Organizers bet on bold but pricey 'newbo evolve'

Newly announced festival will cost millions to stage

An outdoor music stage and seating for the newbo evolve festival will be erected on this site near the Sinclair levee in NewBo. Acts including Kelly Clarkson and Maroon 5 will perform there. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
An outdoor music stage and seating for the newbo evolve festival will be erected on this site near the Sinclair levee in NewBo. Acts including Kelly Clarkson and Maroon 5 will perform there. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids’ newest summer festival announced last week — the three-day “newbo evolve” — is being called everything from exciting and bold to risky and expensive.

The Aug. 3-5 “music, art and inspiration” themed festival with a focus on pop music, fashion, speakers and wellness is a new approach to festivals in Iowa and some say will bring a needed jolt of energy, visitors and money to Cedar Rapids. But it comes with a lofty budget of about $4 to $5 million, and the $375 three-day passes exceed the cost of more established festivals, some the same weekend.

Attendees could easily need to spend over $1,000 for tickets, hotel rooms and food and drink, leaving some to wonder how many people will come and how organizers will make the numbers work.

“Yes, it’s a risky endeavor, but I applaud them for their willingness to take the risk,” said Dale Todd, a developer and City Council member. “We need some game changers around here, and this could potentially be one.”

The planned annual event isn’t your typical music festival. It is a hybrid of activities and interests inspired by Burning Man, South by Southwest and TED Talks, organizers say. However, pop musician headliners Maroon 5 and Kelly Clarkson invite comparisons to less expensive music festivals.

The hope is to sell 4,000 passes for $375 each, which includes preferred seating for Maroon 5 and Kelly Clarkson as well as an eclectic mix of speakers, plus an additional 11,000 individual tickets to each concert, which start at $55 for Clarkson and $70 for Maroon 5.

Promoters envision rooftop yoga in the mornings, drinks in an “ultra” lounge, a zip line over the Cedar River and music in the evenings. The concert grounds will be near the Sinclair levee, but other events will be hosted at venues around the community such as Theatre Cedar Rapids, the Paramount Theatre, and the DoubleTree Hotel & Convention Center.

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“It’s a three-day, multilayered festival. Mind, body and soul,” said Aaron McCreight, president and chief executive of GO Cedar Rapids, the local tourism bureau. “Come get energized. Get invigorated. Learn. Laugh. Love. There’s something for everybody. We tried to make the brush as broad as we can.”

$1 MILLION A YEAR COMES FROM CITY

GO Cedar Rapids created newbo evolve.

When McCreight left Casper, Wy., to take the reins in 2015 of the organization — then called the Cedar Rapids Convention and Visitors Bureau — he proposed creating a signature event to draw thousands of people to town year after year, filling up hotel rooms and putting the city on the map well beyond the Iowa borders.

McCreight, whose background is in professional baseball, hired Scott Tallman as director of community events, and they and other staff members have been conceiving the festival for more than a year.

Tallman has experience putting on events within large festivals, such as Coachella and South by Southwest, McCreight said.

GO Cedar Rapids lobbied the city of Cedar Rapids to up its annual allotment of hotel-motel tax revenue from around $700,000 to more than $1 million a year — about two-thirds of the organization’s $1.6 million annual budget — to help create new events.

Last fall — before Todd joined it — the City Council loaned GO Cedar Rapids an additional $500,000 to cover upfront costs for newbo evolve, including signing acts and paying for the Cedar Screamer zip line, which will be in place from May to August.

City officials, while supportive of the event, note that GO Cedar Rapids bears the risk. The loan is guaranteed to be paid back either directly or taken out of September’s disbursement of the hotel-motel revenue.

PLANS CALL FOR MORE THAN A MUSIC FESTIVAL

NewBo evolve is more diverse than a music festival, which could be a benefit.

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In addition to the musical acts, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, director and author John Waters, fashion stylist Carson Kressley, fashion designer Christian Siriano and woodworker Clint Harp from HGTV’s “Fixer Upper” fame, also are booked.

An estimated 32 million people a year attend music festivals around the country, fueling a multibillion dollar industry. But some speculate the market has plateaued. Large music festivals, such as Bonnaroo and Sasquatch, are suffering substantial losses in audience, Jonathan Wynn, associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, wrote in a 2017 column for the Washington Post.

But hybrid festivals, such as South by Southwest in Austin, are growing. South by Southwest, which drew 285,804 attendees last year, is more along the lines of a conference with technology, film and gaming, as well as musical acts. Passes for this year’s 10-day festival in March are about $1,000.

“It sounds like they will need to reach out to the masses to educate them what (newbo evolve) is,” said Amedeo Rossi, project manager of the 80/35 Music Festival for the Greater Des Moines Music Coalition. “Sometimes you need a big sort of idea and big splash and big sort of risk to make things happen, and other times you start with small ideas that grow. It’s just different approaches. South by Southwest wasn’t a big thing when it started, and has caught on as phenomenon.”

People might view $300 or $400 as reasonable for a conference, but expensive for a music festival, he added.

Biasha Mitchell, director of music festival strategy for Eventbrite, said the price tag could work if newbo evolve organizers have done their homework and have properly identified their audience. But it could still be two or more years for it to break even.

Eventbrite surveys have found 68 percent of festival organizers struggle with profitability, and $208 is the average price festival goers pay.

“Is this is an audience who cares about the additional experiences?” Mitchell asked. “Does someone who cares about Kelly Clarkson also care about yoga and some of the other experiences? I wouldn’t expect in year one people to recognize the value of additional experiences, but perhaps in year two they can prove out there is value. Otherwise they will need to make changes.”

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NEWBO EVOLVE OR LOLLAPALOOZA?

NewBo evolve is the same weekend as more established festivals with cheaper tickets.


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Passes to the two-day Hinterland, southwest of Des Moines, and the four-day Lollapalooza in Chicago cost $105 and about $340, respectively.

McCreight said organizers believed they found a sweet spot between the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa and the Iowa State Fair, and they couldn’t plan around everything else or they’d never find a date.

Aside from individual tickets to Maroon 5 and Clarkson, newbo evolve attendees must purchase the $375 all-access pass to attend any of the other speakers and events. Individual event or day passes won’t be sold, McCreight said.

He acknowledged some inevitably will grumble at the price, but he believes many will see it as fair and reasonable for what is provided.

“A festival focused on all things Bohemian needs to be available for a wide variety of people to come visit the NewBo area,” said John Myers, president of the GO Cedar Rapids board.

The board reviewed the event and its budget and is in full support, Myers said, adding the different price points for the musical acts make newbo evolve accessible to a wide range of ages and income levels.

“Everybody looked at this for the past year under every microscope we could find, and this works,” McCreight said. “We would not be doing this if we didn’t think ultimately it’s a gain for everyone.”

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‘I AM VERY INTERESTED TO SEE HOW THEY DO IT’

McCreight declined to get into specifics about the budget, but noted talent fees, constructing a stage, production and the zip line are the major costs. He confirmed the budget is in the “neighborhood” of $4 to $5 million, but could grow as organizers continue to book talent and flesh out the festival.

Revenue comes from ticket sales, sponsorships and food, drink and merchandise sales, McCreight said.

“Ideally, if in year one we can make the numbers work, yeah, that’s a success,” McCreight said, adding organizers are not looking to make money but not lose money, either.

While McCreight remains confident, others are waiting to see.

“That is a lot of money for a festival in Iowa,” said Lisa Barnes, executive director of Iowa City’s Summer of the Arts. “I am very interested to see how they do it.”

She is curious about the logistics, she said.

It’s not clear how the budget has grown as large as it has.

A 2014 estimate by booking agency Degy Entertainment, as well as estimates from regional bookers, peg the fee for Maroon 5 in the $400,000 to $700,000 range, and from $150,000 to $400,000 for Clarkson.

“Everyone has their estimates, but until you start negotiating with talent, you never know what direction it’s going to go,” McCreight said.

The budget for newbo evolve far exceeds other Iowa festivals.

The 80/35 festival, which last year featured The Shins and MGMT among some 40 local and national acts, drew 30,000 people with a budget of about $750,000 to $800,000. The two-day event in Des Moines features free and paid stages and costs about $50 per day.

“We try to keep ticket price down for people,” Rossi said, noting that newbo evolve is a much bigger endeavor.

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Summer of the Arts in Iowa City puts on several annual festivals. The two hallmarks — Iowa Arts Festival and Iowa City Jazz Festival — have budgets of about $100,000, and draw 25,000 to 30,000 people each annually. Headliners never cost more than the $25,000 range, and both festivals are free, Barnes said.

Andre Perry, chief executive of the Englert Theatre, helped create Iowa City’s Mission Creek Festival in 2006. Starting small, the music and literature festival grew. The annual budget is in the $200,000 to $300,000 range, he said.

Passes for the April 3-8 festival in various venues in downtown Iowa City are $150 for full access, $75 for weekend passes, $8-$30 for individual shows and free for numerous events. It draws about 10,000 people.

With more competition, festivals must compete for audience and their niches.

While the Englert’s Perry is supportive of newbo evolve, he said he is not sure of its identity. But that can be something festivals develop over time, he said.

“The first festival is really important,” Perry said. “It does what it does and maybe you figure out what is awesome about the event, and what maybe is not necessary.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

 

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