Firefly Music Festival: Biggest New Music Bash Since Bonnaroo
Red Frog Events plan for more music, more stages and more local flair.
One by one, Bostrom began to mark towns on the map with stars. Manchester, Tenn., got a star. So too did Indio, Calif. Stars landed on Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, and Chicago. Soon, a pattern emerged.
“There was a big void of stars along the East Coast, and especially the Mid-Atlantic,” says Camp, Dover Motorsports’ communications director. “There was nothing. A whole lot of people, but very few rock music festivals.”
Bostrom smiled. He placed a star on Dover.
Bostrom and his colleagues from Chicago-based Red Frog Events had arrived at their destination at the end of a long journey. Sixty locations were vetted carefully, 11 were visited in person. Until Dover, none had fit their vision of the perfect East Coast music fest. It was a beautiful sunny day in early October 2011. After a tour of the land that surrounds Dover Downs, a little more than 100 acres where ticketholders park their RVs during NASCAR race weekends, the search was over. They even had the name picked out: The Firefly Music Festival.
“We had the concept, the idea, the branding in mind,” Bostrom says. “When we saw the site, we saw all that manifested in our heads. It was a eureka moment: This is where this festival takes place.”
Says Tatoian, “We saw it as an RV parking lot. They saw ‘The Woodlands.’ Suddenly we began forgetting where we were and started looking at how the fingers of the trees lined up. I started to understand.”
When indie bands like LA’s Local Natives and Australian singer Courtney Barnett christen the third annual Firefly Festival later this month—setting the table for headliners like Outkast and the Foo Fighters—they’ll do so at one of the most successful and well-regarded music festivals in the country. Just as it’s easy to forget the fantastic fortune, timing and happenstance that landed a killer rock festival in our backyard, it’s becoming hard to envision summertime in Delaware without Firefly.
From the initial, serendipitous planning meetings in late 2011 to the out-of-nowhere announcement the following April, Firefly dropped into Delaware like manna from above, providing the state with a big-ticket, revenue-generating tourism behemoth and a yearly parade of rock stars, celebrities, media attention and cultural cool.
|Adrian Grenier||Band of Horses||Imagined Dragons||Outkast|
At a time when NASCAR ticket sales were slumping, Firefly came to the rescue, partnering with Dover Motorsports to deliver a smooth, seamlessly executed three-day music festival (expanded to four this summer) and a lineup of A-list talent the likes of which had never been seen in Delaware, bolstered by Jack White, the Killers, the Black Keys and dozens more. The bands, the opportunity for outdoor camping, countless upscale amenities and activities generated instant buzz. Within 24 hours of Firefly’s website going live, Red Frog reported more than $1 million in ticket sales.
More remarkable than its launch is Firefly’s growth—in size, scope and dollars—each year. In 2012, Firefly averaged 30,000 guests per day. It grew to a 65,000 daily average in 2013. This year, more than 85,000 music fans are projected. So far, fans from 44 states and 24 countries have made the trip to Dover. It’s ballooned from 48 bands on four stages to more than 100 bands on five stages.
“It was catching lightning in a bottle,” Tatoian says. “It was a bigger bolt of lightning last year and a bigger bottle. The bolt and the bottle are much larger this year.”
Says Red Frog co-CEO Ryan Kunkel, “We are humbled by the growth Firefly has seen over the past three years, and attribute this success to several things. From the beginning, our team’s primary focus has been on putting the participant experience above all else, which includes bringing an exceptional lineup to The Woodlands year after year. This dedication and vision, paired with our passionate and hard-working employees and a welcoming community, has been the recipe for a successful three years.”
Delaware Tourism Director Linda Parkowski says rough estimates reveal a little over $12 million in economic impact for Delaware in 2012, and twice that figure in 2013, based on average daily spending habits of the average tourist. A more scientific audit of Firefly’s effect on the state economy, she says, is expected after this summer. Hotels, restaurants, gas stations, pharmacies and liquor stores around Dover and Kent County are the most immediate beneficiaries, and Dover Motorsports receives property fees and a portion of the concession sales, according to tax documents.
“The other thing Red Frog, Dover Motorsports and Firefly do is hire local,” Parkowski says. “The preparation work, the roads, the infrastructure, the campgrounds—that’s all being handled by local contractors.”
That’s not the least of it. Firefly also furnished Delaware with some desperately needed cultural credibility. With the likes of Billboard and Rolling Stone lauding the fest and celebrity cameos like Adrian Grenier of “Entourage” fame and “Lord of the Rings” star Elijah Wood, Firefly continues to shepherd young, affluent members of the Millennial generation into Delaware. The average Fireflyer is 25 years old, college educated, and comes from a household that generates a higher-than-average annual income. It’s exactly the sort of demographic that ad agencies, media companies, and portfolio-holders drool over. They are fashionable, tech-savvy, cultural needle-movers with cash to spare. And thanks to Firefly, the country’s in-crowd might actually consider Delaware cool.
“It’s amazing to drive through Dover and see all the young people that are in the area that normally wouldn’t have been,” says Parkowski, whose office provides outreach and helpful info to festival-goers—where to find hotel vacancies, updates on traffic, and more—and urges them to consider Delaware’s other attractions. “There’s such great exposure for Delaware to a demographic that probably wouldn’t be here otherwise. In addition to Delaware’s visibility being raised, Firefly promotes our state as a great music destination to all these young people. That’s what this festival has done to Delaware.”
At last, dorky little Delaware—the state that’s routinely pulverized by bloggers, late-night talk shows and “Saturday Night Live,” the place that Wayne and Garth forever denigrated as a cultural abyss, and the place that Google word-associates with “boring”—could finally puff its chest a bit. “And now, thanks to Firefly, Miles the Monster is being Instagrammed all over the world,” Tatoian says.
Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, a Delaware ambassador of cool in its own right became an eager sponsor of the festival soon after its announcement in 2012, and the shaded Dogfish Head beer tent has maintained its cherry position near Firefly’s main stage ever since. Though the beer company is famously selective when it comes to partnerships and marketing, joining with Firefly “just makes sense,” says Mariah Calagione, Dogfish’s vice president.
“I think it’s good for our state’s profile,” she says. “We hear a lot of people who come to the brewery for a tour say that it’s their first time in Delaware, and that happens a lot at Firefly, too. It’s opening a door for someone who would never otherwise open it. They just don’t know what we have to offer. And who knows if someone coming to Firefly, maybe the next time they’ll take the detour off Route 13 and see the rest of the state.”
Mike Fennemore of Fifer Orchards in Camden-Wyoming was part of the festival’s flagship on-site farmers market last summer. He and his staffers got to know customers by name after three days. They relished the opportunity to talk up Delaware and his family’s farm to the young, eco-friendly out-of-towners.
“To us it’s a way to get the word out about our farm and inviting them out,” he says. “Whether we grab them with a peach or cider doughnut, maybe they come back and swing into the farm in person next time they’re passing through.”
While some of the long-term effects are yet to be felt, the short-term buzz Firefly has provided continues to smolder. Billboard magazine raved in 2013, “Firefly eclipsed the loftiest expectations of its patrons, and seems poised to sit alongside the Bonnaroos and Lollapaloozas as one of the country’s premier summer music events.” Online music magazine Consequence of Sound wrote, “Firefly’s stress-free temperament cannot be overstated.”
Says Tatoian, “I don’t know what has been talked about more positively in Delaware than Firefly maybe, like, ever. Many would tell you it’s the most talked-about, positive event the state has had.”
Not bad for a racetrack in Dover and a 5-year-old company from Chicago, neither of which had ever staged a music festival before. Though Firefly may have been slightly out of Dover Motorsports’ comfort zone, the company was accustomed to hosting large-scale events and all the logistical trappings to handle traffic, communications, safety and food that come with it.
Red Frog was a different story. Founded in 2007 by then-27-year-old Joe Reynolds, an Illinois State grad with a degree in entrepreneurship, Red Frog built its brand on races, runs and obstacle courses in cities across the country. The Great Urban Race, a city-wide scavenger hunt inspired by CBS’ “The Amazing Race,” has since been run in nearly every major U.S. city. Red Frog’s signature Warrior Dash—a 5K rugged-terrain obstacle course a la Middletown’s cherished Mud Run—has undergone 150 cycles in six countries and four continents, attracting more than 1 million racers and raising $7.5 million for charity.
With a place on Forbes’ America’s Most Promising Companies list in 2013, a Small Business of the Year recognition from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and handfuls of Best Places to Work accolades, Red Frog is a thoroughly modern company that lives by the work-hard, play-hard mentality. It has an in-office zipline, pajama days, video game breaks and foosball tournaments. Employees wear jeans and T-shirts to work, and give themselves job titles like Honcho of Happiness, Director of Dreams and Officer of Optimism.
Bostrom, a fresh-faced business and communication grad who, at 24, was recognized by The Chicago Tribune in its Innovators series, was charged with developing new creative ventures at Chicago’s Red Frog Events. His research project led to the development of Firefly. Now the festival’s director, his title is Regent of Ruckus.
Red Frog might have been new to the music game in 2011, but the company’s philosophy permeated and helped create the guidelines and characteristics that define Firefly. “We knew people wanted to see the bands,” Bostrom says, “but we wanted to create a weekend that people would experience as a fun interactive environment and a comfortable, laid-back atmosphere.
“We were dreaming big from the get-go. We knew it would be a challenge, but we shared that vision of where we wanted to be. That drove the process.”
So did perfect timing. As the music industry lamented the dismal decline of record sales dating back to the 1990s, an explosion of music festivals across the country has taken some of the sting away. According to a report in LA Weekly, North American live music revenues jumped from $1.5 billion in 1999 to $4.3 billion in 2012. The first Firefly weekend sold about $9 million in tickets.
With so much money generated, Firefly was bound to spawn some competitors. Since its inception, several competing festivals were born, including the Jay Z-curated Made in America Festival in downtown Philadelphia and Governors Ball in New York City, whose 2014 musical lineup includes several Firefly acts. New players in the market didn’t dampen corporate sponsorships for Firefly, which added Garnier Fructis, FYE and Walgreens as partners for 2014.
For the 85,000 concertgoers headed to Dover this month, corporate partnerships do little to harsh the vibe of Firefly’s communal spirit or the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll that comes with it.
“At the beginning we wondered, ‘Are people really going to come to Dover, Delaware, to see these bands?’” Tatoian says. “Red Frog’s answer was ‘absolutely.’ Now, people say this put Delaware on the map.”