How the festivals that changed downtown Kalamazoo are changing

Summer festivals spurred lots of changes in downtown Kalamazoo. Now those festivals are going through some big changes themselves. 
Used to be, you could set up a ticket booth, food and beer tables, roll in a portable stage for a few bands, all on a hot blacktop parking lot, and you'd have a summer festival in Kalamazoo.

"That's all you had to do! You could even put up a crappy old ticket booth out there, and people would walk up and buy a ticket, and volunteers would sit in that hot booth, and they would go, 'just get me a beer afterwards, I'll sit here for two hours,'" Deb Droppers, former Ribfest organizer, says. That was about 25 years ago.

"Now, we've got to make the ticket booth pretty on the outside, they've got to be branded to the major sponsor, and they have to include wi-fi and a fan."

In the '80s-early '90s, "you could literally fence-off a parking lot, bring down a band, and all you'd served was beer," says Wayne Deering, former Taste and Island Fest organizer. "And the place was packed, because there was nothing else to do."

Starting in the mid-'80s, Kalamazoo fostered a summer outdoor festival scene. The city and festival organizers promoted festivals as a great way to get people downtown.

And it was. But it also forced local venues to compete with their own outdoor celebratory event spaces. Those created an environment in which the festivals had to compete, to grow larger, and bring in bigger-named entertainment.

The aforementioned parking lot was transformed into the Arcadia Creek Festival Place. Festival site costs rose. Casino demand raised the price of name-brand classic rock acts that had been festival headliners. Thunderstorms and tornado warnings threatened investments of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Nonprofit groups (in order to gain a temporary liquor license for Arcadia, festivals must be fundraisers for nonprofits) and their event organizers/backers strained under the load.

Festivals have changed the city's cultural and economic environment, which, in turn, is changing the festivals. They need to be bigger, and straddle the line between being unique events and keeping a mass audience appeal.

Two of the five venerable three-day festivals, RibFest and Taste of Kalamazoo, have been sold to Townsquare Media, a digital media/live events/radio corporation located in Connecticut. Another, Kalamazoo Island Festival, went to a local reggae booking agency, who changed the date and moved it out of Arcadia to the Growlers Baseball Field.

Dionysos Greek Festival (June 4-6) and the Kalamazoo Blues Festival (July 9-11) remain on the site and under local ownership. There are also one and two-day festivals, America On Tap (its first was May 30), Kalamazoo Pride (June 12-13) and Irish Festival (June 26-27).

"Deep Corporate Pockets"

Droppers remembers when, if you wanted a beer and entertainment in Kalamazoo, you had a choice between a few trendy discos, The Club Soda or "The Back Door -- that was a biker bar! That was a dangerous place to go."

Now there are the large indoor/outdoor performance spaces at Bell's Eccentric Cafe and the Entertainment District. Other downtown bars and restaurants are pushing out onto downtown sidewalks with cafes, and bringing in live music.

Droppers adds that the festivals at the downtown festival site ”impact all of these great outdoor venues,” around downtown.

Fests have growing competition, expenses, and risks. They are no longer unique weekends of "celebratory recreation," Droppers says. They are under pressure to become larger, "high-impact entertainment" events to sell enough tickets to pay for all the expense.

So fests need a partner with "deep corporate pockets," she says.

For 18 years, Droppers' The Event Company partnered with The Arc Community Advocates in organizing Ribfest. She's also been behind the New Years Fest, Art Hop, Mixer on the Mall and many other events.

Droppers has been working to create an event-friendly environment in downtown Kalamazoo since the late ’80s.” Before she started her company in 1994, she served as communications manager for the City of Kalamazoo, and worked for the city to help festivals get off the ground. 

"We felt as a city back in the early 1990s that events would transform the city of Kalamazoo," she says. "The city thought, if we supported these festivals, the festivals would promote city of Kalamazoo tourism, right? And also a quality-of-life that involved the ability to celebrate the things that were intrinsic to our community.... We as a community would create a culture that engaged, enhanced, and empowered people to celebrate."

The huge community booster is now working on smaller events, as well as New Year's Fest. And as an instructor in public affairs and administration, Droppers is behind a Western Michigan University minor degree program in event management.

She handed RibFest to Townsquare in 2014 because "it just got more expensive. And I'm going to blame the casinos.... I'm not complaining, it's just a matter of fact," she says. "They could pay the bands more than what we could pay them."

She also cited weather, site fees, audience demands and the need to innovate as strains.

Townsquare Media owns five pop, rock and country stations, plus one AM talk station, in the area. They can relentlessly promote events on-air, plus use a carrot-and-stick method of getting acts to play the festival: "You can tell a national band, 'You know what? We're not playing your music unless you agree to play for an eighth of the cost you would normally charge,'" Droppers says.

She says their event division follows the same model as Live Nation Entertainment. Live Nation, a national monolith which owns over 100 major venues, has merged with Ticketmaster, and is buying up national festivals like Bonnaroo. "It is, academically, event marketing at its best," she says with some admiration.

Keep the local flavor while following national models?

Townsquare's first Ribfest had perfect weather last year. Friday night's headliner Dennis DeYoung of '70s-'80s arena rock band Styx "packed the festival. We had a line down to the Radisson," Dana Schmitt, Townsquare's Kalamazoo area events manager, says.

Her biggest worry was, "Are we getting close to capacity here?" Around 6,000 people swarmed in to hear DeYoung celebrate "The Best of Times." She was able to give The Arc Community Advocates a check for "just under $14,000."

In 2013, Townsquare bought Cumulus stations in this market. They set up a local events office and hired Schmitt in February, 2014.

This year's Ribfest headliners are country singer Chase Bryant Aug. 6, classic rock band Blue Oyster Cult on Aug. 7 and hit-making country artist Craig Morgan Aug. 8. (Taste has signed Gin Blossoms as the Saturday night headliner. The Friday night act had yet to be announced at daedline.)

With each year, they'll "step it up" in booking acts, Schmitt says. "We have somebody in our corporate offices, that's his job solely, and he does it well."

Having radio stations is a big help in marketing fests and finding acts, she says. "Certain (stations) can take ownership of an event and highlight it just because of how great a fit it is with its audience." For Ribfest, rock station "107.7 WRKR has really taken a lead on that, and our country station 102.5," she says. "For Taste, 103.3 WKFR is going to be more of our lead station."

She envisions contemporary pop acts for Taste, "and the local and regional acts will help round out that. We're not looking to make it a pop music fest by any means, because with Taste, that's what we want to keep to, highlighting a variety of music, variety of food, and beer, too."

But what about large acts that don't fit neatly into any of their radio formats? Would we see another Buddy Guy, Chicago blues legend who was the highlight of the 2013 Taste, for example?

"I definitely think so," she says. "People just want to hear good music." For people who are there for ribs or the variety of Taste food vendors, "music can add to that atmosphere, you might see artists that you never would've thought of to see otherwise.... That is really cool, really unique, and something key to the festival experience."

Kalamazoo is a unique, multicultural town with college students, and blue and white collar workers, all willing to have a good time on a summer weekend. Can a publicly-traded company in Connecticut keep up the Kazoo fest spirit?

Schmitt says they can. She is from the east side of the state; she earned a Kalamazoo College degree in 2010. "I stayed here. I just fell in love with the area." Townsquare's local office has near-50 people on staff, most from Kalamazoo and Battle Creek. "We're all local, we're all here, from our sales team to our radio DJs."

The national company wants to know "what would work well in our markets," she says. "We live here, and we want to create events that we would enjoy, and hope other people would, too."

But, "at the same time we have the support, corporately, in terms of our financial backing and the ideas I can bring to this area from other markets, because we have those connections with our different markets across the country.”

'Activity Is What Economies Thrive On'

With Taste and Island out of his hands, Deering hopes that all Kalamazoo fests keep their individual characteristics. "It's important for each festival to not lose sight of its purpose, its theme, what it is -- and to keep improving on that," he says. "They can't just play lip service to a theme, and then become a rock beer fest at night. They have to be what they were intended to be."

Deering agrees with Droppers that the festivals generated an outdoor-entertainment culture in the city. And some of it is due to food, drink, entertainment businesses competing with the fests, he thinks.

But it's not all about competition. "Much of the activity by downtown businesses is complementary -- the outdoor spaces, complementary activities like sidewalk sales and all, this creates a synergy, a connection. The Taste always tried first to attract downtown restaurants, and was originally called the Taste of Downtown, it was an effort to connect, not compete."

Schmitt agrees that a successful festival must work with, not compete with, the community. "For events to be successful you have to work with other people, businesses, vendors -- that's what makes an event great, is when the community comes together behind it," Schmitt says.

During some summer weekends it seems like there is too much to do in Kalamazoo, and that is a good thing. Deering adds, "activity is what economies thrive on."

Mark Wedel is a Kalamazoo freelance writer. He’s been covering area festivals for print media since 1994.

6:30 p.m. June 4: This story has been updated for clarification.

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