C3’s Heavy New Fest: Tim Sweetwood Talks Exit 111

Tim Sweetwood
– Tim Sweetwood

New festivals get announced seemingly all the time, but Exit 111 stands out. One, it’s on the same site as Bonnaroo, which gives it some built-in festival cred already. Two, it’s put on by C3 Presents with veteran festival developer and talent buyer Tim Sweetwood at the helm. Three, it’s a decidedly rock-focused event, somewhat of an anomaly in a space dominated by hip-hop, pop and electronic music. 

“I think ‘hard rock’ is the best way to describe it, and I don’t think the hard-rock festival arena is oversaturated by any means,” says Sweetwood, who has recently developed events including Sea.Hear.Now in New Jersey and the Major League Baseball-themed Innings Festival that takes place during Spring Training in Arizona, and who owns and produces the Shaky Knees festivals as well. “There’s a good handful out there that Danny Wimmer produces, but that’s about it.” 

In the works for a few years now. Exit 111, the name taken from the highway exit that leads to the festival site in Manchester, Tenn., Oct. 11-13, blends a mix of hard rock, metal, southern rock and even some country, with a heavy emphasis on camping and ticket sales looking to land in the 25,000-30,000 fans per day range for the first-year, three-day festival. 

“What’s important about this event is that, yes, it’s on the Bonnaroo site but it’s not Bonnaroo,” Sweetwood says. “We’ve actually seen so far from ticketbuyers that 90-95% have not been to this location before, so it definitely has the feel of a first-year festival. We feel accomplished hitting a crowd that hasn’t been on the farm before.”

The event has some major draws, including Guns N’ Roses who continues its “Not In This Lifetime” reunion tour, as well as likely-last Tennessee performances from veteran thrash band Slayer and Southern rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd. Sweetwood talks to Pollstar about Exit 111, the overall festival market and some of his other events. 

POLLSTAR: You always hear the festival market is saturated, and that rock isn’t that hot right now, but this is a new three-day, rock-only event.
Tim Sweetwood: From a big perspective, it is very saturated and by big I mean over 50,000 people. There’s not a lot of spots left to create another Lollapalooza, Coachella, Austin City Limits or anything like that. What’s not saturated is the small to medium route – the 15,000 to 40,000 range. That’s a lot of what I’m trying to build with these. From a business standpoint they’re a little more feasible to grow and execute quickly, and they’re not as risky out of the gate, either, because it doesn’t cost $20 million to produce them. Sea.Hear.Now works in New Jersey because there isn’t a big festival there. Even though we’re 35 miles away from New York City it’s almost a different world, with 7-8 million people in New Jersey and I’m trying to get out 35,000. I think there’s still room at the end of the day. 

Let’s talk about the lineup.
What’s unique about me as a promoter is I am truly 360. I’m giving the vision to this event, actually the talent buyer along with some help from AC Entertainment, but also overseeing and working on the ancillary elements at the festival. So the vision did come down to mostly one person, which is cool, and there’s some personal influence in the lineup, as well as who’s available, who’s going out and around at the time and all that. Slayer was a very obvious choice, with round two of the going-away tour. Guns N’ Roses is similar where we knew they were going out for another victory round, and for Lynyrd Skynyrd, I wanted some influential rock and they’re on their final tour as well. Some bands like Def Leppard and Mastodon and Gojira just kind of fit in well. 
How about the onsite activations and other events taking place?
We have this thing called Paranormal Cirque that people are going to flip out on. It’s literally a Cirque Du Soleil style show, but it’s 17+ from an age perspective, with a bit of a Halloween theme, and actually play some rock and metal during the show. It will literally be a big circus tent on the festival grounds free to the ticket buyers, with three showings per day. We’re doing a classic car show onsite every day which is really cool and we’ve got some motocross demonstrations that Red Bull is helping us out with. I like to create events and festivals where it’s 360 and no one is getting bored – if you may not like the band on stage you can see some of this other stuff.

How are some of the other C3 events you’re involved with going?
2020 will be the third version of Innings, and we actually announce in a couple weeks. You can always tell when events are doing well because they return, right? (laughs). Along with the music, we have professional ball players, current or retired, hosting speed pitches and batting cages – you can throw a pitch in front of Roger Clemens, for instance. Sea.Hear.Now in Asbury Park is doing tremendous, it sold out five months in advance this year, the town has really embraced it and we’re going to do 35,000 people per day. That’s got Dave Matthews Band on one day, Lumineers the other, and anything from Dropkick Murphys to Joan Jett to Bad Religion and everything in between, and I would love to keep going strong on that one in the coming years, too.
Why hasn’t C3 gotten in on the artist-curated trend that seems so prevalent in recent years?
We definitely have conversations here and there, but it just hasn’t matched up properly. I’m not against those by any means, but at the same time you definitely have to have a company behind it because the artists know how to get on stage and wow everybody and perform but not how to produce the nuts and bolts of a festival. Some bands are big enough and have a diehard fanbase to see them anywhere and everywhere and every single year, but so many don’t tour every year or aren’t on a working cycle, so sometimes it doesn’t make as much sense business-wise. Whereas with Sea.Hear.Now, it happens on an annual basis but also has success because it’s not the same every year. But look, if Tool comes calling and wants to do a Tool festival, sign me up.