(Photo by Zack Smith: Bayou Country Superfest in Tiger Stadium)
When veteran music festival producer Quint Davis in 2008 first pitched his Los Angeles-based partners on the idea of doing a country music fest in Tiger Stadium, they were more than a little skeptical.
Though Davis had an established relationship with the investors—mega event producer AEG Live—and a proven track record as the high-energy producer of the wildly successful New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a $6 million stadium concert in Baton Rouge on Memorial Day weekend seemed risky. The Capital City doesn’t draw crowds like New Orleans, and though Tiger Stadium is renowned as an athletic venue, it had never before hosted a concert—much less a country music fest in the heat of early summer on a weekend when most folks head out of town.
“So I went to [AEG] and said, ‘Look, if I can raise $1 million down there, is it a go?’ and they said yes,” recalls Davis, whose boyish demeanor belies his 67 years. “I think they figured they’d never have to talk to me again. Who’s going to raise $1 million in Louisiana during the worst economic downturn in decades?”
As it turns out, Davis did. Within months, he’d raised his million—roughly one-third each from Visit Baton Rouge, the city-parish and the state. He went back to AEG, commitments in hand, and Bayou Country Superfest was born. The first show, in 2010, drew crowds of more than 85,000, thanks to such headline acts as Kenny Chesney and the then-19-year-old Taylor Swift. Most music festivals lose money their first year. Bayou Country Superfest was a success from the get-go.
Not that every year has been as good as the first. In 2011, attendance fell 12%. It held steady in 2012 then fell again by 6% in 2013 before skyrocketing last year, when the festival expanded to three days and brought in some of the biggest names in country music.
This year is again expected to be a blockbuster: Taylor Swift will perform in Tiger Stadium as part of her world tour the night before Superfest starts, effectively making the festival feel like a three-day event though technically it is not.
But even in the years when festival attendance has been slightly off, Bayou Country Superfest has been an unqualified success for the city-parish and the local economy. Though there are no official economic impact studies, the festival has brought hundreds of thousands of people to the area who sleep in local hotels, eat out in local restaurants and Tweet and Snapchat their positive experiences all over the globe, easily justifying the more than $3.5 million in incentives that local and state government have spent over the years to keep Superfest coming to Baton Rouge.
Perhaps more importantly, Superfest has become an established brand with which Baton Rouge is nationally identified. There are two spinoff Superfests now—Florida Country Superfest in Jacksonville, Florida, and, debuting next month, Buckeye Country Superfest in Columbus, Ohio. More may be on the way. Baton Rouge has the distinction of being the original, which gives the city a prestige that money can’t buy, according to local tourism officials.
“For the past five years it has been the premier event in Tiger Stadium, bigger than any football game,” says Visit Baton Rouge President and CEO Paul Arrigo.
LIKE A LIGHT BULB
Arrigo played a key role in bringing Bayou Country Superfest to Baton Rouge, as did then-Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and the city. But it was Davis who ultimately made it happen. Arrigo recalls first hearing back in the mid-2000s that the esteemed producer was interested in bringing a music festival to Baton Rouge. He began a pursuit that Davis remembers as nothing less than intense.
“Sometimes I think I came here to do Bayou Country Superfest just so Paul would quit calling me,” Davis jokes. “Sometimes I wouldn’t return his call and I’d think I’d shaken him from my trail … and then I’d hear from him again.”
Arrigo called Davis incessantly, pitching potential venues and ideas to help make it happen. He took Davis to see City Park. The field at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center. The Fair Grounds. Nothing seemed quite right.
It was Landrieu who ultimately came up with the idea of using Tiger Stadium, Davis says. The lieutenant governor suggested it one day to Davis while the two were visiting in Landrieu’s New Orleans office on St. Charles Avenue. Davis says it was “like a light bulb” going off. A few months later, Arrigo invited Davis to Tiger Stadium for what, it turns out, was one of the biggest games of the season. Davis still recalls the magic of Death Valley on a Saturday night.
“There were 150,000 people at Tiger Stadium that night,” he recalls. “Ninety-five thousand inside and another 50,000 outside tailgating and they looked like people who would go to a country music festival—beautiful little girls in sun dresses and cowboy boots. … Plus, there was the tailgate experience outside. And they had parking. It was everything we wanted for a festival.”
RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
Tiger Stadium has been a big factor in the success of Bayou Country Superfest. It gives the festival a sense of place. A narrative. A built-in connection to fun times. Not since evangelist Billy Graham held a rally in Tiger Stadium in 1970 had the stadium been used for anything other than a football game. In retrospect, you have to wonder why.
“Tiger Stadium is more a part of the Louisiana DNA than even the Superdome,” Davis says. “There is this immediate sense of place.”
The stadium is not only special for sentimental reasons; it’s huge. The average concert arena has between 20,000 and 30,000 seats. When the festival started, Tiger Stadium’s capacity hovered just above 92,000, and the new south end zone expansion has pushed it to more than 102,000. Though nearly a quarter of those seats are lost behind the four-story stage that’s constructed on a special covering that protects the field, some 9,000 seats are added at ground level.
Also contributing to the success of the festival are the players behind it and the talent they bring. AEG Live is the second-largest festival and concert producer in the world, with such renowned events to its name as Coachella, Stagecoach and Firefly. Davis’ Festival Productions has a proven track record in its own right, mainly because of Jazz Fest but also for the Essence Festival, which it produced for 12 years, and several smaller events. The backing of those co-producers gave Bayou Country Superfest a stamp of credibility before it even got off the ground, says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the Los Angeles-based trade publication, Pollstar.
“It has been very well received from the first year, and part of the reason is because you have a very successful company like AEG behind it,” Bongiovanni says. “You also have an experienced guy like Davis, who knows the Louisiana market well.”
It helped, too, that the timing was right. Country music is the new rock. It’s hot, and in recent years it has crossed over from a niche genre to mainstream pop. Some of the biggest-grossing acts in music today are country music stars, and just when Superfest was getting off the ground, a new generation of country superstars was coming of age.
“There’s a whole new wave of young, contemporary rock-influenced, gorgeous-looking country superstars,” Davis says. “Taylor Swift and Kenny Chesney blew everything apart a few years ago, and right behind them you had Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton, and now there are new giants like Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean.”
Then there’s the fact that music festivals are growing in popularity. Where they once were populated mostly by teens, hippies and wannabe hipsters, Baby Boomer-age grandparents now spend their weekends at music festivals.
Just as the country music genre has gone mainstream, so too have music festivals, and communities that know how to capitalize on them come out ahead.
“Music festivals in general are much more important than even just a few years ago,” Bongiovanni says. “And country music festivals are the fastest growing segment of the festival market. New ones are being announced every year.”
WORTH THE INVESTMENT
Music festivals are big business. The largest in the country—Coachella in Indio, California—grossed $70 million last year. Stagecoach, the largest country music festival and one of the largest overall, brought in just over $18.5 million.
New Orleans’ Jazz Fest would no doubt rank among the top five, according to Bongiovanni. However, AEG and Festival Productions refuse to disclose revenues so no one will ever really know for sure how much money their events bring in.
Bayou Country Superfest likely would not make the top five list, but it wouldn’t be too far behind, according to industry experts. Attendance topped 135,000 over the three-day festival in 2014, with tickets going for as much as $250 a day or more. Expenses for the event were around $10 million, according to Davis. LSU alone made a nearly $1.1 million profit, and that’s not including the $800,000 it collected in rent to cover the cost of using Tiger Stadium. Based on those numbers, industry experts say the festival likely is pulling in anywhere from $10 million to $15 million.
Even though the festival is a powerful economic engine in its own right, state and local governments say it’s more than worth their while to pony up a six-figure contribution to keep the fest coming here. Since 2010, the state, city-parish and Visit Baton Rouge have together provided more than $3.4 million in incentives for the festival, anywhere from $500,000 annually to more than $900,000. That support was particularly important in the first two years of the festival, when AEG needed to see that the local community was invested—literally and figuratively—in the event and willing to support it. But even now that Superfest is a proven commodity, that sense of buy-in is important to the festival’s financial backers.
“It’s important for AEG to know that the local place wants this and supports this,” he says. “They have 100% of the risk and 100% of the cash flow … so if your festival costs $6 million to produce, which it did the first year, and you get $600,000 in civic underwrite it’s not like you’re paid off, but it’s 10 percent of the risk and that’s meaningful to finance people.”
From a marketing perspective alone, the investment is more than worth it, according to those in the local hospitality industry. For its support of Bayou Country Superfest, which was $300,000 a year in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and $200,000 a year in 2013, 2014 and 2015, Visit Baton Rouge gets branding on all the promotional materials and advertising the festival buys. Visit Baton Rouge says it can’t begin to estimate the value of that much exposure, but according to Festival Productions, 2014 Bayou Country Superfest impressions online and in print totaled 1.04 billion, with an estimated media value of $1.26 million. On top of that is the sheer benefit that comes from all the social media chatter.
“All those people in Tiger Stadium texting, Instagramming, sending pictures of themselves out all over the country,” Arrigo says. “The amount of activity is huge.”
The hotel industry is also a beneficiary. Average hotel occupancy over the Memorial Day weekend more than doubled between 2009, when the long holiday weekend was notoriously one of the worst of the season, and 2014. During that same period, average room rates over the weekend increased 50%, and the revpar—or revenue per available room—jumped by 200%.
Local restaurants, too, have benefited from the positive effects of the festival and say it has turned one of their slowest weekends into one of their busiest. At the Walks-On’s near the LSU South Gates, sales during Bayou Country Superfest are four times what they would ordinarily be on such a weekend, topping $60,000 a day. The chain’s establishments in other parts of the city also benefit from the music fest.
“Our downtown bars do really well also,” says Brandon Landry, owner of Walk-On’s and Happy’s Irish Pub. “Even our Walk-On’s at Towne Center did really well last year. It’s like the biggest football game of the year only three times as big because it goes on for three days.”
Still, for those actually putting the money up, the payback is intangible, not immediate. Mockler Beverage was the first corporate sponsor of Bayou Country Superfest and, for several years, the only one. Company President Tim Mockler won’t say how much his local Budweiser distributorship contributed, but confirms it was “well in the six-figure range.”
Was it worth it?
“It’s not an ROI question,” he says. “Everybody is selling beer there so what we sell there doesn’t come close to paying what the sponsorship costs are, but this is about bringing people to Baton Rouge and creating business opportunities. If we can bring people here who see our town, love our food and love our people, then that’s good for my business in the long run.”
THE LSU DEAL
Bayou Country Superfest is also a boon to LSU, which last year took in nearly $1.9 million from the festival. That includes the $800,000 rental fee for the stadium, most of which goes to cover expenses. Still, the LSU Athletic Department made nearly $1.1 million off the festival in 2014 alone, and more than $2 million in profit since 2012. (Figures for 2010 and 2011 were not available, nor were figures made available by the Tiger Athletic Foundation, which has a separate contract with the festival for use of the stadium’s suites.)
Most of the university’s profit comes from the cut of ticket and concession sales it receives. Under the terms of its arrangement with Festival Productions, LSU receives a rebate from ticket sales ranging from $2 per ticket to $9 per ticket, depending on the day of the festival and the total number of tickets sold. Last year, those rebates generated $610,465 for the university.
LSU also gets a 25% share of concession sales. That figure topped $480,000 in 2014. Tiger Stadium’s catering company, Chartwell’s, also pocketed a 25% share of concession sales.
Still, LSU says it didn’t make Tiger Stadium available to an outside event for the first time in four decades strictly to make money.
“When we went into this, it was not to make millions of dollars,” LSU Senior Associate Athletic Director Eddie Nunez says. “The thought was always to try to give a benefit back to the city, the economy and really be made whole more than anything.”
With Taylor Swift again returning to Tiger Stadium to, effectively, kick off this year’s festival, the weekend is again expected to be a big win for the local economy. But is Bayou Country Superfest sustainable at this level, year after year? How do you keep it fresh? How do you keep chart-topping talent interested in coming here?
It’s a legitimate question to ask, especially given the slide in attendance that the festival experienced in 2011, when it dropped from 85,000 to 75,000 and in 2013, when it fell again, to 70,000.
Mega festivals don’t grow on trees, Davis says. You have to work hard to put them on. But he and others point to lessons learned in 2013.
“I think in 2013 they tried to see if it was the acts or the venue that makes this thing work,” Landry says. “They learned it’s the acts. People will pay and sit out in the hot sun to hear Kenny Chesney and Blake Shelton. But you’ve got to have the talent.”
Davis believes the festival has found the right recipe of top-flight talent, location, time of year, time of day and local investment to keep Superfest on track and growing. He says it’s important to keep the local community invested in the event.
Though the state and Visit Baton Rouge have decreased the amount of incentives they kick in over the past two years, they’re still providing a generous package: $200,000 this year from Visit Baton Rouge and $100,000 from the cash-strapped state. The city-parish, meanwhile, will again give the festival a rebate equal to the two-cent sales tax on ticket sales, which last year amounted to more than $200,000.
Davis says he is optimistic about the future of the festival and the legs that it has to grow, as a brand, around the country.
“You never really know what the future holds, but one of the things we’re good at is longevity,” he says. “One you get a successful formula, if you can maintain your level of production and quality and talent you should be able to continue. This one is going into year six and it has stood the test of time. I think it’s here to stay.”