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Rocking The Heartland

05:01 PM Tuesday 3/30/10 |   |

Rocklahoma began life in 2007 as one of the country’s premier hard rock festivals. Blasting out of Pryor, Oklahoma, the festival quickly gained fame as an ‘80s-centric event featuring headliners such as Anthrax, Ratt, Stryper, and Twisted Sister.

But Rocklahoma’s creators wanted to take the festival to the next level, meaning bigger acts and larger audiences. To accomplish this, they turned to AEG Live.

And the results? Under AEG’s guidance, the festival was switched from July to Memorial Day Weekend in May. There are plenty of ‘80s bands booked for this year’s Rocklahoma but AEG expanded the lineup to include current artists as well as a few classic acts. This year’s festival features ZZ Top as well as Godsmack, Tesla, Buckcherry, Cinderella, Chevelle, Stone Sour, Theory Of A Deadman and Saliva.

To learn more about this year’s Rocklahoma and some of the changes festival-goers will experience, we turned to AEG Live senior VP Joe Litvag, a self-confessed child of the ‘80s who is retooling this year’s festival in order to transform it into a “legitimate festival that’s around for another 20 years and then some.”

  • Sebastian Bach

    Rocklahoma, Pryor, Okla.
    July 10, 2008

    (Janae Wilkinson / BackstagePassPhotography.com)

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How is Rocklahoma different this year?

From my standpoint, the big difference is that we’re involved. This is our first year of being involved. It was sort of a long kind of process I went through with the owners/organizers of the festival. They had reached out to me just to make contact over a year ago through a mutual friend, and after several conversations decided we wanted to work together.

The first obvious thing for me is the fact we’re even involved. It’s a festival I certainly took note of in 2007 when they first came out with it. One of the main things I discussed with the organizers in terms of deciding what changes needed to be made was the programming.

Obviously, it started out as a classic ‘80s festival. And while I’m a huge fan of that music and grew up in that era, in my opinion it’s too narrow of an audience and there’s not enough of a talent pool to sustain that on a long-term basis. One of the big things we talked about from the very early conversations was to widen the net, as I call it, in terms of the talent, in terms of the audience, to try and make it a more relevant festival to a wider audience of rock fans.

You have ZZ Top headlining this year’s Rocklahoma, while last year featured Anthrax one night and –

Stryper, possibly. Not to sound disparaging towards any of the bands on the bill last year, because they’re all great bands, but there’s only so many “big bands” within that era. And I think if you try to do the same thing over and over again, the options start dwindling. And it showed in the attendance of the festival. The artists they had were very niche, not mass appeal. And that’s what we’re trying to help them get back to – mass appeal.

Do you think you’ll be seeing more families at Rocklahoma? Instances where fathers might take their kids to see the bands that rocked them back in the day?

I think so. That’s part of the idea. Rocklahoma is an experience, and one of the other things we talked about early on was moving the festival from the middle of July to May for several reasons, weather being one. The temperature when I was out there last year was completely unbearable. But also the fact that we were able to move it to a holiday weekend, which, I think gives families the opportunity to come and make an entire weekend event out of it.

I think that’s what’s always great about music. Not only are dads and moms able to share with their kids, saying “these are the bands I grew up on,” but working the other way too. Kids saying to parents, “That’s great. Here’s some of the bands that we love now,” and turning parents on to some of the newer acts on the bill. I think that’s a huge, huge part of it. This festival is an event and it’s about making long-term memories, and it’s the perfect opportunity for families to come out and experience music together.

  • Stryper

    3rd Annual Rocklahoma 2009, Pryor, Okla.
    July 11, 2009

    (Janae Wilkinson / BackstagePassPhotography.com)

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With the exception of Rocklahoma’s Web site, how far does your traditional advertising – newspapers, radio, TV – reach?

From a marketing standpoint, the online aspect has become a significant part of how we get the word out and promote. Equally important, especially for a festival like this, is radio. We are employing kind of the same tactics for Rocklahoma this year that we employ for Rock On The Range, which is one of our other festivals.

We look at the radius that’s viable for the location of the festival, in this case Pryor, Oklahoma – a 250 to 300 mile radius – and find all the applicable rock stations within that radius and really focus on showing them some attention so we can get them to be an advocate of the show.

Instead of having one key radio station, we have 25 to 30 key radio stations. From that aspect, I think radio is still a primary driver. Television also is an important driver. There’s a lot of rock stations out there that really sort of get into the nooks and crannies of the Midwest and at least the ones within a reasonable driving distance, we want to hit those and make them feel like they’re part of the festival.

Is there a typical Rocklahoma fan?

I don’t think so. I think that’s the great thing about music and one of the reasons I got into this business. There really isn’t. There’s all shapes, sizes and colors of people that like all different types of music. That’s one of the great things about these festivals and a situation like Rocklahoma where we’re mixing up classic and current. I think there’s going to be such a wide variety of people there; that’s what’s going to make it special.

It would be easy to try and identify the person who’s a fan of the classic ‘80s music. But those people can be truck drivers, construction workers, doctors and lawyers. There’s really a little bit of everything, and I experienced that with a lot of other shows and festivals that we do. There’s a great mix of people.

Music is about personal taste. It’s not about what you do for a living or what color your skin is. That’s one of the great things about being in this business.

Can you describe AEG’s relationship with Rocklahoma’s founders?

It’s a group of individuals that own the festival, own the festival grounds. Their company name is actually Catch The Fever. It’s some guys who came together, they had some experience working some other festivals in the region and being partners in some other festivals in the region. They decided in ’06 or so, they wanted to create their own. They’re great people, smart guys, they each have their own areas of expertise. They’re smart enough to have realized that you get this thing to a point where you potentially need some outside help to get to the next level. And that’s when they came to us.

  • Triumph

    Rocklahoma, Pryor, Okla.
    July 11, 2008

    (Janae Wilkinson / BackstagePassPhotography.com)

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When you consider all the factors that need to be addressed when planning a festival the size of Rocklahoma, where do you begin? What goes on during the first day of planning?

Basically, we sat down together and said, “Let’s dissect this thing and identify the strengths and weakness of this festival.”

And we pretty much spent the first period of time just kind of picking this thing apart, good and bad. We broke it down to each individual area or category and looked at the positive and negative.

After experiencing a day of the festival myself, a couple people on my team went down and lived it for a day. They kind of sat back and listened to what our thoughts were. We were kind of on the same page. We knew the areas that didn’t need fixing and the areas that did need fixing. So it really wasn’t that difficult.

As a promoter, are you watching and critiquing other people’s festivals?

Sure. There’s a lot of great people in this business who are a lot smarter than I am. For me, I love looking at what other people do. I know a lot of the people that put on these festivals. We certainly learned from watching what people do, from the mistakes they make to what they do well. Sometimes we try to incorporate those things into our festivals. Not always, it has to make sense.

One example is the notion of layaway. It started happening a couple of years ago at festivals. I was kind of on the fence at first, asking myself if this was really necessary.

Now we’ve instituted a layaway policy after watching some of the other festivals and doing it and doing it well. Even some of the other festivals produced or owned by AEG. We realized there was a place for it and it does make sense for a lot of people. So we instituted it this year on Rock On The Range and we instituted it on Rocklahoma, and it seems to be making a difference for people.

So, yeah, we certainly pay attention. We don’t have all the answers. I’d love to think that we do, but absolutely not. There are a lot of things other people do right and we try to learn from them.

  • Night Ranger

    3rd Annual Rocklahoma 2009, Pryor, Okla.
    July 10, 2009

    (Janae Wilkinson / BackstagePassPhotography.com)

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When booking a festival like Rocklahoma, does the inner fanboy get a voice? Do you pick a few favorites as well as bands and artists that will sell tickets or provide balance to the lineup?

I guess I would be lying if I said no. On a daily basis, whether it’s Rock On The Range or Rockfest or Rocklahoma or Rothbury, I do my very best to take my personal opinions and put them aside. I don’t love all the bands on the Rocklahoma bill. But there also happens to be a couple of bands on here that I truly love.

What I try to do is focus on what’s best for the festival and what the fans really want to see. Sometimes we go about that by figuring out ways to talk to the fans whether it’s through the Web site, MySpace, Facebook or reading comments they’re making on blogs. We also do a lot of talking to people onsite at the festivals, asking who they want to see next year. I love getting fan feedback.

But in the case of Rocklahoma, we felt we had a specific agenda in terms of programming in 2010 – take that first step in transitioning to sort of marry the classic and the current. It was important for me in selecting the classic acts to put on the bill this year that we picked some legitimate classic artists.

I’m not going to call any names out in particular of acts that I don’t think are legitimate, but there’s a lot of ‘80s classic acts out there that are on the road constantly that play every festival, every state fair, every casino every year. Not that they’re bad, but there’s nothing that special about them because everybody has already seen them.

So what we really tried to focus on in selecting the classic acts for this year, was to try to pick acts that hadn’t been out a whole lot, to make their appearance on Rocklahoma really special. Also at the same time find a balance of the classic and the current.

We certainly listened to what some of the fans had already commented on thus far since we announced the lineup. Some people want to see more classic acts. I would have liked to have seen maybe one or two more classic acts.

We’re pretty happy with the lineup we have, but we’re certainly going to take all the feedback we've been getting and retool it further in 2011.

Getting back to the question, I would be lying if I said my personal opinion never factors in, because it does. I’m a music lover and I get really excited about these acts.

  • Stephen Pearcy of Ratt

    3rd Annual Rocklahoma 2009, Pryor, Okla.
    July 10, 2009

    (Janae Wilkinson / BackstagePassPhotography.com)

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How do you arrive at ticket prices, including multi-day passes, VIP passes and single day tickets. Is there a formula for figuring these things out?

It’s not so much a formula but kind of a gut feeling based on other festivals, understanding what the market will bear and trying to figure out the threshold for the audience that’s attending.

I happen to believe ticket prices in the concert business as a whole have gotten completely insane and it drives me nuts. At the same time, people keep paying. Whether it’s a festival or an individual show, tickets continue to sell every single day. People obviously feel it’s worthwhile.

In a situation like Rocklahoma, we try to figure out what the right threshold is so we don’t break the bank with the fans. Times are tough out there. The economy is going through this sort of major recovery – hopefully we can call it a recovery at this point – and we want to be sensitive to that.

What we try to do is look at what we do for other festivals as well as what the history of ticket prices is for that particular event and try to come up with a number everybody feels good about. The same thing goes for the VIP packages. We don’t want to overcharge, but we don’t want to undercharge either.

You’ve mentioned growing up in the ‘80s. Did you go to any major festivals back in the day, such as the US Festival or Live Aid?

I went to a couple of Monsters Of Rock. I was fortunate enough in the sense that I started in the business – I actually started with a couple of internships while in college – then I started in the business officially two weeks after graduating college. So there was never a distinct period of time I was able to go to a bunch of festivals prior to getting into the business because I was a kid.

But I went to the University of Kansas so I went to Spirit Fest in Kansas City several times but that was essentially free. So I did get a little dose of the festival experience prior to getting into the business. But I did go to a lot of individual concerts as a teenager and in college. I definitely had a distinct feeling that I wanted to do something related to music.

If this year’s Rocklahoma was taking place when you were a teenager, what would be your reaction to the lineup?

It’s hard to say. I’m 40 now. If the lineup was a mix of classic and current back then in 1988 and if I was at the University of Kansas, I’d probably be going. I’m still a fan of a lot of bands – the huge acts from the late ‘60s and ‘70s. If it had been a mix of that with some of the current acts of the late ‘80s back then, I’d have been all over it.

  • Trixster

    Rocklahoma, Pryor, Okla.
    July 12, 2008

    (Janae Wilkinson / BackstagePassPhotography.com)

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Are you from the area?

Born and raised in St. Louis, spent four-and-a-half glorious years in Lawrence, Kansas, and came back to St. Louis and started in the business.

Do you feel your background as a local boy helps you to better understand how to promote concerts in the Midwest?

I think so. I guess I’m kind of an emotional guy about what I do for a living. I have a passion for it. That’s why I do what I do.

I get into debates sometimes, occasional arguments with agents and managers because they make assumptions sitting in their offices in Los Angeles or New York about what it’s like out here in the middle of the country. We experience things differently in this part of the country than they do in L.A. or New York.

I’ve been here basically my whole life. I’m in L.A. and New York all the time but I always come home to the Midwest. In dealing with things like the challenges of the economy the last couple of years, agents insisted on jacking their ticket prices up when I’m telling them, “Guys, people in this part of the country are hurting. Have you looked at what the unemployment percentages are in states like Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa and Missouri? It’s insane right now. Maybe you don’t experience it in L.A. or New York, but guess what? People are really struggling out here.”

From you viewpoint, what would you say is the biggest misconception about your market?

I’d say there are two. One is related to what I just said. People who don’t understand the Midwest because they’re not from here or don’t spend any time here, think that people react here, in terms of their spending habits and otherwise, just like people do in major markets like L.A. or New York.

But they don’t. People are a lot more conservative with their money in this part of the country because there are a lot of rural areas and there are a lot of people who work really hard doing a lot manual labor. There’s plenty of people who have white collar jobs, too.

People, I think, are smarter about their money in this part of the country and really watch what they’re spending. That’s probably one thing.

Then the other thing would be is this misconception that we’re all a bunch of backward country bumpkins. But we’re not. There’s some very hip, cool, music markets here. Obviously Chicago, Minneapolis, Detroit, Kansas City, Columbus, Ohio. There’s even some smaller markets, college towns like Lawrence, Kansas, and Madison, Wisconsin, Bloomington, Indiana, and places like that which are very hip music environments as well. So we’re not just a bunch a hicks out here in the center of the country.

  • Steve Whiteman of Kix

    3rd Annual Rocklahoma 2009, Pryor, Okla.
    July 10, 2009

    (Janae Wilkinson / BackstagePassPhotography.com)

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Any chance Rocklahoma might expand as a brand?

I don’t know. I think the first order of business is to get this thing to the next level. I personally am not a fan of taking a brand that you build as a festival or otherwise and rolling it out and doing it everywhere.

We’ve been approached several times – myself and my partners on Rock On The Range – asking why don’t we take Rock On The Range and make it a tour or do it in five markets across the country. Part of me says as soon as you start doing that, you take away from the uniqueness and special feel the event has.

Rocklahoma is really meant to be sort of a celebration of the middle of the country – Oklahoma and surrounding areas. I think if it expands past that I would question whether it loses something.

Closing thoughts?

Everybody wants to know why the changes and what’s the thought process, and I think it’s a fair question.

It’s more important to me to speak to the fans than it is to the press – conveying the message that with Rocklahoma in particular, we’re not trying to change this festival to make it worse. We’re trying to change this festival to make it better, to have it be a legitimate festival that’s around for another 20 years and then some.

For those who are loyalists to the ‘80s classic rock music who feel like we’ve abandoned them, that’s not the intention. It is to welcome them back with open arms by having some of those acts and to try to get them to open their minds and experience some of the great new rock acts that are out there, and come make a weekend of memories at this festival.

Click here for the Rocklahoma Web site, here for the festival’s MySpace page, here for Rocklahoma on Facebook and here to follow the festival on Twitter.


Comments

  1. guywithbluehair wrote:

    06:41 AM, Apr 05, 2010

    What is the third 80s band? I only saw Cinderella and Tesla. I really thought when they said they were going to put in some new bands...that they'd be new bands that play that party rock/metal style stuff...like a Hardcore Superstar or Crash Diet or something not the junk they keep feeding us on corporate radio all the time.

  2. rockcityking wrote:

    12:29 PM, Apr 02, 2010

    I used to look forward to this festival every summer, seeing all the bands I used to listen to in high school. Now it's just ruined...plain and simple! Rocklahoma used to give the bands and the fans a second chance to relive great live music from the 80's. Now, AEG has crushed that experience for both the bands and the fans in one fell swoop!! I really hope this "new" Rocklahoma falls flat on its face! This summer, i'll be taking my family to a different festival...the MidwestRockfest in Wichita, KS...and i'll be rockin' with some real hard rock bands in Twisted Sister, Kix, Y&T, Styx, Winger, etc.!!! Long live the 80's hair bands!

  3. PissedatROK wrote:

    09:08 AM, Apr 01, 2010

    Why the hell would anyone pay $250 to see a festival they can see every weekend in May near by for under $50. Rocklahoma has one of the best festival grounds I have seen. Why waste such a good thing on a generic crappy lineup. It was one of the few multi day fests that offered showers, awesome camping and awesome food w/ the VIP package. What rock needs is bands like Scorpions (that'll never happen now) Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motley Crue, Kid Rock, Alice Cooper ect. GOOD well known bands that true rockers love and don't get a chance to see all the time.  Rock n America festival is a million times better as line up goes, If you are gonna get  B and C level bands at least make them good bands.  And where the hell is Jackyl? Didn't he hook AEG up with Rocklahoma? Why isn't he playing.  I hope the people stuck with their tickets, (since ROK refuses to offer refunds, even with the date change and genre change) have a good time but I hope AEG fails MISERABLY!!  And warning anyone preticipating in Miss Rocklahoma think twice before doing it! If you win you will be asked to work yer butt off and not be able to enjoy the festival!

  4. Rocks Hard N Ar wrote:

    07:43 AM, Apr 01, 2010

    Joe, you and AEG have ruined ROK for thousands of fans.  You say that you want to take the festival to the next level?  How can you do that by turning your back on thousands of fans of 80's style hard rock?  I can't believe that you thought you could shove a different genre of music on us 80's rock fans!   I don't want to call you stupid, but maybe uninformed.  Don't you know that most of us ROK veterans who love 80's hard rock absolutely hate much of the alt rock genre music?   To many of us, it's not the same type of music, and we rejected it a long time ago.  By pulling this genre reversal, you have made an enemy of thousands of potential customers.    Thanks for all you hard work ruining this festival!

  5. chadinark wrote:

    07:33 AM, Apr 01, 2010

    LOL he says the are paying attention to fan feedback?? Really?? Have you checked the forums at fevertalk.com?? (Catch the Fever's official forum).  It's 99.9% NEGATIVE and if that's any barometer whatsoever of the overall opinion the attendance outcome is not going to be good.  I can't believe this guy has the nerve to say "there’s a lot of ‘80s classic acts out there that are on the road constantly that play every festival, every state fair, every casino every year. Not that they’re bad, but there’s nothing that special about them because everybody has already seen them.."  REALLY?  Because that's EXACTLY what you've managed to turn ROK into, i.e., a festival full of new modern bands that there's NOTHING "special" about and that everyone has already seen or can easily see because they'll be coming to a town near you very soon.  They are 10x more common that the 80's bands so that statement is completely backwards.  Bottom line there is no longer any incentive whatsoever for anyone to travel to ROK and it will now have appeal to locals only.  And in Pryor OK? Good luck with that.

  6. Wordiks wrote:

    05:27 AM, Apr 01, 2010

    I really do hope that Rocklahoma suceeds in whatever it is trying to do here.  I think they are banking on the idea that for every ROK fan who has been there for the last three years and won't be going this year, there will be two new fans of this new music to take their places. They will need the extra money to rebuild the place after the kids destroy it this year. (I bet those wooden benches will burn nicely during Godsmack)  AEG could care less about ROK's fans.  They think they are big and bad enough to get their own new fans.  That's how I took the comment of "We knew the areas that didn’t need fixing and the areas that did need fixing. So it really wasn’t that difficult."   We were too mellow, happy, and faithful to our 80's rock.  We needed to be "fixed" and boy were we.  That's fine.  My money will just go elsewhere.  Good luck ROK!  Oh and btw, Zooamp doesn't think it's too hot in Oklahoma in July, and neither do I!!!

  7. Wordiks wrote:

    05:27 AM, Apr 01, 2010

    I really do hope that Rocklahoma suceeds in whatever it is trying to do here.  I think they are banking on the idea that for every ROK fan who has been there for the last three years and won't be going this year, there will be two new fans of this new music to take their places. They will need the extra money to rebuild the place after the kids destroy it this year. (I bet those wooden benches will burn nicely during Godsmack)  AEG could care less about ROK's fans.  They think they are big and bad enough to get their own new fans.  That's how I took the comment of "We knew the areas that didn’t need fixing and the areas that did need fixing. So it really wasn’t that difficult."   We were too mellow, happy, and faithful to our 80's rock.  We needed to be "fixed" and boy were we.  That's fine.  My money will just go elsewhere.  Good luck ROK!  Oh and btw, Zooamp doesn't think it's too hot in Oklahoma in July, and neither do I!!!

  8. Live Music wrote:

    03:22 PM, Mar 31, 2010

    I also Disagree with Joe. For someone who is 40, you display the thoughtfulness of a greedy youth. AEG has effectively eliminated a Festival that used to draw people from around the World and shifted focus on a 250 - 500 mile area. I have driven from SC to see this great event every year. This year will be my last Pilgrimage, and my gut tells me it is a mistake to go. The majority of these bands have little talent. The instrument work can be learned in a matter of hours. The depth of lyrics is not present. I was really hopeful that AEG could bring some big talent to the table, but this has not occurred. Joe spoke of the appeal of some of the lesser 80s bands not being there, and went out and booked the lesser of the current talent available.  In terms of the event, there are LESS bands, the side stages have less bands and have been given less time to perform.  Less of everything = AEG Festivals

  9. kensog wrote:

    12:54 PM, Mar 31, 2010

    This guy from AEG is a joke. I am surprised he is successful at all.

    Like another poster said, three token 80's bands.

    Most of these new bands haves  all played shows/festivals in Florida at least 3 times in the last two years. And this genius talks about  not wanting bands that are constantly on the road ? Turning this into a corporate event is like letting the government run health care!

  10. Dagger1 wrote:

    08:02 AM, Mar 31, 2010

    I'm amazed at this guy. It was important "to find a balance of classic and the current", and he "would have liked to have seen maybe one or two more classic acts". Really? So 5 classic band out of 40 total would have been considered balanced in your view? I'm not sure what to question more - your judgement or your math. And what about the ethics and total disregard for past customers that renewed by not offering refunds to them when the entire format shifted and it became a new festival? The only thing you kept from the past was the location and the name.  

  11. kansas wrote:

    07:53 AM, Mar 31, 2010

    IMO Rocklahoma as it was is dead.  This festival was unique in the type of music it was dedicated to - and we loved it.  LOVED it!   People came from across the US and from other countries to attend.  Attendance fell off the next 2 years in my opinion because people were somewhat disappointed in the lineups offered.                                                                                                                        The festival you have changed it into is the same music you can see anywhere else and I doubt people will come from everywhere to see it.    Not that the bands are bad - I like most of them, but I'm not attending because it just isn't the mix I want to see.  I'm sure everyone that goes will have a great time, but it definitely is not Rocklahoma.  I'm certainly glad we enjoyed the original Rocklahomas!  RIP

  12. tduke wrote:

    07:04 AM, Mar 31, 2010

    I am let down that there are not more 80s bands scheduled for ROK this year.  Look at the pictures used in the interview above...this is what  ROK fans want more of...not the modern bands on every other tour. However, I am reading there is a new 80s festival for OKC in July.  If this is true, I will definitely be rethinking my summer plans.