Wednesday, July 13, 2011

JK McKnight on Forecastle 2011

Louisville’s Forecastle Festival is in a transitional phase. After years of growth and growing pains, the increasingly popular annual summer attraction has entered into a new partnership with Knoxville’s AC Entertainment, producers of Bonnaroo and other festivals. Founder JK McKnight decided to skip producing a full-scale weekend festival this year in order to have time to make the most of AC’s resources for next year, Forecastle’s 10th anniversary. In addition, he now holds the title of “national partnerships/global visionary” with AC Entertainment.

This Friday’s “mini-fest” will feature Pretty Lights, Big Boi, RJD2, Twin Shadow and more at Waterfront Park, with an obligatory after-party at the new Ice House on East Main.

LEO caught up with McKnight to discuss past and future details of the fest. An additional interview with AC president Ashley Capps can be found at

photo by Marty Pearl

LEO: How have you felt that Forecastle has evolved over the years? How do you think it compares to other festivals in the region?

JK McKnight: It's certainly evolved every year, and will continue to do so. I think part of that evolution was just trying to find a home for it, something that fit my vision and that we could grow into. I knew early on that Waterfront Park would probably be that venue, and starting mapping it out when I was 22 or so. I still have those original drawings, which are remarkably similar to what we actually did. Since we now have a home, it is much easier to set roots and grow into the space. We've received so many compliments on the layout and use of the park. I remember (Waterfront president) David Karem telling me it was "the best, most creative use of the space" he had ever seen. What he didn't know is that I had been working on it for 7 years.

As far as festivals in the region, it's very difficult for me to gauge, because I haven't really been to many other ones (hard to believe, I know). We have friends with a company called Dataflow in Knoxville that assist with Voodoo Festival in New Orleans, so we've gone down there the past two years. It's similar in scale and in the middle of the city.

With that in mind, I do think Forecastle is its own animal: a nautically-themed music, arts and environmental festival sandwiched between the Midwest and South. Who would have thought?

LEO: How did the deal with AC happen?

JK: It started with a simple email from me to Ashley. We had communicated off and on for a few years through a friend of mine, Bobby Burk, but were never able to connect in person. The timing seemed right toward the end of last year, and he invited me to Knoxville. I think we realized pretty quickly that we shared a similar worldview, history and, of course, we’re both Aquarius. Going down there was really exciting. Soon after, Ashley came to Louisville and fell in love with what he saw here. I introduced him to everyone I thought was relevant. Soon after, I went back to Knoxville and, slowly but surely, we started seeing a partnership and employment opportunity.

LEO: Tell me about your job today: What does your work with “national partnerships” involve? What about “global visionary”? Did someone else have this position before you?

JK: It’s a new position, and I’m helping build the department. “National partnerships” means working with national brands that have an interest in participating in the events we produce. Through Forecastle, I built a network that consists of thousands of companies in various industries — from outdoors, natural products, technology, communications — that I have relationships with. From a strategic marketing perspective, any of those relationships are applicable to the events we produce, whether it be Moogfest, Big Ears or Bonnaroo. Everyone is looking to our demographic as their customers of the future. So I’m there to work with those brands and develop the activations and marketing presence we’ll feature before, during and after the event.

“Global visionary” is a little less defined, but it was an award I received from the World Affairs Council last year. I view it from a business development standpoint, being able to see opportunities both locally and abroad, and presenting them to AC Entertainment. It also applies to event creation, launching new festivals and events.

When I was asked by (AC exec) Patrick Roddy to create a title, I gave a couple different options, and “national partnerships/global visionary” was the one he liked the best.

LEO: Forecastle has used a nautical theme, from its name to its posters, and you gave yourself the nickname "Cap'n". Why?

JK: The ship imagery certainly can be derived from being an Aquarius. When I was in preschool, they say I would sit there and watch the water drip out of the facet, over and over again, while all the other kids played with Legos. It's just the way I am. I love water. So when the time came to come up with a name, I liked the idea of a metaphorical ship (which represented music and arts to me) and the place on the ship where everyone gathered after a hard day's work, to relax and socialize. Thus, the name "Forecastle", which is the crew's quarters of the ship.

LEO: Forecastle began as a free festival in Tyler Park, and now is owned by AC Entertainment, the company that runs Bonnaroo, which attracts 80,000 fans annually. How many people attended in the first few years? Did you honestly believe, back then, that it would get to the level it's at now?

JK: Yes, we were free and non-profit for 4 years, 2002 - 2005. It was only in 2005 that I really starting looking at it as a possible career. At the time, I was pretty conflicted between doing Forecastle and pursuing my own music career for a living. It was a really difficult decision, because I felt my heart was in composing and writing, and I didn't want to give that up. However, I felt like we had a unique formula with Forecastle that was at the forefront of something much bigger than my own interests. That ended up being very true. We were definitely pioneers in many aspects of the festival environmental movement, years before the Rothburys of the world starting popping up everywhere, and every festival suddenly felt pressure to have a sustainability program featured. That was unheard of in 2003.

So in essence, I decided we needed to stay the course and see it though. I knew it would be extremely difficult and require tremendous sacrifice on my end, especially to continue growing it as the pace we were, without any major investors, bank loans, or anything. To work, it had to be 100% community supported, and even that wasn't enough by the time we got to the Belvedere.

With all that in mind, the early years were a lot of fun. I was learning so much, and the pressure wasn't there as much as it is now.

As far as attendance, there was maybe 150 people there the first year, and half of them were involved in the event one way or the other.

Important footnote - the festival is owned by myself and a handful of local investors. AC Entertainment is a partner, but there's no equity distribution or ownership. Forecastle is a co-promotion between The Forecastle Festival, LLC, and AC Entertainment, Inc.

LEO: Have there been years when the fest has lost money? If so, how were you able to continue on in the following year?

JK: Well, for many years I kept the festival free, so there was no opportunity (or desire) to make money. As far as being able to continue on, it brings back some rather interesting memories. I'll never forget being 24 and getting hit with a massive production bill after Cherokee Park. I had no idea how I was going to pay it, and ended up taking two jobs - one in sales and one I created (online auction business). I think I had everything wrapped up in about 6 weeks, but it was a total wake-up call for me. I realized that if I were to continue growing this thing exponentially, the risk factor would do the same, and all of it would inevitably fall on my shoulders. I think it was around that time that both my parents and some of my close friends said, "JK, you really can't do this anymore for free. You really need to think about it."

With that in mind, I try to look at those situations as opportunities, and I did get to work for some amazing people that I learned a tremendous amount from. People like John Yarmuth, Jimmy Brown and others I've had the privilege to work for over the years.

LEO: How much has your family helped to make the fest viable?

JK: They've been really amazing, and all have taken ownership of unique areas of the festival.

My mom is single-handedly responsible for bringing about our entire healthy, locally-sourced culinary focus. I have to think, in 2006, we were one of the first festivals of this size and proportion that was sourcing nearly everything from a small radius around Louisville. Just like everything else on the environmental side, it's much more common place now, but back then it wasn't.

My dad, on the other hand, has really contributed the most with security, and has been a guiding light in the world of business. Each year he leads a platoon of guys and does a great job. He got to shadow the Director of Bonnaroo's operations recently, which I think he really learned a lot from (even got to chase down a stolen golf cart).

My sister, among other things, has been a critical part of our media team the past few years. She's brought on some amazing people that are still with us today.

So as you can see, it's become quite the family operation. I owe a lot to them, and I probably don't thank them enough for their hard work and sacrifices.

LEO: Nederlander Entertainment, in Cincinnati, took over booking in '09 and '10. Whose idea was that? Did you pay them, or did they pay you for the job? How did that relationship work out?

JK: Just like our newly forged relationship with AC Entertainment, it was a co-promotion. I met them through a close friend of mine, who had been working at Jillian's, where they were doing a lot of shows. They seemed to have a major interest in Louisville by the amount of shows they were producing, and since we wanted grow the event beyond what I could do solo, we partnered on it. The foundation had been laid through years of hard work, so it made perfect sense to bring on a partner to help take it to the next level. Prior to 2009, I was managing everything - booking, marketing, sponsors, permitting, ticketing, insurance, concessions, you name it. I was at the end of my rope, working 70+ hours a week and depending on one event, once a year, for all my income. A risky gamble very few people would do. Having the opportunity to partner with another organization took a great deal of pressure off of me. Otherwise, I probably would have ended up in the grave by now (or spontaneously combusted on the Belvedere the following year...). The 2006 - 2008 years were incredibly exciting, but it almost burned me out.

LEO: How have Nederlander and AC helped with, or otherwise affected, music bookings?

JK: It's helped tremendously. Like anything in business, it's all about relationships. Being able to partner with industry veterans allows you to open doors that may have been previously closed.

LEO: This year’s mini-fest is very focused on new dance and electronic music. Through the years, the wide variety of musical acts has been called unfocused at times, and some past headliners have been criticized as being past their primes. What do you think the festival’s musical point of view has been?

JK: It's an interesting opinion, because I would argue that many of these artists are iconic figures that are extremely relevant to the musical landscape, no matter how many years past their prime someone deems them to be. Paul McCartney is probably 40 years past his prime, but he's more popular now that he ever has been, and his music is just as relevant today as it was in the 60s. You could say the same for a vast array of artists. I think if we were to announce Pink Floyd as the headliner to Forecastle 2012, I don't think anyone would shake their heads and say, "Would loved to have seen them in the mid-70s, but absolutely no interest now. They're just not relevant."

The musical pallet has indeed evolved, and I think it will continue to as popular culture evolves. We want to keep things exciting and interesting, and I think that always means a combination of up-and-coming and veteran artists, and the large group of artist that exist between them. With the exception of electronic artists, not many contemporaries can say they're doing something truly original these days. Almost all of it can be derived from something that's been created before, or a combination thereof. I'll never forget talking with Greg Gillis (Girl Talk) at Forecastle 2007, and him telling me that there's absolutely no chord progression an artist can create these days that hasn't been written before. He's studied it systematically over a number of years, and came to that conclusion. So the key for him is to take dozens of pieces of "old" songs and create entirely "new" ones out of them. Now that is pretty original (even if Z-Trip is the founder of it), and it's the way things are moving forward. Those who don't think electronic music is the next cultural tide are simply glued to their old comforts and refusing to let go. Europe is already there, and has been for years. America is finally waking up.

LEO: Some local bands have publicly complained about being asked to perform for free, or being booked on a secondary stage. What do you say to them? How important are local bands to the fest today? Are they less important than they once were?

JK: Well, there hasn't been a local band that's performed for free in 5 years, so not too sure where that's coming from. As far as locals on our main stages, we've always done that. I think last year both Wax Fang and Lucky Pineapple played on the East Stage. For all the artists on the Kentucky Stage (I think there were around 26 last year, nearly 1/4 of our roster) they just need to understand the costs and risks associated with an event of this size. We're building all the stages from the ground up, on top of the fencing, security, permitting, staffing, and everything else that goes with it. It's expensive, and quite the opposite of playing a club show. We're taking major risks to do an event like this, with no guarantee of a return. If an artist cannot draw enough of an audience to substantiate the aforementioned costs, then it's going to be difficult for us to accommodate them there, and expect to be able to continue on.

As far as relevancy, I think it's very relevant. Forecastle has the opportunity to be a vehicle that showcases developing artists talent to thousands of people they never would have been exposed to otherwise. And I'm not just talking about their performance. The marketing and advertising efforts reach millions, and their name is on all of it. There's a high value to that.

If you're a band trying to get your name out there, performing at festivals can be a great way to do it. I hope to develop our Kentucky stage out a bit more in future years, now that we have the space to accommodate.

LEO: How important are the activism and art sections to you today?

JK: This fall, we’ll be making the biggest announcement to date on the environmental front. It will change the game for us — a local/global initiative that’s going to have a major impact in some areas of the world that are critical to sustaining life. It’s something I conceptualized when I was 12 years old, that I’ve finally been able to bring to fruition.

LEO: Who would you like to see at 2012’s fest?

JK: I have a working speculative 2012 list that’s part of a 74-page model I built for the 10th anniversary show. The artist side is still in the brainstorming phase, so probably not worth putting out there and creating expectations. I’m certainly looking very closely at what we did in 2009 and 2010. Overall, I'm excited for the doors that ACE will open and believe that our programming will continue to upgrade and remain a staple in the Midwest and South.

LEO: Who are some of your favorite music acts currently?

JK: The Meeting Places, Explosions in the Sky, Thomas Newman, and I think that Band of Horses record has now been in our player for over a year.

LEO: What are your biggest successes? Also, what are your biggest mistakes or regrets?

JK: Hmmmm. Seeing everything come together for Forecastle 2009 and 2010 were definitely some of my biggest successes. Both of those events were dreams that birthed almost a decade earlier, that I stuck to day in and day out until they were fully realized. It was not easy, and there were many times I wanted to give up, but the moment I had in 2009 when 23,000 people from 44 states and 6 countries descended on the Belvedere is something I will hold onto forever. There are many times I get down and think about other things I could do with myself, when someone makes me realize that doing this is a tremendous gift and honor. I remember being with Ben (Band of Horses) awhile back after a show, and I was complaining about all the stress I was under and how much I just wanted to be back in South Carolina. He looked at me and said in a stern voice, "You're lucky, you know that. Not many people get to do what they want in life." He's right.

LEO: What lessons have you learned from your experiences?

JK: Man, there's been so many. I've actually started working on a few book ideas. Most profoundly, I would say trusting your instincts, believing in yourself, and just going for it without reservations. If you have a dream, don't sit around and think about all day. Think of reasons of why you can and should do it, not excuses and fear for why you can't do it. I truly believe everyone has a passion for something, and if you're smart enough and willing to sacrifice everything you have to get there, you can do what you love. When I was a working musician in my early 20s, I moved into a run down, abandoned old Victorian mansion in the West End because my friends and I could work on it in exchange for rent. We lived off Ramen noodles and Miller High Life. By doing that, I was able to invest 90% of my income into my career, and develop it the way it needed to. In the creative industry, that's how it works. How far you get is often determined by how much you're willing to sacrifice to get there. As Ghandi said, “Strength does not come from physical capability, it comes from indomitable will.” That quote hung above my bed for eight years and is pretty central to my overall perspective of life.

LEO: You began your career in the music business in your early 20's, singing and playing with the Vixen Red. Have you completely abandoned your own music?

JK: It's interesting that I still get asked that all the time. To be honest, it's something I think about quite regularly, which I guess is normal for someone who lived it as long as I did. For years, being an independent, working musician was life, and it was a life I loved very much. It was a lot of work (writing, recording, producing, booking, marketing, etc), but I was learning so much and taking in every moment of it. Those years, and what I learned from them, definitely laid the groundwork for what I do now.

In 2001, I built a studio with my best friend in the basement of an old Whiskey Distillery next to Headliners Music Hall. I pretty much lived there for 5 years, before a massive flood wiped everything out in 2006. Before the Distillery, it was a house next to Home Skate Shop on Bardstown Road, where I set up camp for 2 years. Most people my age would go out at night, but I would usually prefer to go there and just write for hours. It was so rewarding, and there was nothing like coming home with a new song idea, excited to see what it would become.

To this day, I still think writing is what I'm best at. Whether it be composing music, lyrics, poetry, fiction, or short stories, it's at the center of everything I do. From writing a proposal to Patagonia to writing in my journal at night, and take each work and each sentence with a weight. I do miss writing music and haven't had time to do nearly as often since my studio was destroyed by a flood in 2006. That Distillery was my sanctuary, and I was there every night. Either in the basement working on songs or up on the rooftop gazing at the stars. I loved that place, and haven't been able to find anything quite like it since. I now live in a cottage on River Road, and we don't have a basement, garage, etc., so it makes things difficult. My girlfriend's always encouraging me to get back into it, but the space is really critical to making that happen. When we move back to the Highlands, I'll start again.

photo by Marty Pearl

c. 2011 LEO Weekly

No comments: