BottleRock Sells Out

BottleRock, the three-day festival that takes place Memorial Day weekend in Napa, Calif., is celebrating a sellout – and it’s kind of a big deal. 

Photo: Tom Hoppa
Matt Shultz of Cage The Elephant visits the crowd during the 2015 installment of BottleRock in Napa, Calif. The Memorial Day weekend festival has seen quite the turnaround from its 2013 debut.

The festival announced April 14 it has sold out its three-day passes, its single-day passes, its VIP packages – the whole shebang. That’s a far cry from its humble beginnings. It also announced at the same time a partnership with ticketing reselling platform Lyte – an unusual announcement but a lot about this event is unusual.

BottleRock began three years ago with an explosion of press for all the wrong reasons. The aftermath of the inaugural event was covered in a series of Pollstar articles because the story was one that is seen at least once every summer: there was debt and people wanting to be paid. The festival was $8.5 million in the red and hundreds of vendors and stagehands were left without compensation. The producer, BR Festivals, found itself running through a gauntlet of lawsuits and bankruptcy filings.

So much for the idea of a Napa Valley music festival.

Enter three partners – David Graham, Jason Scoggins and Justin Dragoo – who had nothing to do with the initial event. In fact, they had no experience in the concert business at all but decided to resurrect the tarnished brand. With the 2013 debacle casting a shadow over their venture, the three men known collectively as Latitude 38 rebooted BottleRock in 2014 with a scaled-down festival. Agents were cautious.

“We had to pay our dues,” Graham told Pollstar. “That’s the way it is. We don’t have any qualms about that. What is interesting coming out of the 2014 festival is that there wasn’t anyone in the music business that thought we could pull off what we did in such a short period of time – cleaning up the brand, helping undo the debt, booking the bands. When they saw we were able to do that and do it with integrity, there was a level of respect that came about.”

It also didn’t hurt that, even with agents looking at them with one eye cocked, the three partners booked headliners Eric Church, Outkast, and The Cure.

Plus the festival relaunched with the help of industry veterans like Steve Macfadyen and Billy Brill.

The 2014 event was followed by last year’s BottleRock that included No DoubtImagine Dragons and Cage The Elephant among its four music stages. It sold out its Sunday lineup and had a viral moment when Snoop Dogg stopped rolling papers long enough to roll sushi alongside “Iron Chef” Masaharu Morimoto at a stage dedicated to cooking / culinary events.

With the announcement that this year’s May 27-29 event, featuring Stevie WonderFlorence + The Machine, and Red Hot Chili Peppers is sold out, Graham was obviously happy to talk about what Latitude 38 has done right, and maybe a little wrong.

“In hindsight, it’s been an absolute strength to not have any festival experience,” he said. “We had no experience and we own that. However, because we are born and raised in the Napa Valley, there is an expectation to what a food, wine and entertainment experience should be. That’s all we know. So when we got into this space, the whole notion of VIP as it was done by other festivals didn’t enter our mind. We didn’t know how they did it. Then, when we started to attend festivals we thought, ‘Oh my God, are you kidding me? This is horrible.’”

To invoke the Napa experience, Latitude 38 brought 30 local wineries and 30 restaurants to the event to entice some of the 3.5 million visitors that come to the area every year for that food and wine experience.

For the VIP experience, the partners went even more bourgeois – and looked to professional golf.

“Last year, we didn’t know if people would like the kind of suites you would see at a PGA golf tournament,” Graham said. “Who would think people would want to buy a suite you’d see at the Masters? We built eight for each day and, boom, they were gone. This year we built 18 for each day and, boom, they were gone. So we kept building and created a whole other level of VIP on top of the suites.”

That’s literal: the event includes a double-decker sky deck.

“If you’re a Platinum VIP, you are met back of house with champagne. You are brought in via a golf cart via the artists’ compound. You go into your own Platinum Lounge, which abuts the mainstage. That lounge is produced by Estate Events by Meadowood. You have access to caviar and champagne. You have access to the sides of the stage, to the front-row viewing. You have access to artist meet-and-greets. With the level of ticket you’re buying, you are a VIP.”

The partners also learned that comedy doesn’t work for a Napa crowd so, instead of a comedy stage, they created a culinary stage. Last year’s version drew 8,000 for the Snoop Dogg / Morimoto roll-a-thon so this year’s stage is larger with more celebrities.

The partners also learned that the concert business is all about relationships, but screw that. Because their backgrounds run from the wine to technology industries, they didn’t have any relationships to nurture.

“We don’t care if we’ve done business with you in the past; if you’re doing this particular side of the business, we’re taking you out to bid. We get multiple bids for everything,” Graham said. “We had some painful experiences and clashes with people who didn’t think we knew what we were doing but we stuck to our guns. We didn’t get everything right; we’re not saying that but we’re happy that we did.”