By: Joseph Kathmann
This year marked the first year since 2014 that Cincinnati had two major music festivals occur in the same summer, which is a welcome change for many (including myself) who, for years, have been frustrated at how incompetent PromoWest can be at running music festivals. Back in 2014, Cincinnati saw a wonderful music festival season, with bands like The Flaming Lips, Paramore / Fall Out Boy, and (gulp) Empire of the Sun headlining Bunbury, (with a pretty strong undercard, more importantly) and the likes of Willie Nelson, Alabama, The Band Perry, and more headlining the newly created Buckle Up Country Music Festival, taking place in the same area as Bunbury, Sawyer Point / Yeatman's Cove, just a month or so later. With the festival scene on a meteoric rise, the old, out-of-touch executives over at PromoWest saw an opportunity to buy both festivals, cancel one, (Buckle Up was the victim, with PromoWest citing "too much competition" as the reason....imagine I said that in a really shrilly / smug / sarcastic voice) and effectively have a monopoly on the major music festival scene in a mid-sized town. Sure, MidPoint Music Festival exists in September, but the argument could easily be made that it is not on the same playing field as Bunbury. (Not to mention it has its own fair share of issues) The same can probably be said for Homecoming, but having these festivals take place a few weeks apart really hammers how complacent PromoWest has become with Cincinnati's (unfortunately) premier music festival.
It has become painstakingly obvious over the past few years that PromoWest is totally content with sitting back and watching the dollars roll in, while making very little, if any, effort to improve on the longstanding issues with Bunbury. For example, the bars were once again cash only for some inexplicable reason. Meanwhile, Homecoming, in its (hopefully) inaugural year, figured out a way to accept cards at all the bars around the festival grounds. The fact that PromoWest has not been able to integrate a similar system at the bars, ever since it tried (and failed horribly) to implement a cashless system that gobbled up your money in the process with exorbitant fees, is infuriating. Frankly, it's embarrassing that this is still the case at Cincinnati's flagship music festival in 2018. (Current year argument, but seriously PromoWest, get your act together!) Even a few years back, Bunbury was the only music festival I went to throughout the year that ONLY had cash bars. Maybe one of the reasons they continue to insist on having everything cash only (food trucks were allowed to do their own thing, at least, so many accepted cards because, you know, it's 2018 and us millennials don't carry cash) is because if they did, they'd have to train volunteers in the bars on how to actually use them. And that would require PromoWest treating their volunteers better than the dirt that accrues on all the money they're making.
Which is a good segue into an experience I had on Friday at Bunbury at the hands of PromoWest. Because this year's Bunbury lineup was (once again) a hodgepodge of artists with no real identity or consistency, I didn't have much of a desire to pay for any day other than Sunday, where Jack White was the headliner. However, on Friday I decided to volunteer for a local film organization, (Shameless self promo: the organization I volunteered for is the Cincinnati Film Society, go follow them on the social medias!) which would get me into the festival for free that day in return. I was pouring beer at one of the many beer booths around the festival grounds for our roughly 6.5 hour shift on Friday, (11 am - 5:45 pm) completely unpaid. In fact, the Cincinnati Film Society (CFS for short) was only being paid via the tips made off the beer sales. During our shift, this amounted to roughly $135. You'd think maybe PromoWest could donate even a few pennies off every beer sold in that booth to the organization, but no, why take money away from your bottom line when you can have volunteers make you your money for free? So, picture this: it's nearing the end of our 6.5 hour shift (about 15 minutes before it's supposed to end) and we're wondering where our replacements are, as they were supposed to arrive around 5. Suddenly, two PromoWest officials come up demanding to speak to the person in charge of the CFS. At the other CFS beer booth, these officials had caught someone drinking a beer while on their shift, and kicked them out of the festival. Not only that, but they were not allowing our replacements to enter the festival grounds until they spoke to the person in charge. These officials proceeded to stand by our booth for almost an hour, not letting us leave the booth and thus continue to pour beers, (and make PromoWest money) until they got to speak to the Executive Director of the CFS. (She wasn't on the grounds, which was an admittedly bad decision on her part, but still.) When our replacements were finally allowed in, they confirmed that they were, in fact, standing by the volunteer entrance, with a security guard in front of them not allowing them to enter the grounds. This kind of treatment of us, the volunteers pouring beer for free while making PromoWest disgusting amounts of money, was despicable, and put such a sour taste in my mouth that I stuck around for one band (Royal Blood) and left for the evening.
I'll admit that the above story has made me very frustrated towards PromoWest, but there were other unwelcoming things happening around Bunbury that were nowhere to be found at Homecoming. (Not to mention I've been frustrated with PromoWest for a while now). For example, this year PromoWest decided they could make more money by having beer vendors walk around the festival grounds and into the crowds until halfway through a set before setting up shop somewhere in the crowd like they have in years past. I'm sure this made more money for PromoWest, but it came at the cost of, you know, the view of the stage for us festival goers. Not like we were paying to see the musicians on stage, right? Of course this was nowhere to be found at Homecoming. I noticed it immediately in that first set on Friday, and it infuriated me every time I saw it thereafter. The only time they didn't move around were during the headlining sets of each stage, and I fully expect that when PromoWest sees how much more money they made this year in beer sales by blocking the view of the stage in the preceding acts, they'll ignore all the complaints from the festival goers (including from yours truly) and have the vendors walk through the crowd during the headliners, too. After all, who cares about lessening the vibe of your festival when you can make more money, right?
PromoWest has also never really accepted the fact that they will have to pay the city of Cincinnati money to repair Sawyer Point / Yeatman's Cove when the festival is over. Despite the fact that they have to do this every year. This year, they decided to try and make a bottleneck between the two main stages worse by fencing off the ground around the one path that goes in between them. On Friday, this magnified this problematic bottleneck I've been complaining about for YEARS (at least they didn't put a beer vendor right in the middle of it this time around, so progress....right?) and it took nearly twice as long as it should to walk between the stages. By Sunday, though, festival goers had acted on their frustrations with this stupid, PromoWest created bottleneck, and tore down the fences surrounding the pathway between the stages to alleviate the issue. However, my guess is this will just incentivize PromoWest to establish more heavy-duty fences around the bottleneck next year to ensure festival goers can't tear them down, versus trying to actually do anything meaningful to actually fix this long standing issue. Meanwhile, Homecoming Festival not only didn't have any bottlenecks, but they actually made great use of Smale Riverfront Park, allowing people to interact with the existing architecture that was there and totally accepting the fact that they were going to have to pay the city some money to repair the grounds afterwards. Not only that, but it actually added to the vibe of the festival. It was pretty cool to see people interacting with the art around the grounds while the bands were playing.
The only major complaint I had about Homecoming was getting in the first day. It took almost 30 minutes to get into the festival as security simply wasn't ready for the crowd rush, but by day 2 they had solved this issue, and I'm confident that in years to come they will figure out ways to address this issue. I have far more faith in MusicNow and the rest of the crew behind Homecoming making changes for the better than I do PromoWest for Bunbury, and that's just sad.
None of this even begins to talk about the actual music, which was (you guessed it) superior at Homecoming. There was a lot more passion from the artists, and from the crowds themselves. Not only that, but the crew was vastly superior at Homecoming than it was at its bigger brother, and that might have something to do with the fact that PromoWest insists on paying its crew a measly $10/hour to run Bunbury. Who needs a livable wage when you're working your ass off in the hot sun for 3 days to ensure a festival runs smoothly, right? Jack White's (criminally short) headlining set was marred with technical issues, (though he pushed through it like the pro that he is) and once again at least one artist complained about getting shocked by his microphone during a set. (Royal Blood) I feel like I've only ever seen that kind of an issue arise at Bunbury, and at Bunbury I've seen it happen almost every year. And, of course, the EQ at Homecoming was vastly superior, but at this point that almost goes without saying. Least the main stage at Bunbury wasn't a total bass fest. Just kind of a bass fest.
One final story I'll leave you with about Bunbury. PromoWest sets the beer prices in the festival, which actually were quite reasonable. $7 for a 16 oz craft beer isn't bad. However, in the craft beer village, PromoWest had the bright idea to sell Buzz, the official beer of Bunbury made by Braxton, in 12 oz cans for $7. Right alongside that, you could buy a 16 oz craft beer for the same price. Not only that, but in a beer tent just a few feet away, PromoWest was also selling Buzz in a 16 oz draft for, you guessed it, $7. If that doesn't sum up the idiocy mixed with complacency at PromoWest, then I don't know what does.
It's infuriating that Bunbury feels like a run-down, cheap, third-rate music festival that struggles to get any kind of noteworthy talent. And the fact that Homecoming did things so much better in its inaugural year should be telling to Cincinnati festival goers. Should be. But, because festivals are "hip" and "trendy," Bunbury will keep making PromoWest enough dough that they'll do nothing but sit back. watch the money rake in, and make no effort to improve the conditions of their cash cow. That is, until the year the festival bubble inevitably bursts and PromoWest cancels Bunbury because of "too much competition." Hopefully by then Homecoming will be ready to take the reins as Cincinnati's premier music festival. You know, assuming it actually returns. Please return, Homecoming.....
Who are we?
Derek Jung and Joseph Kathmann -- Just two ordinary (debatable) guys that love talking about music. You can read more about us here: