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After a Troubled Start, BottleRock Napa Valley Reboots 

Wednesday, May 28 2014

The Napa community pulled the cork on its first major music festival last year, and learned the hard way that the first vintage doesn't always turn out so well.

The big-name musicians showed up as promised. The Black Keys, the Flaming Lips, Macklemore, Train, Alabama Shakes, and dozens of other acts played multiple stages at the Napa Valley Expo, offering pop, indie rock, country, and a mix of broadly acceptable music to drink wine to. The fans came as well — some 120,000 of them.

BottleRock's execution wasn't perfect: The four-and-a-half day event didn't manage the swollen crowds as well as it could have, the music sets were poorly timed, the best food tents were cordoned off into a claustrophobic gourmet ghetto, and the festival snarled traffic all over the valley.

These mistakes could have been forgiven. First years are always hard for festivals. But BottleRock also didn't draw enough of the one guest a major music confab really needs: cash.

Despite big crowds and plenty of media attention, the festival only brought in $11.2 million. It cost about $20 million — figures we only know because they were made public in the bankruptcy papers filed by last year's promoters. The debts to stagehands and production workers, restaurants, and the city of Napa still haven't been fully repaid, according to the Napa Valley Register.

So if the ratings of BottleRock as a music festival were decidedly mixed, the reaction to its financial hangover was unambiguous.

And yet, 12 months later, Northern California music fans will once again look toward Napa this weekend, when a whole new set of backers — totally unaffiliated with last year's promoters — revive the BottleRock name and the BottleRock location and hope that this year's iteration goes down a little more smoothly.

Longtime entrepreneur Dave Graham is the lead partner behind the new effort, and he says his group, Latitude 38 Entertainment, has learned a lot from mistakes made in 2013. Chief among them, he says, was booking four-and-a-half days of entertainment, which is long even by modern festival standards. "There was a lot of money spent on a lineup for Wednesday and Thursday that didn't do much to generate ticket sales," he says. And though Graham likes stand-up comedy, he doesn't see it as critical to BottleRock's mission: "I didn't even know there were comedians until I got there, so it had no bearing on whether I would buy a ticket to a music festival."

For 2014, BottleRock has been pared down to three days of essentials, hoping to create what Graham calls "a music festival differentiated by the marriage to amazing food, amazing wine, and amazing weather." A new sound wall will insulate nearby residents from the din. The bands will end earlier, at 10 p.m., to reduce noise and encourage festival-goers to venture into downtown Napa afterward. The wine and food lineup, he says, will be even stronger. The comedy will be nonexistent. Street closures and traffic routes will be revised to quell neighbors' concerns.

And as for the music, it's amazing the BottleRock lineup turned out as well as it did. Napa's fledgling festival will host the only Northern California date on the OutKast reunion tour, arguably the most anticipated show on the road this summer. It will also see the Cure's only U.S. performance of 2014 so far. Both are coups for the promoters, who faced considerable hurdles in putting on a festival at all. The BottleRock name, Graham says, was "tainted" within the music industry, making it hard to win the trust of booking agents. On top of that, his company only began pursuing artists in late January, after their terms of purchase from the previous organizers were settled. Usually major festivals start getting commitments from major acts a year or more in advance.

If the hasty nature of BottleRock's booking isn't apparent in the headliners, it is farther down the bill, though. The lineup is so heavy on bands still living off their Clinton-era heyday — Gin Blossoms, Third Eye Blind, Cracker, Spin Doctors, Blues Traveler, Smash Mouth, Barenaked Ladies, and Weezer, to name a few — that it almost reads like the setup to a joke about some '90s pop-rock reunion. True, there are a handful of arty independent bands, like Deerhunter, TV on the Radio, No Age, and Thee Oh Sees, and some outliers like Mayer Hawthorne. But this is a festival that aims to please everyone, with broad bookings like the baseball-cap country of Sunday headliner Eric Church, and the mercenary cheer of rapper-turned-TV-personality LL Cool J.

Graham hints that he might've liked a few more younger artists, had time allowed. "I'm definitely kind of an indie guy," he says. "My guess is that next year we'll book even more indie bands — not because I like indie bands, but just because I think [indie] transcends generations."

But one could also ask how much the music really matters at music festivals, at least below the headliner level. For many attendees, gatherings like BottleRock (and, for that matter, Outside Lands and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass) are more about the social environment than the songs. Last year, especially, BottleRock was so full of distractions, culinary and otherwise — and so much crowd-engendered chaos — that it was hard to focus intensely, or at all, on the artists. The very idea, it seemed, was to combine food, music, and drinking into moments of decadence you couldn't experience anywhere else. Those moments, along with the potential for profit, seem to be what convinced Graham and his partners to launch their first foray into the music industry, trying to turn a beleaguered one-off into a repeat success.

"It was the most incredible kind of social experience we'd had to date in Napa," says Graham, a wine country native, of the first BottleRock. "I'm sitting there listening to the Black Keys, and eating some Morimoto ribs, and have a nice glass of Napa cab — it's like, 'Wait, what's going on here? This is bizarre!'"

About The Author

Ian S. Port

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