The Forecastle Festival: Getting Real Lucky in Kentucky

A behind-the-scenes look with Bryan Benson, JK McKnight, and Holly Weyler.

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Welcome to Festival Outlook, a supplemental column that provides more in-depth analysis for the rumors found on Consequence of Sound’s sister site of the same name. In this installment, contributing writer Zach Hart sits down with the masterminds behind Louisville, Kentucky’s Forecastle Festival, specifically Bryan Benson, JK McKnight, and Holly Weyler. Together, they discuss their not-so-secret approach to how they’ve become one of the best in the Midwest. 

A new phenomenon has emerged online. As soon as a festival lineup rolls out, people head over to their respective social media outlets to vent about certain artists not playing their festival or how a given band is already headlining another festival months earlier. “It’s not as good as last year” and other negative comments swarm during the first hours following almost every major music festival lineup announcement.

While the saying “you can’t please everyone” seems to apply here best, people rarely ever step back and ask: How does a major music festival build a lineup? What is the process? What are the hurdles? Festivals are getting so big that we sometimes forget that they’re not planned, curated, and run by machines. It’s music by people, hand-selected by people.

Recently, I spoke with Bryan Benson of AC Entertainment, a key player in creating the lineup for Forecastle Festival, to find out what truly goes into building a bill for a major music festival.

Can you describe the basic process of building a festival lineup of this size?

That’s a big question. We are always thinking about what to book next. Steve Green and I, who are the two primary buyers for Forecastle, we book a lot of festivals at this point. We’re constantly thinking about what would be a good fit for Forecastle … it’s a year-round job at this point. During that special weekend in July, we’re already thinking about what we would like to have out there next year. We anticipate certain things … obviously with the Jacket [My Morning Jacket] coming out with a new album in 2015, we had it in the back of our minds for a while … that would be a good year to have them come back and headline, so that worked out that way and that was great.

In terms of how the lineup as a whole comes together, I think each lineup for us takes a life of its own. We like to add and think of fun ideas as we go. So if we start to lock in a headliner or a key support act early on, it might send us in one direction or another. We like to book very fluid lineups, lineups that work together, to get the fans of those artists excited and wanting to come out to see Forecastle.

forecastle The Forecastle Festival: Getting Real Lucky in Kentucky

It seems like a much more organic process than most people would expect.

I tried everything I could not to use the word organic, but it really is. It really works that way. Like, locking in an artist like Sam Smith for us, that is a big score for Forecastle, and maybe that inspired us to book a few of the acts that are on the lineup this year that might have not been otherwise.

Let’s talk about Sam Smith. What’s your take on someone with just one album headlining a major festival versus a legacy act or a more established act like Modest Mouse being a few slots behind?

As far as I’m concerned, I feel like we have four headliners this year, and that includes Modest Mouse. Sam is just a bit of an anomaly. He’s one of the biggest artists in the world, and it happened very quickly. When you have an act that is literally selling out arenas in a matter of hours across the world, it demands a certain position. It’s a big score for the festival because there are a lot of people in a large area in Louisville and the surrounding cities and states that haven’t been able to see Sam. If you’re one of the lucky few people who got tickets to his Nashville show, there are just a lot of people who haven’t had the chance to see him yet.

I think that once people do see him, they are going to be really, really impressed. He’s a phenomenal singer, he’s got a great backing band, and it’s a really great show. So, yeah, he only has one record, but the record is massive, and he has more material than that. Sometimes artists are on this rocket ship ride; you just have to ride that wave sometimes.

People are very reactionary and often negative whenever a music festival lineup is released on social media. Then most of the time, after the actual festival is over, the reaction flips to the majority having a positive experience. Is it just par for the course that when a lineup is released, there is a lot of negativity towards certain selections?

You’re always going to have people being vocal about not having their favorite band or a collection of bands they were looking for beyond the lineup. I think if you really dig into the social media comments, there are far more positive messages most of the time. It’s just human nature for the negative ones to stand out more than the positive ones. We have fun with it. It’s easy to get carried away with the few negative messages that are out there, but if you really notice, the fans or the ones that appreciate what’s happening will speak up on your behalf, and so it’s a fun dialogue and a part of having a festival, programming a festival, and something we’ll probably always have. Our goal is to always book the best lineup for Forecastle and the city of Louisville that we can every year.

screen shot 2015 02 23 at 9 53 24 pm The Forecastle Festival: Getting Real Lucky in Kentucky

One of the biggest complaints year in and year out about music festivals is the similarities of lineups across each of these different events. People complain it’s the same 30 bands playing the top 20 festivals. Is there a reason why festivals don’t target a single artist/band for a unique one-off headlining spot?

Most of the time it’s cost-prohibited. It’s expensive for an artist to gear up to tour, so if you’re paying them to just do a one-off and do just your show, obviously we don’t have an unlimited bank account. The challenge with any festival is making sure that the lineup is strong from top to bottom. As much as the majority of negative comments are geared toward the headliners, I think fans really appreciate the entire scope of what’s being offered. We want to make sure we have the ability to book really strong bands from the headliners all the way down to the people first up on the main stage or the port stage.

When you build a bill, are you seeing people buying tickets just for a single headliner like Sam Smith, or is your job to sell them on three or four acts? Do a percentage of ticket buyers lean one way or the other?

I think if you’re a fan of My Morning Jacket, for example, my goal as a programmer is, I want you to look at the lineup and say, “Jacket is coming, that’s awesome, but there is also this, this, and this … I’m buying my ticket.” That’s the goal. And that goes back to your first question on how we program. We want to make sure that if you’re a fan of a certain act or genre and you’re excited about a certain act coming to Forecastle, we want several other things there that make it impossible for you to not not buy a ticket.

Is there more pressure on you to nail your headliners or to build a really strong group of middle acts?

The biggest challenge is always the headliners. Forecastle is not Bonnaroo. There are 25,000 people a day on the waterfront for any what I would call boutique-sized festival. Locking in a really meaningful group of headliners is very important since you’re on a more limited budget than a Bonnaroo, which is 80,000 people in the middle of a farm. It’s a challenge, but we embrace that challenge, and we love what we do. Hopefully, we put together a bill year in and year out that keeps people coming back.

Do you have advice for bands? Let’s say you’re Speedy Ortiz from a year or so ago, and you’re trying to land a spot on a festival like Forecastle. Is there anything a band on the cusp of being considered can do to improve their chances?

Keep grinding. I think that for us it’s to continue to show progress, continue to grow, stay on the road. Keep playing shows. What an artist’s value is in our region is meaningful to us. Take Jeff The Brotherhood, for example. They’re from Nashville, but they continue to grow their relevancy throughout the region with a new record. A lot of it is what is happening with the artist. Is it the right time for that act to make an appearance at Forecastle? We get a lot of pressure to put an artist on our bill, and it comes down to timing. If you’re an artist on that level, like Speedy, and you have the opportunity to play a festival like Forecastle, you need to make sure it’s the right timing because those opportunities don’t happen often. We can’t put that act on every year. So, when you do get the the opportunity, the question becomes: Is it the right timing, and are you ready as an artist to take advantage of it?

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You’ve done a lot of festivals. Is there an example that stands out in your mind of a smaller band playing a big festival and just stepping up and going beyond expectations? Seizing the rare opportunity?

I had an experience like that at Bonnaroo last year with a band called The Orwells. We had them play what we call the “Cafe Stage” — it’s really our club-level stage at Bonnaroo. I knew of them and was excited to have them on the festival, but I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself into. They completely over-delivered. That, to me, for what we do, is the gratification. At Bonnaroo specifically, there are a lot of examples of an artist playing that club stage all the way up to the main stage. When we can help an artist grow from the smallest level to the main stage, that’s a special moment. That’s when it’s like, we did it right on that one. We’re there to give the artist the opportunity and put them in the right position to succeed, but it’s ultimately up to the artist to do it. To watch that happen is a very special, fun thing.

There was a graphic circulating online a month or so ago that was Coachella’s lineup with only the female artists, and the poster looked pretty sparse. There were a few people online pointing out that they thought Forecastle lacked both racial and gender diversity.  When you all sit down, I know the process of booking is very circumstantial and we don’t get to see all the offers you put out, but how important is it to you and your team that women and people of color are properly represented?

It’s very important; again, we’re just trying to put together the best possible lineup that works together as one cohesive unit as we can. I will say we communicate this issue that the Forecastle lineup isn’t quite fully announced, and there are still a good handful of significant announcements to come. Time will tell. But it’s definitely part of the discussion, and we’ll see what happens.

Louisville has its own feel. How much does the location influence the programming of a festival?

The region heavily influences the festival. Forecastle wasn’t intended to have such a regional feel this year, but how exciting that it does. With the Jacket and Houndmouth, to have both of them in the same year is a big deal for us. When you add in Cage the Elephant and Sturgill Simpson, it really shows the riches of talent that is in the Kentucky/Southern Ohio region. What’s relevant in that region is very important to us, and hopefully we can showcase that in some way each year.

Click onward to read my exclusive interview with Forecastle creator JK McKnight and the festival’s head of publicity, Holly Weyler.

forecastle foundation The Forecastle Festival: Getting Real Lucky in Kentucky

Even with a huge name like Sam Smith, an estimated 75,000 attendees, and a big player like AC Entertainment involved with Forecastle Festival, it would be wrong to perceive this music festival as some strategic corporate money maker. It’s actually the amazing dream of just one man, JK McKnight, and one that grew beyond his wildest dreams.

In 2002, McKnight created Forecastle, and for many years it existed on the smallest of scales in modest local parks. As it grew, McKnight never let his love for Louisville, environmental activism, or the spirit of his vision for a music festival warp into anything else.

Shortly after my conversation Bryan Benson, I sat down with McKnight and the head of publicity for Forecastle, Holly Weyler, to discuss the history of the festival and gain a better understanding of what goes through the head of the man who took a small community music event and turned it into one of the best summer music festivals in America.

How do explain to someone who doesn’t live in Louisville the unique connection between you, Forecastle Festival, and the band My Morning Jacket?

JK McKnight (JM): We all grew up together. We’ve been connected for a long time. Jim’s mother has been a big proponent of mine in the early Tyler Park days … she was one of the early people really pushing the entire concept. I knew her before I even knew Jim. I met him through her.

Holly Weyler (HW): If you follow the career path of My Morning Jacket and Forecastle, the trajectory of both match up.

JK: It’s really special to have two entities that grew out of nothing, out of the most humble and purest of hearts, to both be very grassroots trajectories. Neither of us jumped out very quickly. For us it was slow and steady growth, and for them it was a slow and steady growth.

I always think about Forecastle’s 10th anniversary. It was special. It felt like all these worlds colliding. It wasn’t just them and me, but when we got to curate that show together, we were able to bring in entities from Forecastle’s past. We got to look back, be it environmental organizations, or artists, or bands, and we got to carry them with us to that moment. Now, having them back brings chills to me because that performance was easily one of the best. To see how that will be topped will be interesting.

HW: On the PR side, for My Morning Jacket fans, the die-hard fans, I see on social media and elsewhere that they know when Jacket plays Louisville, it’s going to be special. It’s going to be a unique show for them. On the 10th anniversary show, that’s why we saw so many fans coming in from so many other places outside the region because they know to expect something special when Jacket plays Louisville.

My Morning Jacket

Forecastle has been really supportive of local bands over the years. The festival started local, and then you brought in AC Entertainment to help with Forecastle. Did you have to fight to keep Louisville bands on the bill as the festival grew?

JK: It wasn’t even a conversation. From the start, they wanted it to be Louisville and to have Louisville represented. For me, it’s not just Louisville, but I wanted the region represented because this festival would never have gotten this big without all the cities around Louisville, like Nashville, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Chicago … it really is a regional festival by every aspect of the word. I remember 2008 and going to the Belvedere and going to Grimey’s music … if you look at our lineups, you’ll see the region, not just Louisville, well represented. The local thing is incredibly important because it represents all the amazing things we have to offer in Kentucky, be it bourbon or the music or the different art pieces. Forecastle is a great display of talent across the board.

Some people don’t get to see behind the scenes. We employ so many people in the city that are here making that art installation you saw or the decor throughout the bourbon lodge … those are all local people who have spent weeks and months in warehouses here building that stuff. I’m not an isolationist, though. I’m not Louisville, Louisville, Louisville, all the time. To me it is Louisville, but those other regional cities deserve some credit; there is no way Forecastle could have ever gotten this big without them supporting it. The first time I went to Nashville in 2007, I had these giant posters, huge. They were 36×24. I literally went to 125 businesses, and they all put them up. This is in Nashville … that meant everything to me. It wasn’t their city, but they realized there were Nashville artists and organizations participating in this, and they embraced it. We love Louisville and show off all the best assets of the town, but those other cities are important, too. They deserve more than just a CliffsNote.

HW: If you look at AC and all the events they produce, a lot of what they do is celebrating the culture of the places they’re in. When they came to partner with us, they saw our culture as an asset to the festival. When you’re looking at the festival landscape and how festivals are growing, lineups are similar. The best way a festival or event can differentiate itself is to embrace all the great things we have in Louisville.

JK:  It’s important to note that when we look at all the data from a previous Forecastle, everybody who is traveling here from out of town, they’re all looking for one thing consistently: they’re looking for an authentic Kentucky experience. That’s what they want, and we know that for a fact.

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How would you describe an authentic Kentucky experience?

JK: Going to a bourbon distillery early in the day, going to Forecastle, then going on the Belle of Louisville at night. We have the bourbon lodge experience, for example. We can’t bring in every distillery to the great lawn, but I think we do a great job simulating that experience. A light bulb turned on for me when I started thinking about … what are the greatest creative assets to the city? How can we infuse that better into the festival? So, the bourbon lodge, the Gonzo bar, those are examples of that. The art side … the WFPK port stage is a great example. The Belle of Louisville.

It’s a huge focus for us because Kentucky has its own brand. Not every state has that. I’m not going to trash any states, but you can name a lot of states, and nothing specific will come to your head. When you say Kentucky to people, they think of very specific things. For us, that is our clay. We can take that and mold something out of it, and a lot of festivals just can’t do that. Some festivals, it feels like they could just be anywhere, and we don’t want that. We want Forecastle to feel like it can only be in Kentucky, on the waterfront in downtown Louisville.

Of all the big festivals I’ve been to, Forecastle just seems to be very smooth. A better way to say it is “comfortable.” Can you explain that feeling?

JK: For us, it’s all about alignment. When I went to Tennessee for the first time and told my vision to Ashley from AC for the first time, this visionary who arguably created the contemporary American music festival, he completely got my vision and understood how important Louisville was and activism and environmentalism. Every person who was brought on the team bought into the vision. What you’re seeing now is these people are on year three, so they are past that first and second year and in a place where they can now grow. You have a great group of people who are aligned around a single vision.

For a smaller local band trying to get one of those bottom spots on a local but big festival, do you have any tips?

JK: Bands have to build their brands like we as a festival had to grow our brand over 13 years. Just as My Morning Jacket had to grow their brand over a decade. If you’re a band that’s growing, working hard, and doing the right things, you won’t have to pitch us: we’re going to find out about you. Everybody is going to be talking about you. Houndmouth is a great example. When that band was playing at a small club a few years ago, I got so many text messages from people saying that I needed to book them. I just booked them without seeing them live. I trusted the people who were texting me. They were like, you don’t understand, this group is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. If you, as a band, do your job, and grow your brand and people become interested in you, it will get on our radar.

 The Forecastle Festival: Getting Real Lucky in Kentucky

When you sit down to help book Forecastle, is equality for gender and race considered?

JK: Yes, it does come up. You can’t be everything to everyone all the time. We can’t just wave a magic wand and get this female artist or get that guy from here or this person from here. The fact that we’re able to even get all these artists in Louisville, Kentucky, in the middle of festival and touring season, that in itself is a miracle. If we were in Chicago or Los Angeles, it could be a lot easier. Some people think we can wave a magic wand and get all the bands we want, and it just doesn’t work that way.

HW: There are so many things that go into the booking from where we start to where we end.

JK: There are a ton of offers nobody will ever see that just end up not getting accepted. It just kind of ends up how it ends up a lot of times because the artists are routing a certain way and can do it. We’re a lot of things to a lot of people, but it’s impossible to be everything to everyone. That’s not just Forecastle or a summer festival; it’s every business or brand in the whole world. It just doesn’t exist.

Forecastle has gotten bigger and bigger each year, and last year was one of the best music festivals I’ve ever been to, with OutKast and The Replacements. How do you continue to grow and improve?

JK:  I’ll preface my answer by saying that after our festival last year, our first data meeting got pushed back because we were all struggling with that, with how to improve on last year. Last year was such an accumulation of years of hard work and tweaking. There are always logistical things that can be smoothed out, communications that can be improved, but they are tiny ones. An example: Last year, our media area in front of the stage was a little too small. The photo pit. At this point, it’s not about bigger and bigger and bigger; it’s about better and better and better. It’s about the small tweaks to make it more seamless.

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