Wakarusa organizers reflect on concert

Promoters prepare to adapt music festival for next year

Two days after last weekend's Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival wrapped up its successful debut, it was announced that this summer's Lollapalooza tour had been canceled due to poor ticket sales.

The news emphasized how difficult it is for even an event as established and well-respected as Lollapalooza to remain viable. And it also underscored just how impressive an achievement it was that Wakarusa did well enough that organizers already are planning next year's festival.

"Overall, it went really well," says Nate Prenger, Wakarusa co-director. "We're getting nothing but positive comments from our patrons. With a year of planning, we feel like we can produce an even better event."

Officials estimate the paid attendance of the four-day concert to be around 7,500. But issues of counterfeit tickets and scalping cause that total to be somewhat misleading.

"That's a pretty safe number -- through the turnstiles that's what we're looking at," says co-director Brett Mosiman, one of four principal organizers of the event. "But I'm not saying there weren't 12,000 people in the campgrounds. If you went out to the campgrounds, it looked like Cambodia out there: hill after hill after hill."

The most unexpected thing about the attendance total was how few were actually from the region.

"We didn't get ANY walk-up," Mosiman says. "I don't know why, but everybody there was from the East Coast, Colorado or California. I would say only 20 percent (were from around Kansas)."

Mosiman mentions his staff at the gates counted 38 license plates from different states to enter Clinton State Park.

Aside from a lone snakebite, the big news was the LACK of injuries, crimes, arrests or other problems associated with large-scale gatherings.

"We didn't get any noise complaints, we didn't get any trash complaints, we didn't get any traffic complaints," Mosiman says. "The only thing was chiggers. And you know why they were such a big problem? Because the people were all from out of state and they didn't know chiggers existed.

"The first thing I noticed on Thursday night were these morons hadn't brought their blankets. They were just laying on the grass and waiting to be pincushioned."

Lessons learned

"A 24-hour-event is a little bit of a different animal than your normal concerts that we're used to," Prenger says. "I think we did a good job responding to it, but we're going to need to make some adjustments for next year, so we're not all burned out by the weekend."

Changes planned for the 2005 festival include:

l Band sets will be longer.

l More bands will perform multiple sets ("because they all wanted to stick around the whole weekend anyway," Mosiman says).

l A coffeehouse stage will be introduced to cater to afternoon and late-night crowds.

l An encoded ticket or hologram bracelet will be used to discourage counterfeiting.

l No one will be able to get into the park without a ticket. (That was supposed to be the policy this year but it wasn't always enforced, which led to thousands of additional folks camping but not entering the concert field.)

l The festival will staff different day and night crews to accommodate the around-the-clock work hours.

Sound alternative

No date is set yet for the 2005 Wakarusa Festival. But the philosophy that led to choosing this year's date will be completely revised.

Organizers originally aimed for mid-June because it was so close to the enormous Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee that routinely draws 100,000. The idea was that the lineup of artists were already on tour and could easily shift from Bonnaroo to Wakarusa. While that held true for a number of performers, it didn't carry over to exhausted concert-goers asked to indulge in back-to-back festivals.

Mosiman asserts, "We had lots of kids from Massachusetts and South Carolina saying, 'This is the anti-Bonnaroo. We love it!'"

Now Wakarusa is going to play up that alternative angle.

"We heard a thousand comments that Bonnaroo sucked," he says. "It was too hot, too crowded, too filthy, too dangerous. I think our main job now is to keep this anti-corporate, anti-'big' theme going."

Although he says it's possible that Wakarusa will do triple the business next year based on positive word of mouth, he doesn't expect it to get too out of control.

"Although the park could handle 60,000, I think we'll always cap it at 30,000," he says.

Good vibrations

Not to be overlooked in this numbers game is what a general positive experience the gathering cultivated on a musical and social level.

Mosiman points to highlights such as when O.A.R. and Robert Randolph played to thousands of people. After Saturday night's closing show, members of Leftover Salmon and Shanti Groove went to the Sundown stage and jammed for huge audiences until 6 a.m. And at noon on Sunday an Indian spirit dancer performed with The Samples, adding a spiritual inspiration to the set.

"I'm a kind of a jaded person now," Mosiman says. "I don't like the world I live in when nobody takes responsibility for themselves. I feel like we're in a constant 'Springer' episode half the time. But I really saw a bunch of stuff that kind of renewed my faith and hope in humanity. These crowds were so respectful of not just each other, but of Mother Earth and (the Wakarusa staff). You'd tell them, 'No,' and they'd say, 'OK.'

"Go check out Warped Tour next year and see if THAT happens."

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