How BottleRock Napa has avoided the bursting of the festival bubble

While strong music festival brands around the country experience diminished returns, BottleRock Napa continues to thrive. BottleRock Napa co-owner Dave Graham of Latitude 38 helps explain how that’s happened.

When Dave Graham, Justin Dragoo, and Jason Scoggins formed production company Latitude 38 and bought BottleRock Napa in 2013, the festival’s brand was in the gutter. Five years later, it’s enjoying its third straight sellout and will kick off this weekend with headliners Muse, The Killers, and their big get Bruno Mars.

In 2013, BottleRock Napa was on the edge of insolvency with the total debt totaling in excess of $10 million. Graham and his partners rescued the festival and they have cultivated a brand as strong as any American festival not named Coachella. Though many outsiders consider Outside Lands the more prominent brand in Northern California, it’s the Napa Valley festival that is currently sold out, not the SF festival.

Last January, Live Nation announced they had purchased a majority stake in BottleRock Napa. I’ve attended Bonnaroo the last few years and have seen the disdain festivalgoers often have when their festival is bought by a large conglomerate. History has proven that when you’re a feather in the festival cap of a larger entity, the lineups get less diverse. Remarkably, that hasn’t been the case with BottleRock Napa.

“We remain 100 percent in control of the booking of our lineup and make 100 percent of the booking decisions,” Graham told Pass The Aux of BottleRock Napa’s lineup post-Live Nation involvement.

“When we were exploring the possibility of partnering with Live Nation, my partners and I sat down with [Live Nation CEO] Michael Rapino and he expressed in no uncertain terms that we would continue to run our festival just as we have in the past, which meant we would book our own bands, that our team would not change in any way, and that Live Nation and its vast resources would be available to us when and if we wanted to take advantage of them.”

Festivals that have been bought by either AEG or Live Nation include Bonnaroo, Hangout, Governors Ball, and Firefly. Compared to 17 other festivals taking place this spring, BottleRock Napa has a lineup uniqueness of 51.2 percent* — 43 of the 84 acts on their lineup are only playing BottleRock Napa this spring. The only AEG or Live Nation brand that ranked higher this spring is Coachella, at 56.9 percent. Governors Ball, by comparison, ranks last with a 21.9 percent lineup exclusivity.

These aren’t just bottom of the poster acts that are exclusive to BottleRock Napa this spring. Bruno Mars isn’t playing another American festival until Lollapalooza. Earth, Wind & Fire isn’t playing another festival until KAABOO Del Mar this September — same as Billy Idol.

One might ask why Graham and his partners would sell when things were going so well on their own. The lure of what working with Live Nation brings to the table is vast.

“We have better access to band pricing and bands’ sales data, we have the ability to partner with Live Nation touring and other Live Nation festivals when it comes to making offers and booking bands, and we are able to partner with the regional Live Nation office in San Francisco rather than be competitive with that office and market. So far literally every expectation that Live Nation set with us prior to finalizing our partnership has been met and we could not be more happy with our decision to have partnered with them.”

Graham helped explain how Live Nation’s involvement helped their booking process out generally.

“Sometimes, getting a no or a pass from a band is almost as good as getting a confirmation,” Graham said. “Why do I say that? With bands, and in particular with headliners, it can take a long time to get an answer, whether it’s a yes or no. It becomes difficult when you don’t get an answer either way. The closer you get to your announce date, the less leverage you have in negotiating, and the less leverage you have in getting an answer. In this particular case, we needed an answer quick as we were coming closer and closer to the announce.”

“This is one of the ways we were assisted by the senior executives at Live Nation,” Graham continued. “We were able to get assistance from the CEO, one of the co-presidents, as an example to force a yes or no, so we could at least know which way we were going.”

The BottleRock Napa 2018 lineup came down to the wire, with one second-line and one third-line band not being confirmed until the Friday before their Tuesday announcement. BottleRock Napa is the only music festival Bruno Mars is playing in America aside from Lollapalooza (which announced much later). You could argue that’s the biggest festival get outside of Beyonce this year.

“We went after him a year in advance and worked hard to get him,” Graham says about the booking. “We wanted Bruno Mars, he is perfect for our festival on so many different levels.”

“Our demographic is a really wide demographic. We’re not a festival that caters just to 19-to-25 year olds. We have nine-year-olds, and 25-year-olds, and 35-year-olds, and 45-year-olds, and 55-year-olds, and 65-year-olds. When you have a headliner that has music and a brand that can speak into the listening of a broader audience, that has credibility with the younger generation but also approachability to the older customer — Bruno Mars is all that and then some.”

I attended BottleRock Napa in 2015 as press. The first day of the festival I got sucker-punched and actually filed a police report, returning to the festival to watch Imagine Dragons close things out with a bag of ice on my eye. The next morning I woke up to an unexpected phone call from Graham. He explained to me that he had gone to the police station after the first day of the festival to see what had gone wrong, and saw my incident and wanted to reach out. He offered me their highest-level VIP experience for the remaining two days should I decide to return, and I did and wrote about the experience in my review.

It was getting that higher-level VIP experience that really opened my eyes into how well branded this festival is. Napa Valley is quite an upper-class area, and the way the festival caters to the platinum VIP crowd is impressive. Every other hour, a different gourmet chef cooked up food in their platinum VIP compound. There was free wine and alcohol everywhere. You were able to sign up for meet-and-greets and special intimate acoustic performances from some of the festival’s performers.

I haven’t been back in the last couple of years but the VIP experiences have only grown. They had double-decker suites on both sides of the main stage last year, with a total 34 suites. The platinum VIP allows you to take a tour through the backstage areas, carted with champagne through the artist compound and treated to a special lounge with Michelin three-star service. Also — if you’re an artist playing BottleRock Napa, you get teated like royalty whether you’re playing at noon or closing the festival out.

Even if you’re a general admission ticket buyer, the experience is still fulfilling. What other festival will you get an opportunity to watch Snoop Dogg and Iron Chef Morimoto roll sushi together — with Snoop Dogg cracking a joke, “Then you roll it? I can do that part, easy.”

“The lineup has a lot to do with the demand we have, but without a doubt it’s the experience that is making people come back for more,” Graham said. “We do surveys post-festival and we receive back statistically representative data on a variety of questions, one being what type of ticket you bought.”

“VIP ticket buyers, there was a 96 percent rate they will be buying tickets again. That was reflected in our sales, as VIP tickets were gone in seconds. It goes back to the experience we are providing our customers and the improvements being made each year.”

While many continue to argue that the festival bubble is about to burst, you can’t tell that to the attendees of BottleRock Napa — which has just grown stronger with each year. They’ve cultivated a brand that reflects what people come to expect from the area, a high bar when it comes to food, drink, and music. BottleRock Napa has been so successful that its founders launched a September two-day event in Sonoma called Sonoma Harvest Music Festival (with The Avett Brothers and The Head and The Heart headlining), and it sold out immediately.

Graham touts having turned his company’s biggest weakness into a strength as a reason for their success.

“We’re not afraid to think outside the box,” Graham said, adding, “We didn’t come from the music business and have done things how we think they need to be done and not how we were told they have to be done.”

Photos courtesy of BottleRock Napa

*Data was acquired via my personal efforts using a spreadsheet. The 18 festivals I included in my data all took place in spring 2018 and are multi-day events that don’t shade towards only one genre. Those festivals are: Lightning in a Bottle (52 of 66 acts are unique for 72.7 percent), Air + Style (15-of-24, 62.5%), Fortress Festival (17-of-26, 65.4%), Coachella (94-of-165, 56.9%), BUKU (30-of-58, 51.7%) Mountain Jam (19-of-37, 51.4%), BottleRock Napa (43-of-84, 51.2%), Shaky Knees (32-of-66, 48.4%), Innings Fest (15-of-32, 46.9%), Sasquatch (37-of-79, 46.8%), In Bloom (25-of-54, 46.3%), Okeechobee (41-of-89, 46.1%), Bonnaroo (67-of-146, 45.9%), Bunbury (18-of-42, 42.9%), Firefly (32-of-95, 33.7%), Boston Calling (13-of-45, 28.9%), Hangout (15-of-62, 24.2%), and Governors Ball (14-of-64, 21.9%). 

BottleRock Napa 2018 lineup: Bruno Mars, The Killers, Muse headline