Maybe it was an internet mapping program that brought the Firefly Music Festival to Dover, jokes Michael Tatoian, president and corporate executive officer of Dover International Speedway. A group wanted to make a music festival on the East Coast and Dover is ideally positioned in the middle of it.
In truth, though, there was as much science as there was artistry in the creation of the large outdoor music festival with camping that has taken place in the Woodlands of Dover for the past seven summers.
In 2011, when Red Frog Productions, the creators of Firefly, approached Tatoian and Dover International Speedway, there were no big music festivals on the coast. The producers toured many venues before making the call. Delaware was centrally located, close to Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New York, they said.
Dover, specifically the speedway, was a venue with property and experience with handling crowds. Annually, Dover International Speedway hosts two NASCAR races with crowds up to 80,000 people—many who camp there for the entire weekend. The speedway staff knew about operating large venues and handling large crowds, Red Frog surmised.
“Both sides took a chance,” says Tatoian.
Crowds of up to 90,000 have descended on the speedway grounds during past Firefly Music Festivals.//Photo courtesy of Dover International Speedway
That gamble paid off in crowds of up to 90,000 people stopping by the speedway for three days each June. Many of those visitors camp on the property. Some pay a pretty penny to glamp (glamorous camping) in tents with beds and even air-conditioning. All of them are there to hear to some of the hottest and rising acts in the alt-rock, hip-hop and electronic music world.
Melissa Ormond, chief operating officer for AEG, the company that earlier partnered with Red Frog to produce Firefly and then bought the whole festival for the 2019 show, compliments the speedway for helping execute the vision for the event, “really, really well.” She went on to hint at bigger things to come at the upcoming 2019 festival, but didn’t expand.
Both companies are always looking for new ways to make the experience even more enjoyable—expanding the property to 300 acres and making it all Wi-Fi accessible, for example.
With music being played on stages in open fields and in wooded areas, “You can put yourself in a completely different world,” says Tatoian. Firefly is as much about the experience as it is the music, he says.
Firefly is as much about the experience as it is the music, say organizers.//Photos courtesy of Dover International Speedway
Campers come early just to spend time at the campground.
There are hammock hangouts, a coffee house with board games, an on-site brewery run by Dogfish Head, food trucks, shopping venues, morning yoga and late-night DJs.
Every employee of the speedway works on Firefly weekend. They all get a chance to stop and listen to the music, says Tatoian.
“It’s without a question, a happy place,” he says. “Everybody’s there to hang out with friends and have a good time.”
From the setting, to the music to the extra touches, everything at Firefly was designed to be unforgettable. New and sometimes even unheard of acts like Bastille, The Lumineers, and Judah & the Lion have shared space with mega acts like Bob Dylan, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Jack Johnson, Foo Fighters and OutKast.
Stage highlights, too numerous to name, have included Eminem commenting that it was the largest crowd he’d ever seen, Josh Dunn of 21-Pilots crowd-surfing while playing his drum, Steve Aoki throwing whole cakes into the crowd while playing “Cakeface,” and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Michael “Flea” Balzary slapping singer Anthony Kiedis repeatedly after Kiedis said it was his “karmic day to get hit.”
Performers range from new and unheard of to mega acts.//Photos courtesy of Dover International Speedway
Of all the great moments, though, most people say the most memorable performance at Firefly happened when Sir Paul McCartney took the stage in 2015.
“He played for more than two hours, didn’t even stop to take a drink, just went from piano to guitar,” says Chris Nuebling of Milton, who has attended every Firefly show. “He was awesome.”
Even Tatoian admitted he stopped to watch McCartney’s show.
“He’s a hall of famer’s hall of famer,” says Tatoian. “Literally in our backyard … on his 70th birthday.”