Historically, there have been surer ways for a music promoter to make a buck than by betting on Cincinnati. In its first three years, 2012–2014, Bunbury Music Festival was met with mild excitement and modest crowds, neither of which seemed enough to prevent it from going the way of Tall Stacks and Desdemona, two interesting music-fest concepts stationed at Sawyer Point that didn’t last. There were arguments for why Bunbury stalled: The likes of Weezer, Belle & Sebastian, and Flaming Lips weren’t enticing enough draws. The lack of diversity among artists. Locals content to take a short trip to Louisville for the similarly sized, second-tier “boutique” Forecastle, or to drive a little farther for a larger, first-tier “mega” festival like Lollapalooza in Chicago or Bonnaroo in Tennessee.
But then something weird happened down on the river last year: Cincinnati gave Bunbury a big ol’ hometown hug. The three-day attendance for the festival approached 60,000, more than doubling the 2013 total. Friday sold out at 20,000, and Saturday was close behind.
“I think it’s grown into one of the major boutique festivals in the country,” says Scott Stienecker, president and CEO of PromoWest Productions, which now owns and operates Bunbury. “The size of the artists continues to grow each year. We’re getting bands saying, Can we play Bunbury? It’s there. We made it.”
PromoWest, a Columbus rock promoter, purchased Bunbury from founder Bill Donabedian in November 2014. (Donabedian maintains a minority-ownership stake in Bunbury, but won’t disclose terms of the sale.) There were rumors at the time in the smallish, gossipy Cincinnati music-biz community that Bunbury was taking a beating financially, prodding Donabedian to secure a bailout. He denies the picture was that grim, saying instead that selling to a bigger player in the region was merely the natural progression.
“There was an initial vision, and it took a company like PromoWest with its leverage in the industry to get it there,” he says. “It’s kind of like football, when a team is driving down the field using a smaller, more agile running back, and then they get down to the two- or three-yard line, and out comes the big back, and they pummel it up the middle.”
It was a savvy business opportunity for Stienecker as well. Generally, when a festival books a band, the contract stipulates that the artists cannot play a show within a certain number of miles and days of the festival appearance—what’s called a radius clause. Had a competitor bought Bunbury, it would have prevented Stienecker from booking each year’s lineup in the Columbus market for that summer.
The purchase paid off—PromoWest landed big names and claims Bunbury turned a profit last year—but the success brings new challenges. Fueled by performances by the Black Keys, Snoop Dogg, Twenty One Pilots, and hometown faves Walk The Moon, Bunbury is not only on the radar of more and more bands, but also the mega-fests, which draw crowds four or five times the size of Bunbury. “You got Bonnaroo now that’s awakened,” says Stienecker. “They’ve put Cincinnati in their radius clause, so we definitely made a statement last year with our lineup, and then again this year.” Topping the bill on June 3–5 are the Killers, Florence + the Machine, Ice Cube, and Tom Petty’s Mudcrutch. The blueprint is in place, but a max daily crowd of 20,000 at Sawyer Point also limits growth opportunities; there’s no room for Bunbury to go mega. Unless it looks 16 miles north to Blue Ash.
That’s the site of this year’s Buckle Up Festival, the two-day, country-music-focused fest that Donabedian packaged and sold with Bunbury to PromoWest. The new ownership promptly moved it to Summit Park, which Stienecker believes could hold up to 60,000 people a day. Perhaps it’s a test run for moving Bunbury to the burbs in 2017? That’s another one of those Cincinnati music rumors.
“We’re really sold on Bunbury’s current location,” says Stienecker on Sawyer Point. “It’s a huge key to it. When you go to the festival, you go for the artists, but you also go for the feel.”
Though ever the shrewd businessman, he’s careful not to speak in absolutes, either. “There are people saying, Well, if you move it you could do a lot more people,” he adds. “Yeah, we understand. We’ll take a look at that.”