had high praise for the concert itself.
“The 2013 MusicFest event itself was amazing,” Bennett stated, adding that the performances were world-class; the location was beautiful; the sound and lights were “unlike anything most people had seen before” and the service and coordination by the city were “flawless.”
“It was hands-down a truly memorable experience,” she concluded.
“The music was amazing, and the crowd who attended became fans of the event,” Hobbs concurred. “Keith assembled a powerful lineup, and did a great job entertaining.”
What it takes to succeed
One of the reasons it’s difficult to promote a successful concert in this area is that local casinos are driving up the costs, Hobbs opined.
Casinos spend lots on producing major concerts and don’t have to turn a profit.
“My best case scenario with a sell-out show is to break even,” acknowledged Sean Spain, CEO of Red Sky Promotions, a company that books entertainment into many of the area’s casinos. “Last year we sold out a Sammy Hagar show in a week. And the casino easily lost $30,000. But they make $300,000 at the casino. So for them, it’s totally worth it.”
That means that it can be hard to compete with the casinos’ summer event schedule and that many artists expect the pay they could command at a casino.
Spain, who got his start running small festivals, said that getting funding is important.
“I think the key is getting any sponsorship you can, which isn’t easy,” he said. “And work as many trades as you can. Give away tickets for promotion; offer to put company logos on things.”
Spain offered to contribute his expertise to the city if it was thought his input could help.
The city of Walla Walla, which last weekend held a two-day music festival, produced much of the event with the help of a tourism grant, and got sponsorship from a major hotel to house all the visiting musicians.
Without major promotion sponsorship, adequate marketing would require a significant increase in spending, said Bennett.
Beyond the proposed $65,000 budget, she projected that $25,000 should be spent on marketing. With fees to the promoter and city staff time, the city could wind up spending more than planned.
“A more accurate number of the city to consider could easily exceed $100,000,” she said.
Brock plans to make a proposal to council at the March 25 meeting.