RiverRoots Festival

Transitional year gives RiverRoots committee a chance to regroup

New leadership makes changes to boost profitability

(May 2017) – After a transitional year that saw the hiring of a new coordinator and several systematic changes designed to improve efficiency and profitability, the RiverRoots Music & Folk Arts Festival committee says it is ready to put on what it hopes will be the best event in the 12-year history of the Madison, Ind., festival.

May 2017 Cover

VisitMadison Inc., the local tourism bureau, last fall hired Cincinnati resident Dan Williams to replace former festival coordinator Greg Ziesemer at $10,000 a year in hopes new leadership would help turn around the financial woes of the previous two years beset by poor weather and a loss at the gates.
Williams, 41, has experience as organizer of the Whispering Beard Folk Festival in nearby Friendship, Ind., and as a band promoter and booking agent in the Cincinnati market. He also spent five years as a volunteer to run the campground at RiverRoots.
His low key demeanor and cool-handed approach to addressing improved financial efficiency and establishing some new goals already has earned him accolades from committee members and the tourism board.
“He was a perfect fit for us,” said longtime committee member Tony Novello. “The change in leadership has been pretty seamless. And it’s good to have a fresh set of eyes on old issues. Dan comes with experience from Whispering Beard, and he brings new ideas to the table. He is also going back to some old ideas that worked well in the past.”

Photo by John Sheckler

“Papa” Joe Kretschmer help young Jack Ziesemer with an instrument in the Jam Tent at last year’s festival.

Among the new ideas was to spend more money to hire a big name entertainer in Ricky Skaggs as the Friday night headliner. The committee also is bringing back bluegrass legend Sam Bush to headline the festival on Saturday night.
“To have Ricky Skaggs and Sam Bush was a great catch for us,” Novello said. “That name recognition alone will get people excited to pay for tickets in advance.”
As a result, he said presale tickets, which went on sale in February, have proven to be strong this year.
Novello added that despite those two big bluegrass music names, the festival is not centered on bluegrass music alone. “All the other bands play Americana Roots music, which features a blend of country, folk and bluegrass, so there is something for everyone.”
Committee member Charlie Rohlfing agreed that splurging on two major names in music, plus a little luck from Mother Nature, “could put us over the top this year.” He noted that the year the Madison Ribberfest brought in blues great Buddy Guy, coupled with great weather, “it can just blow up (in ticket sales). And there are several other high quality bands coming this year that should be a big draw.”
Williams cited Langhorne Slim and Peter Rowan as two of those high quality bands. “And Dawg Yawp is making moves and going somewhere.” In fact, one of Langhorne Slim’s songs is featured in a current Coca-Cola TV commercial. The Accidentals performed last winter during the RiverRoots Concert Series in Madison and has since signed a Sony recording contract.
Rohlfing noted that by booking regional bands from nearby Louisville and Cincinnati, the travel costs are not so great for them, thus saving the festival on the cost to book them.
Williams said that such moves in band bookings and other savings has reduced the overall festival cost by $20,000 – to a budget of around $160,000.

Photo provided

A young girl tries her hand at pottery at the Children’s Activities Area.

“The goal is to do whatever is best for the RiverRoots paying customers,” Williams said of his approach. “My goal is to learn from the past so that we’re in a position to succeed even if the weather does not cooperate. We’ve found some places where we can save money and it doesn’t affect the patron.”
The committee changed the pricing system this year to allow patrons to purchase a weekend pass for $35 up until the day before the festival, then $40 at the gate on Friday.
A Friday only ticket is $20, and a Saturday only ticket is $30. A new Kids Pass offers a weekend pass for $10 for teen ages 13-16, and a one-day ticket for $5. Children 12 and under are free. Last year’s admission was $35 for either or both days.
“We wanted to make it more affordable and conducive for families to come,” Williams said. Camping sites remain $10 per person per day on Friday and Saturday nights.
Rohlfing, meanwhile, has taken over managing the Indiana craft beer tent this year, since Donnie Clapham has retired from that role. As such, there will be no craft beer contest or demonstrations this year. Clapham was a craft beer brewing aficionado who spearheaded those activities in the past. Rohlfing said the craft beer popularity has become so big that the festival has dropped Budweiser and Miller Lite from its offerings this year.
“There are so many choices in light and dark craft beers that we feel we have those tastes covered,” he said. The beer tent this year will offer 18 different Indiana craft beers.
As for going back to some ideas that worked well in the past, Novello cited two changes for this year – the main one being the move of the food vendors back to Vaughn Drive and near the two music stages, the Bicentennial Stage and the River Stage, located near the riverfront gazebo. A few years ago, the committee moved the food vendors to the far west side of Bicentennial Park, forcing the crowd to walk down the street a ways to purchase food.

Photo provided

Stiltwalker Beth Godshall of Louisville, Ky., was so popular that she is returning this year.

“The idea at the time was to open up the view from the park to the river, but it didn’t work because that view was still blocked by tents,” Novello explained. He said visitors also complained about having to walk so far to get food.
Meantime, the development of a second music stage has proved to be a big success. And the bands that perform all day on the River Stage “are by no means secondary to the festival. They are just as talented as those playing on the Bicentennial Stage. And depending on one’s music taste, some are even better.”
Novello noted that in the first year of the River Stage, there were only 50 seats. That number has since grown to more than 200 seats.
Other popular aspects of the festival have been retained or revived, such as the Frisbee dogs that were very popular a few years ago, and Louisville, Ky., stiltwalker Beth Godshall, who roams the festival grounds. In addition to the two music stages, the festival offers many other activities, including a Jam Tent, a Folk Demonstration Village of various vendors and Children’s Activities Area.
A free Thursday “Warm-Up Show” is planned for 6 p.m. on May 18 at the riverfront and featuring the Way Down Wanderers band.

Photo provided

Madison, Ind., glass artist Seth Bickis demonstrates his craft.

Williams says he has enjoyed working with the festival committee. “It’s really a lot of fun because you’re working with a group of people who want nothing but the festival to be a successful event. They love the festival, and they love Madison. It’s a pleasure to be around them.”
The Ohio River Valley Folk Society, a 501c3 nonprofit organization, was created several years ago to help raise money for scholarships, educational programs in the schools and to donate proceeds to the RiverRoots Festival itself. Membership has grown to more than 100 people, Rohlfing said, and the winter music series has become very popular. In the past, most concerts were held at the Red Bicycle Hall on Madison’s Main Street. But last year, concerts were held at various locations for the first time, including Hanover College, the Ohio Theatre, Thomas Family Winery and Poplar Place reception hall.
These year-long activities culminate with the festival itself – an event so many RiverRoots volunteers and area music fans eagerly await to kick off the summer season in Madison.

“This year everybody expected it to be a transitional year, but it has been a year to just move forward, and it’s been even better than everyone expected,” Novello said.

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