Weezer plays at the first Bunbury Music Festival.
Talk about a steep uphill climb. On the weekend of the first annual Bunbury Music Festival in Cincinnati, Ohio, founder Bill Donabedian had to deal with not only the threat of the blistering summer's first potential rainstorms, but also the traffic and possible audience-sapping competition from a trio of sold-out Cincinnati Reds games and the finale of the international World Choir Games, both of which were taking place less than a mile from his riverfront perch.
But in a stroke of first-timer luck, not only did the rain mostly stay away, but temperatures dipped out of triple digits for the weekend into almost-comfortable high 80s and, according to Donabedian, just about everything went off without a hitch.
“The common theme I heard was everyone talking about how much was offered … more than they expected,” said Donabedian, a veteran local musician and show promoter who helped launch the city's annual indie-music-focused Midpoint Music Festival a decade ago and booked hundreds of gigs during his role as programmer for downtown Cincinnati's Fountain Square.
“What I heard from a lot of people, when reading comments on Facebook or Twitter or email, was that nobody really knew how big this was going to be. You can't have a rinky-dink stage with [Friday night headliner] Jane's [Addiction]. They keep saying, 'we didn't know it would be like this!'”
With more than 100 artists playing on six stages spread out across the city's 14-acre Sawyer Point riverfront park, attendance was reported at around 50,000, meeting Donabedian's preshow expectations. He's already thinking about next year and aiming for a loftier goal of 65,000 in attendance. The Sawyer Point space has been filled for years by the Cincy Blues Fest and earlier this year by the inaugural hip-hop/DJ-centric Madlove Music Festival, but Bunbury made the most expansive and widespread use of the riverfront park since the 2006 Tall Stacks Music, Arts & Heritage Festival.
The reported attendance was 15,000 for Friday, 20,000 for Saturday, when Weezer headlined, and 15,000 for Sunday with Death Cab For Cutie (who had played the city in September 2011), and Donabedian said those totals were close to his goal, but they could have been higher. The weather forecasts had promised the first significant rain of the summer for all three days, but the weekend ended with only a 30-minute shower early Sunday afternoon.
“We would have done more in walkup had they accurately predicted the weather,” he said. “I bet that lost us quite a bit of walk-up business. I'm bummed because attendance looks more like if it had been bad weather all weekend.” The good news is that the city's park board told Donabedian that he could likely host around 80,000 fans spread out at different stages in the park if he wanted to, which means there's plenty of room to grow in the future.
Ticket sales were split about 50/50 between $93 three-day passes and $46 one-day tickets, which surprised Donabedian, who was expecting the three-day wristbands to make up only one-third of the sales. As for whether the three sold-out Cincinnati Reds games against arch rivals the St. Louis Cardinals (whom they swept) on Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, and Saturday night's sold-out Choir Games' closing ceremonies at adjacent U.S. Bank Arena, had any impact on sales, Donabedian said they may have dented the final totals, as well as some sponsorship opportunities. But after locking down the only available weekend in the park more than two years ago, he said he had no options but to go up against those more well-financed operations.
Asked if the deeper artist offerings at the weekend's Forecastle Festival in Louisville and Chicago's Pitchfork Festival may have also impacted his ticket sales, Donabedian said he didn't think so because those fests had much different mixes of artists. “If anyone had been to both, they would have seen that we know how to operate,” he said. “My team produced hundreds of events for years on Fountain Square and I helped produce a major festival with MidPoint, so we know what we're doing.”
Veteran Nederlander booker Steve Liberatore, who helped book the festival, told Donabedian that Weezer's tour manager, who used to be the tour manager for Lollapalooza, was “stunned” at how well Bunbury took care of the fest's artists. Another act, Neon Trees, told Donabedian that Bunbury was among the best festival experiences they've had. “When people who decided not to go in the first year read these kinds of positive comments they'll say, 'next year we're going to do this,'” he said of attracting more big-name talent in year two to pad out the mostly local and lesser-known acts on the bottom and middle of the bill.
Cincinnati police reported no incidents during the weekend, and Donabedian said his team was able to keep the perimeter secure with just a few attempted breaches which, surprisingly, came from the Ohio River side and not the fenced areas. There were more than 30 uniformed Cincinnati Police on hand each day, in addition to more than 30 security personnel from Tenable Protective Services and U.S. Bank Arena. No arrests or citations were issued over the course of the festival according to officials. Donabedian had 20-30 of his staff on site as well as several hundred volunteers.
The stages ran mostly on time, and the only act to scratch from the event was indie electro pop act Passion Pit, who canceled their Sunday evening set after lead singer Michael Angelakos announced earlier in the day that he was taking time to work on his mental health. In addition to the Bunbury show, Passion Pit pulled out of shows in Nashville, Knoxville, Charlotte, Norfolk and New York, as well as a July 21 show at the Firefly Music Festival in Dover, Del.
Donabedian plans to meet with his investors soon to discuss plans for next year's sequel, which he has tentatively scheduled for the July 12-14 weekend in the same location.
As for what changes might be in store for next year, Donabedian said he will respond to feedback from fans for more food offerings to match the many beverage vendors. “I thought with in-and-out privileges, people wouldn't be looking for food as much, but I kept hearing they wanted more options.” That need was evidenced by long lines at booths for such local staples as Gold Star Chili, LaRosa's, Eli's BBQ and Pizza Bomba.
There were more than 20 locations where patrons could get beer, soda and water, though the two free water stations never seemed to have long lines, perhaps because of the mud puddles that formed under them from poor drainage. Donabedian said he did not have final numbers for food and beverage sales, but said he was happy with both.
“That's what I expected,” Donabedian said of the smooth run of the show. “That's why I hired the people I hired. They know what they're doing and I trust them. I delegated to them and held them responsible and they rose to the occasion every time.”
Contacted for this story: Bill Donabedian, (513) 886-2455