The LouFest Music Festival became a St. Louis tradition for the weekend after Labor Day. In the wake of the event’s abrupt cancellation last September, the city’s cultural calendar now has a hole in it.
With no similar event rising to take its place, fans, musicians and other participants in the St. Louis music scene are left without a signature festival.
Classic rock legend Robert Plant was among the acts booked to perform last year. But festival producer Listen Live Entertainment pulled the plug on the event a few days before it was due to kick off, blaming a poor weather forecast and media coverage of the fact that key production vendors had dropped out of the event after citing chronically late or missing payments. The move did more than mute the music.
LouFest had become a community gathering event that went beyond the allure of a given year’s roster. Danielle Hohmeier said she attended every year, despite often not being familiar with the performers.
“I don’t consider myself a music aficionado,” she said, but the festival “was a shared experience that we all got to have.”
“I loved that weekend kind of capping off the end of summer,” Hohmeier added. “LouFest is this one weekend where we kind of sit on our home-base blanket for two days in Forest Park and kind of catch up and hang out. And I was bummed that I wouldn’t get that.”
A spotlight for local bands
The festival also offered a boost to local bands hungry for exposure. For the first time, a jazz stage was set to be added last year. It would have given festival experience to artists who might not otherwise be booked for a mainstream festival.
Grace Basement, a local band led by Kevin Buckley, was booked to play the festival last year. It would have been Buckley’s first time leading a band on a LouFest stage.
“It’s like a little jolt of publicity for your band and your music, because it gets talked about a lot leading up to it,” Buckley said of the value in playing LouFest. Getting your band’s name on that festival poster also bestowed a certain level of legitimacy in the local scene.
“It makes you seem cool,” Buckley said with a laugh, “and important.”
Amid growth, signs of trouble
Before last year’s cancellation, LouFest seemed by some measures to be in good shape.
Listen Live reported rising ticket sales every year after the festival’s inaugural event in 2010. In 2017 the festival sold out of tickets for the first time, drawing 30,000 attendees per day. A report issued earlier that year by the St. Louis Regional Chamber of Commerce estimated that the 2016 festival generated $7.7 million in local spending.
Some of that economic boost came from local businesses that sold their wares at the festival. Listen Live principal Mike Van Hee said last year that 40 food vendors applied for the 20 spots available. Nine local breweries and another dozen merchandise vendors were due to have booths, Van Hee said. Frank McGinty of Kaldi's Coffee said last year that the locally owned chain recruited 15 employees to work the weekend at LouFest.
This broad participation in LouFest cemented it as an event that maintained its local character and showed off elements of the city, including its venue, Forest Park.
“They made a real effort to make that festival feel like a product of this city,” said Mike Cracchiolo, owner of the Ready Room and a stage manager for three years of LouFest.
“There was real attention being paid to the character of the festival, and I think that was one of the greatest things about it,” he said.
But behind the rising ticket sales and enthusiastic participation among local vendors, the festival was struggling to manage relationships with companies contracted to provide key services, including removing trash and providing musical instruments.
The biggest indication that the festival was in trouble came when Logic Systems, a major production vendor, pulled out of last year’s event about a week before it was to begin. The local company was contracted to provide much of the festival’s sound and lighting. Logic Systems later filed a breach of contract suit against Listen Live, suing for over $100,000 in damages. The trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 21.
Listen Live responded by suing the vendor, claiming that Logic Systems President Chip Self had overstated the festival’s financial troubles in comments to the media, in a deliberate attempt to sabotage the festival. Listen Live filed its suit in February but withdrew it three months later.
Van Hee did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
An ‘open wound’
LouFest founder Brian Cohen, who left Listen Live after the 2015 festival, said the lack of clarity over what went wrong with LouFest remains “an open wound that hasn’t been able to heal, because there’s no sunlight on it.”
He said it’s important to know the story behind LouFest’s demise if other music promoters hope to start a new festival of the same scale.
“If there are other promoters looking at St. Louis, it would help them to know if LouFest collapsed because of the management or because the market simply couldn’t sustain it. I think it’s the former. I think the collapse of LouFest says more about the people who were running it than it does about St. Louis’ viability as a festival town.”
Longtime local music promoter Steve Schankman, whose company Contemporary Productions performed some booking and ticketing work for LouFest in the festival’s early days, noted that the St. Louis region still has plenty of cultural events, but hosting a signature music festival like LouFest would be particularly important to a city that prizes its place in American music history.
“I think a LouFest type of event in Forest Park is healthy for St. Louis. Barbecue festivals are nice,” Schankman said, “but when you get people together in a town that is a music city — which St. Louis is — I think it’s great. And I hope we find a way to bring back a St. Louis [music] festival.”
Jeremy can be found on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.
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