Death of a FEST – How Marshall’s FEST 3 Turned Into an Empty Mess.

-by Todd Keffer II-

The year 2017 has brought up some interesting news stories around festivals. Whether it’s about the stranded millennials at Frye’s Fest, the cheese fest that ran out of cheese in England, or the truly saddening news of the end of the nation-wide festival Warped Tour, there’s plenty to poke fun at or feel bad about, depending on which side of the fence you stand on.

None of these stories hit as hard to this writer as what happened in 2016 in Huntington, West Virginia. A Marshall University sponsored event called FEST was planned to take place on October 7th in the Joan C. Edwards stadium, with artists such as Justine Skyes, Jana Kramer, and Cash Cash as the main national acts, with local acts A Story Told, Of The Dell, Basie, and $lump Gang opening up for them. Even the most cynical of critics couldn’t have foreseen the events that would shape FEST 3 into one of the most stressful and disappointing ventures Marshall University had taken under its wing.

“FEST is an re-invention of Spring Fest, which took place at Marshall University in the late 1980's to the early 1990's,” according to the FEST landing page. The first FEST was held on April 25, 2015 with Ying Yang Twins (a rap duo with the hits “Wait (The Whisper Song)” and “Salt Shaker”) as headliners, with local acts opening up for them.

FEST 2 took place on September 15, 2015 and brought in 3OH3!, We The Kings, and others for the mainstage, while local bands Ona, A Story Told, Time & Distance, and others played on the second stage across from them. It was no secret that a lot of students thought FEST was a joke by this point, as Ohio University and West Virginia University have been doing their Fall Fest for years, bringing in more relevant artists such as Wiz Khalifa, Mac Miller, Cold War Kids, and Cage The Elephant. A lot of students would take to social media and complain about the lineup for FEST every year, not understanding why Marshall couldn’t book bigger musicians. It all comes to one word: money.

From talking to Anthony Bady (one of the interns and more public faces of FEST 3), it sounded like money was a problem from the start. “It was at the time, if my memory serves me correct,” Anthony recalls over the telephone, “a budget issue, to my knowledge, put out. We didn’t know how large our budget was in the beginning. In the first two to three weeks, we got a somewhat ballpark of our budget, but they encouraged us to go out and get sponsors.”

Anthony's (along with a couple other members) first job in the summer was to get sponsors from local business to help financially support FEST and hopefully increase their budget so that Marshall could get bigger acts.

Looking at the FEST 3 Information packet used to sell sponsorship spots, it revealed that the students were trying to sell local companies on something big; something ridiculously, unrealistically big. The first thing someone would notice when reading this packet was that they were selling the idea of FEST 3 and it being a big deal. Moving from the Harris Riverfront Park, the organization decided to use half of Joan C. Edwards stadium to host the event. In the packet, they were trying to capitalize on this by saying, “With the new venue for FEST 3, the nationally known artist options has more than tripled.”

The second thing one would notice is that they really focused on the “12,000” people aspect of the venue capacity. Throughout the packet, that number appeared numerous times, trying to hammer on the point that there could be 12,000 people attending this event, and that they would see your company’s name and logo on it.

The final thing that was strange about the sponsorship packet is that there were no references to either FEST or FEST 2 and no information about their performance or past sponsorships, even though the packet is clearly talking about a “FEST 3.”

Let’s talk about numbers for a moment. On their official website, they claim that FEST 1 brought in around 373 people while FEST 2 brought in over 1,800. These are good numbers for a small festival starting out, but the jump to a 12,000 person venue seems like overkill. In a more realistic timeline parallel to our own, you could perhaps see a FEST 3 pulling in 3,600-5,000 at most. You don’t need to be a math magician to say it’s pretty unreasonable to expect the audience attendance will multiply by 6.66 in a single year.

To put it in perspective, Huntington’s Big Sandy Superstore Arena can hold up to 9,000 attendees during a concert, and they have hosted big names in mainstream country and rock like Godsmack and Avenged Sevenfold, as well as legacy acts like Styx & KISS. Even with these acts, Big Sandy still has trouble filling in all of those 9,000 seats. To see a small organization with nowhere near the capital that Big Sandy has attempting to do something on that scale is insane. And seeing how there are no names or mentions of sponsors anywhere, potential sponsors probably thought so too.

On August 31st, the FEST 3 lineup was announced. FEST 3 took a chance and decided to bring in up-and-coming acts Justine Skyes, Jana Kramer, and Cash Cash, as well as A Story Told and other established local acts. The announcement was met with a staggering amount of moans, groans, and questions.

“We could have gotten one big, solid act, but there wouldn’t be enough enough money to divvy out to those smaller acts,” said Anthony. The FEST organizers wanted FEST 3 to include artists of all different types, so there was something for everyone.

One of the first interesting things was the separation of students and the Huntington community. Looking at the information packet again, you can see that for $15, non-Marshall students would be admitted in the general admission area (in the stands and to the left and right of the stage) or for $30 be in the “chair backed seating” section that was in front of the stage.

$20 field access tickets were only available to students with valid university ID's. According to Anthony, they wanted to take care of Marshall’s students first and foremost, making sure they had an opportunity to be close to the music, since it was their tuition that was helping make FEST possible. Leading up to FEST 3 though, it was clear things weren’t going the way they wanted. Ticket sales were very low, and as October 7th was starting to come around the corner, the stress for everyone was mounting by the day.

Around September 26-27th, a post was made on the FEST 3 Facebook event page, talking about the director of FEST. The post was weird, seeming to be out of the blue, and was further compounded when it was announced on September 30th that there was going to be a change in directors, as well as a new line up change. When asked, Anthony wasn’t quite sure what the reason the director stepped down, but speculates that it was a combination of FEST's struggling performance and personal issues in the director's private life.

It was also revealed that Jana Kramer would be dropping out of FEST, since she believed she was going to move forward in the celebrity competition show “Dancing With The Stars.” According to Anthony, a committee that was monitoring FEST 3 stepped in to try to salvage the event. At this point, every decision was out of the interns' hands. The committee would continue to drop $lump Gang, Basie, and A Story Told from the lineup and added Ona to try to help ticket sales.

According to Of The Dell, the only local band that wasn’t dropped, they didn’t even know about the line up changes until a couple of hours before they played. The ticket prices were also dropped from $20, to $10, to free for the first 200 Marshall students, all within a matter of minutes. From what the Marshall Maniacs Twitter account implies, it seems that someone (or a company) bought 200 tickets to help get FEST over the financial hump and get more people to the show.

The backlash from these decisions made by the committee were huge. Students that had already bought tickets to FEST were angry to learn that some of the artists they had paid to see weren’t playing anymore, and that the only reimbursement for spending $10 to $20 more than everyone else who chose to go to the event at a later date was to receive two free tickets.

An admin on the FEST Facebook page tried to do damage control by giving A Story Told fans a free ticket if they mentioned the band's name at Marshall’s box office, but this only resulted in people calling them out for exploiting a band they just dropped for Marshall’s own gain. A Story Told eventually retaliated by hosting a free, packed show on the same night and time as FEST, bringing along Basie and other local bands.

Finaly, when the day of FEST 3 arrived, and as Anthony recalls, everyone involved was just ready to move on from the event. To recap: the first FEST had 373 people in attendance and FEST 2 had over 1,800 people in attendance. While there aren’t any hard numbers or many pictures of the crowd at FEST 3 (Huntington based newspaper Herald Dispatch did an article about the event, but didn’t mention anything about crowd size or even have pictures of the national acts), it's safe to speculate that there was less people there than for the first FEST at a venue that could host 12,000 audience members. Looking at the official FEST Twitter account, they finally decided to let everyone on the field, as long as they had a ticket, after Of The Dell played their set.

And just like that, FEST 3 came and went away.

Anthony, who is now at Michigan State University pursuing his MBA, still feels guilty for how FEST 3 went, especially concerning the dropping of the local bands. “I take personal responsibility. Even though I didn’t have the final say, I still could have made more noise, saying, “Hey, this is wrong. We shouldn’t be doing this.’”

He went on to say that it gave a bad impression of Marshall’s new slogan, “Sons and Daughters of Marshall” (formerly “Best.Decision.Ever” up till the summer of 2017.) “I love the pitch of saying that we are a family... [There couldn't be a worse] of way of not representing that [sic] by pushing off or offending a group of people and band culture that you very well may need to tap into later down the line, and for that, I’m super apologetic to every single band.”

When writing this story, I tried to approach the College Activities Board (known as CAB) at Marshall University about speaking to someone involved FEST 3, to only realize that the organization had disbanded. I sent multiple emails to Marshall’s Artist Series and to a representative of Marshall’s Student Involvement/Fraternity and Sorority Life, asking if they could help me find someone who was involved in FEST 3 who could answer some of my questions regarding the event. The only thing close to a response that I got was seeing that the email was forwarded to one of the higher ups of FEST 3, who I’d also been trying to get in contact with for weeks.

Just about everything to do with FEST 3 has been cleared off of social media at this point, apart from the event's official Twitter account. The event page of FEST 3 on Facebook has been deleted, along with the fan page itself, even though the FEST 2 event page is still up. There was probably an Instagram page at some point that has also either been deleted or abandoned like the event's Youtube page. It feels like someone really wanted to forget FEST 3 ever happened and tried their best to make it so. During my research for this article, there was a mention of a “FEST 2018” on everfest.com, though the website acknowledges that “festival may no longer be running.”

 

It’s a shame that they feel that way, as this writer believes our past can make us stronger. Whether it was something traumatic, embarrassing, or just plain stupid, we can still make positive changes within ourselves and strive to do better. Trying to hide the past or not owning up to it only results in hurting oneself and the community around them. Forgetting the past will simply mean history will repeat itself, with another empty stadium hosting another ill fated festival where no one involved is happy with the outcome.

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