Riverfest is peeking out over the horizon. Over the last couple of weeks, we've reported on the Rock Candy blog (www.arktimes.com/blogs/rockcandy) that the annual Memorial Day festival will effectively abandon North Little Rock as a primary staging ground for entertainment, and the first slate of performers announced (Gary Allan, Little River Band, Robert Cray and The Steve Miller Band).
On Monday, we finally heard from Democrat-Gazette columnist Linda Caillouet, who writes the “Paper Trails” column on the front page of the Arkansas section, where she covers a lot of the same sort of topics we do on Rock Candy, but with less frequency and more focus on local Ellen DeGeneres look-alikes and the Duggars. Every year Caillouet seems to find new ways to write crotchety, uninformed pieces on Riverfest.
Monday, she bemoaned the rising cost of the festival amidst the “continuing economic crisis,” and noted that in the early 1990s Riverfest only cost $1 and, for its first 14 years, cost nothing. Then, she added, “And in the personal opinion of this columnist, who moved to Little Rock in 1991 and has regularly attended Riverfest ever since, the quality of musical acts steadily improved during the mid to late-1990s but has since been on a downward slide with less up-and-coming or crowd-drawing, red-hot-right now musical acts.”
First, to be clear what we're talking about, this year, tickets to the three-day festival, which usually features at least a dozen name headliners, cost $15 in advance or $30 at the gate. That's a $2.50 increase in advance tickets and a $5 increase for those at the gate from last year. Bloodsuckers!
I asked Riverfest director DeAnna Korte for a response. Here's what she said in an e-mail:
“This isn't the early '90s. What did gas, milk and bread cost in the early '90s? Riverfest's expenses rise along with everything else. If the quality has gone down since then, why does attendance increase each year? If Linda was a ‘reporter,' she would do her research on the value of our event compared to others in the region and across the country. Compare our pricing to one day at the zoo or a two-hour movie.”
Caillouet may've left her flank open with the “crowd-drawing” line, but the notion that Riverfest isn't getting enough “red-hot-right now” acts is a popular one. It's also wholly uninformed.
Perhaps most importantly, Riverfest will always be limited by its music budget, which is somewhere in the range of $650,000. When, according to Korte, Dave Matthews gets half a million for festival dates and Kings of Leon wants $350,000, there wouldn't be much left to spread among three days and three stages. Too, believe it or not, a lot of bands don't want come to Arkansas to play 45 minutes in the sweltering heat on Memorial Day Weekend. Caillouet's “up-and-coming” acts might be an exception, but if Riverfest is to even approach breaking even, it needs to pack in crowds and sell concessions. And with a limited number of headliner spots, slotting an up-and-comer in one is a pretty big gamble.
Also, nostalgia acts aren't just a part of Riverfest's formula, they're a part of most every summer festival like Riverfest. This year's headliners for JazzFest in New Orleans — long one of the most respected — include Simon & Garfunkel, Aretha Franklin, Van Morrison, Lionel Richie, Anita Baker, The Neville Brothers and the Allman Brothers Band. Record attendance numbers in recent years — around 250,000 in 2008 and 2009 — tell the real story: Names like Willie Nelson and Bobby Brown and The B-52s pack in the crowds at Riverfest.
Also, it's simply not true that the festival doesn't bring in contemporary acts. In recent years, it's included names like 3 Doors Down, Flyleaf, Gym Class Heroes, Hinder, Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert, One Republic, Pat Green, Red Jumpsuit Apparatus and Robert Randolph and the Family Band.
And you can't get much more up-and-coming than the local acts that play on mainstages in the early hours and throughout the festival at the Arkansas Tent (which, in full disclosure, we sponsor). If this year's local lineup matches that of the last several years, you can survey Arkansas's scene in all its diversity and talent for $15. Even in the “continuing economic crisis,” that's a hell of a deal.
Chime in on the rollicking thread going on Rock Candy (arktimes.com/blogs/rockcandy) on Riverfest.