When the organizers of LouFest canceled the event, the news came as a shock to many, though signs of the festival’s distress had been apparent. The festival’s promoter, Listen Live Entertainment, insisted that everything was fine until the moment it pulled the plug.
The announcement identified several causes including the loss of key sponsors, debt and expected rain. Organizers insisted the festival had been on target “until a bit of unfortunately timed media coverage caused many of our vendors and artists to demand up-front payment.”
But some vendors’ discomfort with the festival dated back years, and industry insiders said that if the festival had financial problems significant enough to endanger it, the red flags would have been apparent long in advance.
“You hit a go-or-no-go period, and that go-or-no-go period can very well be a couple of months out,” said Jack Croghan, program administrator for Webster University’s sports and entertainment management program. He said Listen Live would have done better to hit pause on the event for the year and try to re-group for 2019 — anything but cancel at the last minute, something which he said ticket-buyers don’t forgive.
“If you’re on the razor’s edge in terms of the financial tea leaves, then you need to cut earlier so you don’t go out to market, so you don’t jeopardize this concert,” Croghan said.
LouFest founder Brian Cohen, who left Listen Live after the 2015 event, said he couldn’t speak to the organization’s present financial condition, but said the festival business is filled with uncertainty.
“You have to be in a position where you don’t overextend yourself, you don’t spend money you don’t have and you make adjustments along the way if you think that the revenue lines are going to fall short,” he said.
“I think the questions that need to be answered in the case of LouFest and this year are: Were those warning signs heeded, or were they even recognized in the first place, and what kinds of actions were taken to minimize and hopefully avoid something that ultimately happened?”
Listen Live’s cancellation announcement cited the dropout of two “top sponsors.” Cohen noted that Bud Lite was absent as a sponsor this year, after sponsoring a festival stage the previous three years.
Two weeks before canceling the festival, Listen Live partner Mike Van Hee told St. Louis Public Radio that sponsor support had increased this year.
“But year over year we’ve grown not only in sponsorship revenue but the number of different opportunities that we can make available to sponsors. In 2016-17 we really took our sponsorship efforts to the next level. I think we tripled the amount of sponsors that we had from '16 to '17, and this year’s gonna grow even more.”
We are 100% good to go—load-in has already kicked off! We’ve seen what’s out there and we’ve heard your concerns, but everything is going to plan and we’re pumped for next weekend!
Also: SCHEDULE OUT TOMORROW!
— LouFest Music Fest (@loufest) September 1, 2018
“When they don’t pay, I’m just out”
By the week before LouFest’s scheduled kick-off, enough key vendors had soured on the event to put it in peril.
Regency Enterprise Services has had the trash-removal contract for every LouFest. Owner Charles Brown said his past experience with Listen Live led him to ask for a deposit in advance for the 2017 festival, which he received shortly before the event. He received the balance of his $20,000 fee 10 months later, he said.
“Until I get paid again, if it’s a year out, that’s a long time to carry,” Brown said. “And I have nothing I can repossess, there’s nothing I can take back; so when they don’t pay, I’m just out.”
After key vendors departed, Van Hee and Listen Live Chief Operating Officer Teri Rafferty did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Logistics for a big festival are complicated, and it’s challenging for contractors to operate with that much uncertainty about when they’ll be paid. Vendors like Brown need to schedule workers and sometimes reserve additional equipment from out-of-state suppliers.
Some production vendors typically spend weeks coordinating with festival artists in advance, making plans to accommodate their technical requests, whether it’s hunting down a favorite type of mixing board or preparing a special lighting or projection effect.
A week before LouFest was scheduled to begin, much of that prep work was still undone.
“Everything is good”
Yet hours after St. Louis Public Radio reported on Aug. 31 that key production vendors were pulling out of the event, Listen Live Entertainment tweeted that LouFest was “100% good to go” and that “everything is going to plan.”
It reinforced that message in media reports that evening. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch quoted a Listen Live representative as saying, in reference to the report of vendors pulling out: “It’s not true … Everything is good. We’re on track and on schedule to have another great LouFest.”
Over the next few days the LouFest Twitter account tweeted a flurry of messages including an announcement of the band schedule and photos of LouFest-themed T-shirts and posters designed by local artists. The message was: Everything is fine.
The status of the concert site told a different story.
“Anyone that knows anything about how big festivals work could have looked at the site on Saturday and told you that it wasn’t happening,” said Chip Self, owner of Logic Systems, which had been scheduled to provide most of the festival’s concert sound and lighting. “All they had to do was look at that and say: Yeah, this is dead. When you do this for a living, at that point it’s so obvious that it’s not even a conversation.”
Citing chronically late payments and existing balances related to other events he had worked for the promoter, Self had, by that point, informed Listen Live that he was pulling his crew from the event.
Though there are national production companies who may have had the logistical wherewithal to step in on short notice, LouFest would have been hard-pressed to find one in these circumstances, said Croghan, of Webster University.
“If you’re making a phone call [to replace a key vendor] at a profoundly late date, that’s a red flag in and of itself,” Croghan said.
On the Sunday before the festival weekend, Listen Live tweeted a photo of two forklifts and portable power generators, with the message: “Sweating the day away, as load-in continues.”
Sweating the day away as load-in continues! pic.twitter.com/oKQWSjylZA
— LouFest Music Fest (@loufest) September 2, 2018
But there was still little indication at the festival site that a major event was just days away. There were a few tour buses and trailers in place, and a fleet of golf carts watched over by a security guard from B&D Security hired by the festival.
Activity ticked up slightly each day of that Labor Day weekend, with more trailers arriving and dotting the would-be concert area.
On Tuesday, temporary barricades limited vehicle traffic around the concert site, suggesting a gear-up in preparations. That day, ticket-buyers who had paid an extra fee to receive their entrance wristbands by mail received an email stating that their wristbands would be available only in person, at will-call.
A day later, it was official: those wristbands would not be needed.
“All the pieces it takes”
If LouFest does not return, the event still reigned as the city’s premiere music festival for eight years, bringing a range of artists to Forest Park, from Wilco to Outkast to The Killers to Ms. Lauryn Hill.
Its successes also include a well-regarded tribute to Chuck Berry last year, which helped inspire an enhanced presence for local artists scheduled to play this year’s LouFest, many on a newly christened Jazz & Heritage stage sponsored by Kranzberg Arts Foundation.
Last year’s festival sold out, selling more than 60,000 tickets. When the ongoing renovations to Forest Park’s central fields are completed, a festival at that site could potentially have an even higher capacity.
LouFest’s eight-year run proves that St. Louis can support such a large festival, Cohen said.
“I think St. Louis has all the pieces it takes to pull off an event like this. It has the fan support, it has the city support, it has the infrastructure in terms of technical expertise. Everything’s in place,” he said. “It just needs an event run in a certain way that guarantees that it’s successful — or guarantees at least that it’s done in a responsible way.”
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