DeLuna Fest managing partner Scott Mitchell talks with Pollstar about the multi-day party at Pensacola Beach, Fla., and how quickly it has grown since launching in 2010.
Purely a homegrown festival, Mitchell isn’t building DeLuna all by himself. The entertainment director of Pensacola’s popular Seville Quarter, Mitchell is aided by his wife Emily and this year enlisted local native / Foo Fighters road manager Gus Brandt to book the 2012 edition of the festival.
Speaking of which, the Foos are one of this year’s DeLuna Fest headliners. Scheduled for Sept. 21-23, DeLuna’s lineup also includes headliners Pearl Jam and Zac Brown Band. Also on the bill are Florence & the Machine, Band Of Horses, Jimmy Cliff, Dwight Yoakam, Fitz & The Tantrums, Ben Folds Five, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, Diplo, DJ Jazzy Jeff, The Joy Formidable, The Gaslight Anthem and many, many more.
Clint Aull, Operations Manager (left) and managing partner Scott Mitchell.
Didn’t you run into some opposition when planning the first DeLuna Festival?
The beach is a barrier island. It has two federal parks on both sides and the middle part of it is controlled by what’s called the Santa Rosa Island Authority. It’s kind of a quasi-county commission. The Island Authority is, basically, the city council of the beach. They fight anything if it looks like it’s going to upset the apple cart. It’s all 60-year-olds. Imagine a nursing home and coming in and saying, “We’re going to put a concert in the middle of a nursing home.” And they’re like, “No, you can’t do this.” That, basically, is the way the beach has been run for the last 30 years.
In the ’80s they did concerts three years in a row – ’85, ’86 and ’87. They had Bruce Hornsby & The Range, they had the Starship. These weren’t exactly cutting edge groups but you put a free show anywhere in the South, you’re going to get a lot of people. Toto was the third year. Because it was all free, there were people walking in with their own beer and passing out on the beach. They decided [they] didn’t want to do this, it’s attracting the wrong crowd.
So when these young guys said, “We got this idea. …” they were in diapers when those shows happened. I was there. I said, “Look, they’re never going to let you do it.” In Pensacola, you kind of have to fight through the doubters and the naysayers in everything.
So we had some meetings where they said, “We might let you do this if you get $2 million worth of insurance, this, that and the other.”
But it started off with just a one-day concert. Then it grew to a two-day concert. Then the BP oil spill happened. Obviously that impacted us in a very bad way. But BP threw a lot of money at the beach. So the beach tourism people gave us the money to make it a three-day concert. Last year, we went bigger, tried to get more bands and [it] kind of evolved into the festival. We’ve had almost 80,000 people through the doors in two years and this year we think we’ll break that total again. We expect 30,000 people a day.
Last year we had only one really big recognizable headliner, Linkin Park, who ended up having to cancel for medical reasons about eight days out. We like to call ourselves the “comeback kids” because we’ve come back from not having a great year last year, to … where we think we have the connections. [With] the willingness to go on and not quit, we think we have a chance to really shine in our third year.
No partnerships with national promoters?
We know the people at AEG. I’ve talked to Charlie Walker (C3 Presents) on the phone before we talked to him during our first year. Because we’re such an unknown quantity, we’re in a public beach area that has a lot of governmental control … I think a lot of people said, “Let’s see where this thing grows into before we partner up with some of these people we don’t really know.”
The good news is we think we have a successful event and we like having the control. We say, “We want to book Joan Jett.” And most people said, “Why are you booking Joan Jett?” “Well Gus [Brandt] says, ‘Dave Grohl loves Joan Jett and she’s doing Lollapalooza in South America with us,’ and I think we should book Joan Jett.” That kind of logic doesn’t fly with the big Live Nations and AEGs of the world.
Sounds like a lot of feelings and emotions go into setting your lineup.
Absolutely. My wife [Emily] has her master’s in the history of country music and folklore from Western Kentucky [University]. It’s the only place in America that degree is given on a master’s level. She is a huge country music fan. Matter of fact, we were at Dollywood this weekend because my wife loves Dolly Parton. Obviously, Parton doesn’t really fit the festival music market. But my wife was instrumental … She held her ground that we need a country headliner. We went after Zac Brown when some of the other people might have said, “No, stick with rock.”
Zac Brown was extremely well-received in the Southeast, and now he has a No. 1 album, so it’s kind of helping [the] balance. Pensacola is in northwest Florida, in the panhandle, I’m 19 miles from Alabama. To ignore country [music] you ignore a huge part of the market. We had country the first year – Dierks Bentley and Willie Nelson and a couple of smaller acts. We didn’t have any country last year and that was the reason for people being negative.
Yeah, there’s a lot of passion. I fought hard for Jimmy Cliff. I’m a huge Jimmy Cliff fan. I wouldn’t consider myself a reggae fan, but I love Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley. Jimmy Cliff’s the greatest living reggae artist there is right now. If he’s out touring and he can play Coachella, then he should be at DeLuna Fest on the white sands of Pensacola Beach. It’s a natural. So guess who’s playing two slots ahead of the Foo Fighters on Saturday? Jimmy Cliff and it’s going to be huge … because I think everybody who loves the Foo Fighters is going to love Jimmy Cliff.
“A lot of people figured a little mom-and-pop music festival could never make it. … We’re kind of like underdogs. We’re a little scrappy about it.”
How many stages are you running?
Four stages. Two on the beach – the main stage – and, because a lot of people in Pensacola are big jazz fans, we have a whole stage dedicated to that kind of New Orleans Jazz Fest vibe. We have Rebirth Brass Band this year, Kermit Ruffins & The Barbecue Swingers, Bonerama. … If you’ve ever watched the show “Treme” on HBO, we had seven bands from “Treme” last year, we have six bands from “Treme” this year. All those bands have played Jazz Fest every year, so we’re trying to bring a little Jazz Fest to Pensacola Beach.
It’s a much smaller stage. Obviously, Kermit Ruffins doesn’t cost as much as Zach Brown or the Foo Fighters, but it’s a great component … There’s a whole component on the fourth stage of kind of a New Orleans vibe.
Do your main stage performances ever overlap?
We have a main stage on the beach and a secondary stage, which is about 75 percent as big as the main stage, in the parking lot and they do not overlap.
There are four stages, two playing at all times, and they’re far enough away that they don’t step on top of each other. ... Lollapalooza, what a nightmare that is, they had Coldplay, Girl Talk and Muse all playing last year at the same time. How do you decide where to go?
So our festival isn’t big enough that you’re going to miss [a performance]. If you want to see Florence & The Machine and Zac Brown, you’ll have to walk about three minutes to be in front of each stage.
Were you a fan of music festivals before your involvement with DeLuna Fest?
Absolutely. I don’t think anybody should be in the festival business unless they’re a festival fan. I’ve gone to Jazz Fest 15, 16 straight years. I went to Lollapalooza in the ’90s when it was still a traveling show. I’ve been to the regular Lollapalooza in Chicago, which I have nothing but respect for. I mean, you talk about the Super Bowl of music festivals, incredible. I’ve been to BamaJam, Hangout Festival; I’ve been to a lot of the ones here in the Southeast. My wife has been to a lot of bluegrass and country festivals. I think you’d be crazy to get into the festival business if you weren’t a fan of them.
Unfortunately, we don’t get to enjoy our own festivals. It’s kind of like a wedding. They say your favorite wedding you’ve ever been to is always the one after yours.
We went to BamaJam, we worked out a trade thing and they’re going to come to our festival. BamaJam is in Enterprise, Ala.,. They’ve had Tim McGraw, Zac Brown Band, Kid Rock … Because you build a relationship with people, we share a lot of the same vendors. They said, “OK. We’re going to set you guys up.”
And we had the time of our lives at BamaJam. Mainly because it wasn’t our festival, it wasn’t our problem.
When you first started planning DeLuna Fest, did you and your wife approach it from a fan’s viewpoint or did you see it through a promoter’s eyes?
Really kind of both. I’ve booked music on a smaller scale in Pensacola for over 20 years. I had been to a lot of bigger events and I didn’t understand why [you] couldn’t do some of those things here. Obviously on a smaller scale, you can’t charge Manhattan prices in Pensacola. I understand that.
It’s been a challenge to try and prove people wrong. People said, “You can’t do it on the beach.” And when you said you can do it on the beach, they [said] “You’re going to hurt the beach.” Of course we have to put all kinds of safeties, controls and bonds to make sure we don’t hurt the dunes. Department Of Environmental Protection permits and things like that. We had a lot of “You can’t do that. You’ll never get the Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam to come.”
I met with some financial backers and said, “Look, I’ve got this possibility to make this happen. I need you guys to believe in us.” And the first things some of them said was, “You’ll never make it happen.” The ones who believed in us, when it did happen, they smiled. And the ones who said it would never happen, now they’re asking me for tickets. That just the way the world works.
We move mountains. That’s what I tell my staff all the time. We do more with less, we move mountains to try and make things happen. A lot of people figured a little mom-and-pop music festival could never make it. But we think we have a good chance to do really well this year. We’re kind of like underdogs. We’re a little scrappy about it.
How many people does it take to run DeLuna Fest?
We have an in-house staff of 12. Plus we have Mason Jar Media, Crissa Requate and her staff, they work out of Asheville. I have a social media consultant out of Los Angeles. I got a lot of people, I hired their companies to come onboard and be a part of the team.
To actually do the physical build-out? We have staging companies and sound companies that we subcontract with. We have a contingency of Marine volunteers to come do some of the setup labor in return for donations to their graduation ball. To actually run the festival, my last operations meeting had 150 volunteers from different civic groups to work the beverage booths and different areas, [such as] artist check-ins. Some of them get tips, some of them get straight donations to their charitable organizations as a reward. We’re talking management-level people, like the Jaycees. We’ve got Mardi Gras crews, all kinds of people that want to be a part of this. The trade is they work one day, they get a festival tickets for two days. There are a lot of volunteer people. Of course, when you bring out three big headliners … everybody wants to get onboard.
What do you think sets DeLuna Festival apart from other Florida festivals?
I don’t think there really are any other Florida festivals until you get to South Florida. There are some great festivals at Suwannee River Park and those kinds of festivals, Sunfest that AEG does in South Florida, those are all great events. But there’s nothing in Florida, until you get to the bend, that’s like DeLuna Fest.
Considering your location near Florida’s northern border, with the exception of people within 100 miles or so, where are you drawing your audience from?
We have sold tickets in all 50 states and in 14 countries. We’ve sold tickets in Israel, in Brazil. We use Front Gate Tickets out of Austin where we can track by name and zip code of every person who has bought a ticket. We sold 46 states really fast and then took a few weeks to get the last four --- Maine, Hawaii, Alaska and South Dakota.
So we’ve drawn a lot of tickets from outside the area. That being said, no festival can work unless the locals, in general, within a 100-mile driving range, support the festival. If I drew 5,000 people from all over the world but didn’t have 25,000 locals, my festival would flop.
The thing that’s interesting is when you know you’re selling tickets in Brazil or Australia, when you know people are committing to coming from that far away, then you have a pretty good indication that the person who’s 20 miles away will probably get off his butt and buy tickets before it’s all over.
We’ve sold every room on Pensacola Beach. You can’t get a room. There are very few condos left. Everybody’s getting a three-night minimum. We’ve done what we’ve wanted to do in the beginning which is to have a significant economic impact for our beach.
“The real star of DeLuna Fest is Pensacola Beach. Headliners come and go … but the beach is really the star."
We basically announced, and were working on building the first DeLuna Fest when the BP oil spill happened. We had to fight that whole summer, the worst summer in Pensacola Beach’s history in the last 30 years, where they had less than 50 percent occupancy all summer long when you usually have 100 percent. We fought our way through it. I tell people all the time, “The real star of DeLuna Fest is Pensacola Beach. Headliners come and go … but the beach is really the star."
Just like Jazz Fest. I’ve gone for many years but I don’t care if the headliner is Jimmy Buffett or Bruce Springsteen, I go to Jazz Fest for New Orleans and the great experience. This is the kind of festival we want to do. Come to the beach, get a room, get a condo, park your car and really never have to leave. We are doing trolleys from downtown. The beach can only hold so many people to stay overnight. When we did the Blue Angels show two weeks ago, they fill that beach to the brim. People drive from all over the country to see the Blue Angels right there on the water. If you ever said you want to find a fun trip, come to Pensacola Beach for the Blue Angels show … You can sit in the water and drink a beer and have a $65 million F18 fly right over you.
Is this the first year you’ve sold DeLuna tickets on installment plans?
Yes. To be honest with you, it hasn’t been used as much as we anticipated. We didn’t want to go to installments until we were past the advance pricing. A lot of people bought their tickets early, I guess, the ones really concerned with the value. I would say right now, one out of 20 is using the installment plan.
Next year we’ll probably offer the installment plan a lot sooner. It’s hard to make the financials work when you’re discounting the ticket to half price and you’re letting them pay a quarter of it. People don’t understand … the bands want their money up front … Staging companies want to be paid up front.
My wife and I joke all the time that we didn’t intend to be a non-profit. It wasn’t our choice for DeLuna Fest to be a nonprofit the first two years. This year we will be a for-profit corporation.
Other than your company and the people you work with, how much does Pensacola stand to gain financially with DeLuna Fest?
There’s a general economic multiplier effect. Hangout is a very similar festival to ours, its right across the border in Alabama. They claim for 2011 they had a $30 million impact and we think we’re on track to do the same thing.
The good news is the third year is the charm for us. This is the year to make all the dreams come true and make everything happen. There was a lot of promise the first year, there were a little bit of setbacks last year that we kind of overcome. This is the year that we break through. Obviously, our lineup is a big part of it. We’re maturing as a festival. Lollapalooza took 20 years to become the Super Bowl. Maybe they did it in half. In 10 years we will be on the tips of people’s tongues. … It takes time to build your brand. And the bones of what we’re building on – Pensacola Beach – the fact that our area is still gorgeous in September. It’s still a beach town, it’s still hot, but it’s not 100 degrees hot like it is in the middle of the summer. We think we have a good thing going on. We’re finally winning over the doubters, the governmental bodies and the financial backers.
What advice could you give a local promoter who’s planning that very first festival?
Definitely have a long-term plan. Don’t let the spreadsheet dazzle you. … Don’t start punching in if you sell 100 percent capacity what the revenue numbers [will be]. I know if we’d done 30,000 people instead of 17,000 people the first year I could say exactly how much money I would have made instead of how much money I lost. You get those Excel spreadsheets, start punching in numbers and your mind runs a little ahead of yourself on how much it could be, then you make mistakes.
Everybody told me, “Oh, no, music festivals never make money until the third year.” And I thought I was smarter than them. I’ve learned in my third year that they were smarter than I was.
“This is the year to make all the dreams come true and make everything happen.”
Three-day general admission passes for DeLuna Fest are still available. For the best way to experience this year’s event, check out DeLuna Fest’s VIP Beach Club which includes front of stage viewing of the main and second stages, exclusive access to the DeLuna Fest VIP Beach Club Lounge, premium food and cocktail choices and private, air-conditioned bathrooms. For more information on DeLuna Fest 2012, please click here for the official website.