Red Sky Music Festival is over

From the pages of the Omaha World-Herald.

Goodbye, Red Sky Music Festival.

Thousands endured the blazing sun to watch your bands. Others cursed your name because you didn’t book their favorite artist. Through it all, many danced on the parking lot pavement and rocked out in the ballfield grass while artists such as Def Leppard, 311 and Brad Paisley played the main stage at TD Ameritrade Park in north downtown.

You had your struggles. Now you’re history.

After two years and some stumbles, including twice changing dates without any announcement, organizers announced the end of the festival on Friday afternoon. People behind festivals will tell you they’re tough to stage, and Red Sky isn’t the only one to fold after only a few years.

Though Red Sky is going away, nearby businesses remain hopeful that more events will be booked at the ballpark and expressed the belief that north downtown still is emerging as a go-to place for Omahans looking for a night out.

In the press release announcing the festival’s demise, the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority promised more concerts at the ballpark even if they’re not in a festival format. Officials said they will have more flexibility in booking if they’re not trying to sandwich artists into just a few days in July.

MECA and its festival partner, Live Nation, cited the difficulty of scheduling artists around summer tour schedules as well as July’s typically blistering heat. Representatives from MECA and Live Nation did not return phone calls Friday.

“We have a positive relationship with Live Nation, and both sides worked very hard to make Red Sky a success,” MECA president Roger Dixon said in the press release. “We will continue to work together to bring great shows to Omaha.”

Joe Gudenrath of the Downtown Omaha Improvement District said downtown will continue to have plenty of events, whether they’re at the CenturyLink Center, the ballpark or venues such as Slowdown, the Blue Barn Theatre, the Durham Museum and a variety of other places.

Given MECA’s track record, he said, he’s sure it will continue to book solid events.

“I don’t think this creates any conclusive evidence of what will or what will not work downtown,” Gudenrath said.

One ballpark neighbor, however, predicted that the demise of Red Sky will have an effect on his business.

Special events drive traffic at a lot of the restaurants and retail shops near the ballpark, said Anthony Hitchcock, director of operations for Flagship Restaurant Group, which operates Blatt Beer & Table across the street from the ballpark.

Blatt was packed during the College World Series, and north downtown events, especially those at the ballpark, always drive business.

“Any time an event around this area cancels, it affects business,” Hitchcock said. “I think any time, no matter where you are in the city, if there’s events near you and they cancel the events, that’s not good. People like to drink a couple beers and consume some food before they go.”

When it was first announced, Red Sky aimed big. Organizers wanted it to be Omaha’s version of Milwaukee’s Summerfest, which boasted more than 805,000 visitors over 11 days this year. Many thought a music festival was a good use for the ballpark, which some feared would be empty aside from the College World Series.

Off the bat, Red Sky experienced problems.

In 2011, the festival changed dates, announced the lineup piecemeal and trimmed the schedule to five days from six. An estimated 80,000 people attended, but many complained about the lineup and about excessive July heat.

The missteps continued this year. Acts were announced prematurely, further announcements were delayed for more than a month and organizers trimmed the event from six days to four.

Ultimately, it featured only three headliners with a one-day gap in the middle, which fans said slowed momentum.

Sean Purcell of Omaha attended Red Sky both years. He went to almost every show at the ballpark, but skipped bands scheduled during the day. He had to work, he said, plus it was unbearably hot both years.

“Overall, I don’t think they did a good job getting the right bands,” he said. “I don’t think MECA does their job correctly. They have to realize they’re missing the boat. It was like a ‘go big or go home’ kind of thing, and it looked like they weren’t even trying.”

Purcell said he had fun at a lot of the shows, but stumbles such as having a day without performances in the middle of the festival made no sense. He has been to popular festivals such as Lollapalooza in Chicago and Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tenn., and felt like Red Sky didn’t live up to its potential.

It’s tough for music festivals to make it past the first few years. In 1999, Coachella’s first year, the California festival lost a lot of money and canceled its second year. It’s now one of the biggest fests in the country.

Similarly, Kanrocksas debuted in 2011 outside Kansas City but skipped 2012, citing renovations of its venue. There was talk in the music industry that the festival had lost millions of dollars. Planners say it’s coming back in 2013.

The reality is that music festivals can cost millions to stage, and there’s a very real risk of losing millions.

“It’s a risky proposition and there’s no guarantee of success,” said Tre Brashear of Maha Music Festival, an indie-rock fest that started in 2009 and drew more than 4,300 to Aksarben Village this year.

Simply adding the word “festival” to your event makes artists charge more to play, Brashear said, and that pushes up costs rapidly. Promoters have to sell lots of tickets and lock up sponsorships with large corporations to break even.

“It’s a mixed blessing to say you’re putting on a festival,” he said. “(Maha) struggles with finding people to play and to play at the right price, and they (Red Sky) were doing it at a much bigger scale.”

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