Interview: Forecastle Promoter JK McKnight

When 29-year old JK McKnight was just reaching drinking age, he set out to create a concert festival that would combine music, art and activism in Louisville, Kentucky. Now going into its ninth year, the Forecastle Festival has become one of the top regional festivals in the U.S. Expected to attract 30,000 attendees over two days, this year’s Forecastle features Widespread Panic, Flaming Lips, Smashing Pumpkins and a long list of solid supporting acts. It will also host the Sustainable Roadshow and one of the most vibrant non-profit villages found at any live music event in America.

HeadCount talked to JK about his vision for the festival, how it’s evolved and how he managed to turn an idealist’s passion into a viable growing music message.

HeadCount: Tell me a little bit about how Forecastle got started and how you came to combine activism with music for a city festival.

JK: I was really interested in a lot of environmental issues, just kind of going back to when I was really young and I started the festival. The first year was just music and the second year we were looking for a way to expand the reach and also expand what it’s about. I thought adding art was a good component -many of our friends are artists and it made sense to have them involved. At the time no one was really promoting activism or environmentalism, like some of the bigger festivals do now. I just though it made sense to have the creative community and the activism community together and to do something like this. It just seemed like a good merger of thought.

It’s hard enough to make ends meet with a regular music festival; does the activism piece actually help? Do you think it supports the business model or does it end up just being an expense?

I would say yes and no. I think in the early days I would say ‘no,’ especially when it came to sponsorship I think it scared a lot of people away. When we had the cultural shift a couple of years ago it became the opposite. We had companies all across the board calling us wanting to get involved, wanting to get their green messaging out, so to speak. We have definitely seen a change in the past couple of years. The first year I went out to Outdoor Retailer, a big outdoor convention in Salt Lake City, maybe 15% of companies had a sustainability platform there. Now it’s about 80%. That’s just within the past 3 or 4 years. It’s pretty incredible to see that kind of change happen out there because when we started this, no one was talking about it. People were scared to even make that a solid pillar, much less a market; no one really thought you could market it. That is what we started doing and we started noticing 2 or 3 years later people doing the same thing, so it’s pretty interesting.

You have a great lineup this year with The Lips, Panic, Smashing Pumpkins. These are serious national acts. How have you managed to grow something to that scale? It can’t be easy to get bands at that level and bring in those kinds of revenues. Was it ticket sales that got you to this point?

It is a matter of ticket sales and sponsorship revenue and obviously the onsite income. It’s not easy, festivals pay the highest of anyone on talent, I mean it’s horrible. The premium we have to pay, you would hope that a time would come where we all kind of work together. I hate looking out there at some of the great festivals that have gone down in the past 2 or 3 years like All Points West and so many others. It’s tantamount to how the industry has changed so much; retail going down has had a ripple effect on everyone. So it’s not easy, I think no matter how much money you raise and how many donations you get, it definitely comes down to finding the right talent at the right price.

How many people are you expecting this year?

Up to 30,000 is what were hoping for and planning on.

What do you think is the point of difference between Forecastle and other festivals? Not that many festivals out there are doing those kinds of numbers. Is it that you are drawing heavily from the local market?

Well last year it was actually a world-wide market, we sold tickets to 44 states and 6 countries last year. This year it has been much more regional. We have seen the markets that we really push heavily, in states like Ohio, Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois, a lot of southern states, it has really grown in a grassroots way and Widespread has obviously been able to put an exclamation mark on that last year.

Let’s talk about activism. What are the kinds of things you’re doing on site to bring that message to the festival?

We are trying to integrate the best we can, the biggest thing we have is our main activism exhibition where the headliner is the Sustainable Road Show, a company from northern California, who will be here for the second year in a row but they are bringing a much bigger setup this year. They have seven different exhibitions within that. We have a clean energy showcase we're doing where we have wind and solar and geo-thermal companies both locally, regionally and nationally all exhibiting. We have this area called the Green Marketplace, really an area where people can come and talk with everyone from restaurants to skincare companies, who have sustainable products. We have an Eco-Info zone as well which is more really of a library where people can come and go and talk to a lot of non-profits and community organizations about what is going on. We have an area called the Conscious Carnival which is really cool; it is geared really towards the younger audience. It is a lot of different groups who are using games to get their message to people; Recycle Squish is doing really an interesting recycling game there. We have a stage that we do where we do panels and workshops and a lot of really cool interactive stuff. We have a keynote speaker every year, this year it is Rob Caughlan of the Surfrider Foundation.

Do you have any sense of what percentage of the attendees go to the non-profit booth or participate in some sort of sustainable activity?

I wish we did. It’s tough, I hear stories from people all the time on that. But, we’ve never really surveyed it or tried to gauge it. The best thing I think that we do is really position it where it’s going to get a lot of exposure and people are going to experience it.

Who owns the Forecastle Festival? Who actual puts it on?

I own it and we have partners.

What was your background before you were doing Forecastle?

I was in college listening to music, majored in biology, and just had a dream.