Change of Pace
RiverRoots Music & Folk Art festival
to get rebooted
VisitMadison Inc. is working to change
its music format for 2020
(August 2019) – After a 14-year run, RiverRoots Music and Folk Art Festival has come to an end. VisitMadison Inc., Madison, Ind.’s tourism office that owns the event, decided to pull the plug on the annual two-day festival at Madison Bicentennial Park because it never managed to turn a profit. Officials blamed the poor turnout on bad weather for many years and also on the type of music it featured.
But plans are already under way to continue holding a music festival that same second weekend in June. VisitMadison Inc. board members began discussions with longtime volunteer of the RiverRoots committee late last year about what changes needed to be made to make the event financially successful.
The Chautauqua, entering its 49th year, is Madison’s largest event of the summer season.
Tawana Thomas, who came on board as VMI’s executive director in November 2016, did an analysis of RiverRoots and found it had never made a profit, and only broke even on two of the 14 festivals over the years. The event lost $48,345 in the past four years alone.
“That’s a loss of $10,000 a year, and we have to stop the bleeding,” Thomas said during a July 26 interview. “RiverRoots has a great group of people on its committee, and they are working to come up with another strategy for next year. But here at VisitMadison, we are all about the visitor experience, and we must be responsible about how we handle our resources. We can’t keep pouring resources into an event that consistently loses money. So we are rebooting the festival, not ending it.”
Several ideas have been discussed for changing the type of music for the event. They include country music, classic rock or tribute bands that play songs of a particular famous band. The committee and board must decide on a music format by October in order to have enough time to hire bands, secure sponsors and complete other tasks for staging a two-day festival on June 12-13, 2020.
A big question that remains unanswered is what will happen to the popular winter and spring RiverRoots Music Series, which brings national acts to Madison once a month from February through May, leading up to the June festival. The music series, which is technically presented by a separate entity, the 501c3 nonprofit Ohio River Valley Folk Society, has expanded over its five-year existence to include musical workshops and children’s shows in the local schools. Members had planned to expand again next year with shows at local nursing homes. With this change in music format, it is unclear if the winter music series will continue, since the money raised was designed to support the festival, according to Tony Novello, a RiverRoots committee member.
Novello said he did not attend the recent meeting with Thomas and VMI board members where discussions took place about a wholesale change in the festival’s music format. “I only learned of it yesterday,” he said. “They own the event, so if they want to change it, there’s nothing we can do about it. And it’s way too early to say what will happen to the music series. I would hate to see it end because it was a great part of the local music scene and brought a lot of national acts to Madison.”
The late John Walburn is largely responsible for founding RiverRoots back in 2005. He directed the event until his untimely death on Nov. 12, 2010. Local musician Greg Ziesemer took over midyear and guided the festival committee until 2016, when he was replaced after that year’s festival by Dan Williams of Cincinnati.
Ziesemer’s tenure was impacted by several years of bad weather on festival weekend, resulting in poor turnout. As a result, Williams and his committee decided to move the event from mid-May to early June, beginning in 2018. The festival continued to battle rain and sometimes cold, but managed to increase its crowd size in the warmer month. But it still lost money, drawing an estimated 1,500 people over two days.
Earlier this year, Thomas and her board restructured how Madison’s three festivals are managed by firing Williams and Madison Chautauqua co-coordinators Amy Fischmer and Jenny Straub, whose tenure will end after this year’s Chautauqua is over. Madison Ribberfest coordinator of 16 years, Kathy Ayers, had already resigned her position last December. Thomas and her board decided to instead hire two part-time employees and bring the festival coordination in-house. Those two new employees – Katie Burress and Holly Love – started their jobs in June after this year’s RiverRoots festival.
This year’s Ribberfest is being managed in-house, however, this year’s Chautauqua on Sept. 28-29 will still be managed by Fischmer and Straub.
After Chautauqua is over, VMI board members will meet with the Chautauqua committee to discuss the event’s future. The committee has requested that the event be removed from VMI’s control so that the committee can own and operate the Chautauqua as a separate entity, with its own nonprofit status.
Thomas said a decision on that will be made after this year’s art festival is over. If the request is denied, then next year’s Chautauqua will be managed in-house by VMI staff but in conjunction with the volunteer committee, she said.
Back to August 2019 Articles.