Q’s With DWP’s Del Williams: ‘Everybody Is A Marketer’ (2023 Festival Issue)

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Louder Than 2022: Danny Wimmer Presents’ flagship Aftershock and Louder Than Life festivals broke attendance records last year, and they’re hoping to do it again this year. (Nathan Zucker)

The festival business isn’t for the faint of heart, and those who have been able to sustain a career out of it have seen everything from weather events to headliner no-shows to lawsuits and everything in between.

“We have a very unique business in that it’s a major investment to be able to make the first dollar, right? There’s a lot of risk on the line,” says Del Williams, head of talent at Danny Wimmer Presents. Leading a team of four, Williams orchestrates the lineups for DWP’s festivals dotted across the U.S., which this year means dozens of bands apiece on seven large-scale events.

Historically known for hard rock and metal festivals in secondary markets, DWP has established itself as a major festival player in any genre or locale, with multiple four-day, 45,000-per-day events and in multiple genres with the recent addition of country festival Golden Sky in Sacramento, California, and the multi-genre Bourbon and Beyond in Louisville, Kentucky, adding to already-established rock fests at those sites. Meanwhile, Inkarceration in Mansfield, Ohio, gives DWP a second festival in the state at 25,000 per day and a decidedly harder-edged tone to go along with the tattoo lifestyle element.

“It really speaks to the vision of (CEO) Danny Hayes and (founder) Danny Wimmer and their leadership,” says Williams, whose time with Wimmer goes back to the first Rock On The Range festivals of the early 2000s. “It’s very difficult to make it in this business. You have to have strong leadership and calculated financial strategy in order for it to work and thrive. Fortunately, we’re doing that.”

Williams spent some time with Pollstar to go over this year’s lineups, DWP’s continued festival rollout post-COVID and to discuss its diversified Talent Services division, which includes casino talent buying and other non-festival business.

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Pollstar: What does your team look like? That’s a lot of bands to book.
Del Williams: I’m the head of talent, but it’s a team effort. (Director of Talent) Amanda Phelan and I work side by side and (former head of talent booking) Gary Spivack is involved with several of our shows as well and has been involved with DWP for a long time and is a big part of the family. Then Danny (Wimmer) himself works very closely with us every step of the way. Our team will be growing but it’s a very tight-knit group.

And you’re all very interested in other aspects of the festivals apart from the booking.
It’s our philosophy that everybody’s a marketer, so in addition to looking at the ticket counts every day, we’re thinking of ways that we can creatively promote these shows to the audience and expand our reach. But at the same time, be creative with the artists and their messaging so that it’s not the same old pitch where artists are saying, “Hey, come see me at the show, get your tickets now.”

There’s four of us (on the booking side), and there’s about to be a fifth person that will be more involved on the contract side. We’ll continue to grow incrementally, but I think, for us, it works really well because even though we’re wearing a lot of hats and certainly overextended at times, it’s still a very close-knit group that works really well together on all the details. I think that is an advantage because we’re able to be nimble and decisive about the strategy and the acts that we’re targeting.

How do you differentiate the major DWP rock festivals, which are of a similar size and feature somewhat similar music?
Every slot is carefully curated. We believe that the opening slots are extremely important as well. There’s not any act that goes on the show where there isn’t a lot of thought behind it and a purpose behind why we booked that act. We have a lot of fans who will go to several of our shows – they’ll go to Welcome to Rockville, Sonic Temple and then in the fall they’ll go to Aftershock. So there’s some overlap, but there are quite a few acts that are only playing one of the shows. It really depends on what artists are available, especially for the headliners, because the shows are built from top to bottom.

For Bourbon and Beyond, that’s a special show because of the blend of genres. It’s really designed to reflect the community there, because bourbon is to Louisville like wine is to Napa Valley. It’s really about reflecting the character and the lifestyle and as well as the passion that region has. We want to be distinctive from any other festival, not just the DWP festivals.

How’s this year looking? There are always challenges and uncertainties.
You’re right, it is a challenging year. Last year had its challenges coming out of COVID, people were very careful. We’ve been very fortunate to have several good years in a row where we’ve hit our projections or exceeded them. A big part of it is the relationship we’ve built with the fans, the credibility we have with the fans that they know that for our shows they’re going to get incredible value and we’re going to deliver what they want. I think that the biggest challenge that we have going into this year is with the vendors, the cost of doing business with the infrastructure and the cost of putting these shows together with production and all the other components that come into it. The per-unit costs have increased dramatically. That’s something that is an ongoing struggle because you don’t want to jack up the ticket price.

The cost of talent continues to escalate as well, but all of that is relative. So it is a challenge to balance that with making sure your ticket prices don’t go astronomically high and maintaining that value.

What can you say about the agency landscape right now?
There’s a good rapport there because we’ve established a good reputation with them. We’ve worked through presenting some inclement weather clauses that worked for both the artists as well as the promoter.

Weather’s always a concern and after COVID the force majeure clause changed because no one anticipated a virus was going to come in and completely obliterate the business. So I think everybody’s worked together on coming back from that, bouncing back from that and realizing that we do have to work together, that it can’t be a one-sided proposition because if the promoter can’t win, then it affects the artist’s business and the agency business.

DWP got “substantial” funding in the form of an investment from Ron Burkle’s Yucaipa Companies, announced in 2020 before COVID hit. How’s that partnership been going?
They’ve been fantastic because they really understand the entertainment space. It’s all about communicating and working together with them. They’ve been fantastic partners with us, understanding the moves that we want to make and how we’ve grown these festivals. It’s been an amazing relationship and just continues to get better.

What can you say about the DWP Talent Services division, which includes a casino talent buying arm?

We have a lot of talent within our company and we want to take advantage of that by creating DWP Talent Services, which does go beyond the festival space because we really are experts, the best in the business, at producing a show from A to Z. We can really do it all. So it does make sense for us to look for opportunities where someone needs our assistance to produce a show, whether it’s a corporate, private or public event. We do evaluate those on a regular basis. So that’s going to be a growing part of the business of course.

DWP hasn’t brought back all of its pre-COVID festivals. What’s the rollout look like, and how many can we expect going forward?
The trajectory is probably one festival a year, but there it isn’t a magic number because it really depends on the opportunity, the market, the need for a particular market to have a DWP festival.

We’ll look at building things incrementally. We’re never going to go too fast because we want to really develop and we’ve got work to do with some of the existing festivals. You always are looking for ways to perfect and build your existing festival brands and so we’re doing that.

That’s priority one, but we also are looking to expand our repertoire of festivals. I would say that we’re looking to probably bring on maybe a new festival a year, but we won’t do it unless all the conditions are right. We’re not going to do anything prematurely or that could potentially harm or affect the other festivals.