Building a Brighter Firefly

Summer music festivals are a rite of passage for many, an institution in the making. So how does Delaware’s follow its own act? As long as there are kids and bands, it may not matter.

The sun had set over Dover International Speedway last summer when Mike Tatoian found himself in a sea of people gathered just beyond the racetrack. The people—tens of thousands of them—were sweaty. Most didn’t smell very good. They were deliriously happy. They were singing “Hey Jude.” 

It was the end of a long day, and the track’s president and CEO joined the throngs assembled at The Woodlands to hear Sir Paul McCartney close out Day 2 of the 2015 Firefly Music Festival. 

“It was surreal, a huge stamp of approval,” Tatoian says. “I thought, ‘This thing is gonna be around for a while.’” 

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Four years earlier, Tatoian and other decision-makers at Dover Motorsports took a meeting from a group of young entrepreneurs from Chicago’s Red Frog Events. They came with a vision of a future in which, every year, some 70,000 people would descend upon Dover International’s 100-acre RV lot, along with rock stars, elaborate stages and huge earnings. 

“And I thought they were nuts,” says Tatoian. “But I immediately liked all of them and said, ‘Let’s give it a shot.’ And then four years later, here I am, and it actually happened. Here’s Paul McCartney—the legend of legends—on our property. Everybody knew the 42 songs he sang that night, including people of my vintage and people 20 or 30 years younger. It was a testament to just how far the festival had come.”

McCartney was, of course, the cherry on top of another hugely successful Firefly. Attendance at the first festival, in 2012, averaged 30,000 guests per day, a number that swelled to 65,000 in 2013, 80,000 in 2014 and close to 90,000 in 2015. The festival has ballooned from 48 bands on four stages to more than 100 bands on five stages.

Officials declined to share ticket sales information, but Tatoian says that he and the team at Red Frog “are all very pleased with ticket sales at this point. Everyone is really excited.” 

So after four years of steady and impressive growth, where does Firefly go next?

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Though the 2016 lineup may lack the star power of a Paul McCartney, it is rife with reliable, recognizable, big-name acts such as Mumford & Sons, Florence & the Machine and Major Lazer. “Our team works year-round to curate an exciting lineup and build upon Firefly’s unique festival experiences,” says Stephanie Mezzano, Red Frog’s COO. “We focus on adding new elements to existing experiences so guests can expect the Firefly they know and love each year, but with added surprises that excite them to come back.”

Firefly director Greg Bostrom told Billboard last year that he envisions Firefly becoming the “Coachella of the East Coast,” a cultural institution that people will be talking about for generations to come. It is an ambitious goal, for sure, but is it realistic?

Sponsorship spending on music tours, venues and festivals across the country totaled in the neighborhood of $1.4 billion in 2015, according to marketing consultants IEG. The firm’s report cites the explosive growth of national and regional music festivals as major drivers of the trend.  

With the promise of high-octane performances and a variety of upscale amenities, Firefly continues to draw fans. Yet new and new-ish festivals such as the Governors Ball and Panorama in New York City and Made in America in Philadelphia are direct competition for fans’ attention and wallets. In Delaware, two major festivals came and went after only a year. The three-day Delaware Junction Country Music Festival at Harrington Raceway & Casino, organized by Live Nation and Dewey Beach’s Highway One Group last year, went dark this winter after promising to return in 2016. The first festival, in 2015, was headlined by Jason Aldean and Toby Keith. 

This winter also saw the cancellation of the Big Barrel Country Music Festival, put on by Goldenvoice (a subsidiary of AEG Live, the company that produces Coachella) with Red Frog. In a message on the Big Barrel website, organizers said they “made the difficult decision to cancel” the festival, which was due to take place in Dover June 24–26. 

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The good news for Firefly fans: “I can genuinely tell you there is no correlation” between Firefly and the canceled country festivals, Tatoian says. “We had a lot of people disappointed, and we were too, but it’s prudent business decisions that drive those things, and for whatever reason, that was [the organizers’] prerogative.”

Delaware Junction and Big Barrel were just two of nearly half a dozen major country festival cancellations this year. Oversaturation—a glut of new country festivals and a ready supply of large-scale arena tours—could have played a role in the demise of so many. As positioned in The News Journal in January, a Kenny Chesney-Miranda Lambert concert at Lincoln Financial Field on June 25 could have contributed to Big Barrel’s cancellation. 

Fans of rock music also have a variety of festival choices. Firefly’s competition may offer comparable lineups, but Firefly has an ace in the hole: camping. 

Music fan Griffin Wills has attended the last two Firefly fests. He says the option to camp is what gives Firefly “a huge stranglehold on the East Coast market.”

“There really aren’t any other major festivals in the East Coast that offer camping,” says Wills, 28. “There are plenty of smaller ones, such as Big Dub, Mysteryland or Camp Bisco. Bisco is large, but doesn’t offer the same variety of music that Firefly would. If someone were to come along in the East Coast and offer a summer camping festival with a diverse lineup with the larger names that Firefly does, that is what would be trouble for them. Without that, they have a somewhat large margin for error.”

Besides music, Firefly continues to offer fans extras—air-conditioned vintage gaming arcades, a coffee house with board games and stripped-down performances by big-stage acts, a brewery run by Dogfish Head, and vast campgrounds that include amenities like a farmers market, morning yoga sessions and more.

Such options, organizers say, help distinguish Firefly from the pack. Mezzano says Firefly is paying special attention to expanding its food and beverage options this summer, with more vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free offerings, as well as Indian, Asian, German-Bavarian and local Delaware fare, to name a few.

Some fans point to challenges with water refilling stations and on-site shuttle services as minor hiccups in what is otherwise a tightly run ship. As the summer festival circuit continues to pervade youth culture, the march of time will ensure a fresh army of fans eager to get sweaty and delirious to the sounds of their favorite bands. 

“Music festivals have become a staple in American culture, almost a rite of passage, and we see no indication to believe the trend is headed anywhere but up,” Mezzano says. “It will come down to the festivals with the best experiences and performances that are able to keep guests coming back.”

Says Tatoian, “There will always be new 23-year-olds.”

The entertainment industry is a fickle one, predicated on trends and impermanence. But Firefly, it seems, is approaching that rarefied air—if it hasn’t arrived already—among the Coachellas, Lollapaloozas and Bonnaroos of the world: a summertime tradition for many, a new adventure for many more. 

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