Music News & Reviews

New backers bring Napa’s BottleRock back from the brink

The lineup for BottleRock Napa Valley 2014 reads like an iPod set to shuffle. A set from 1990s favorites Barenaked Ladies will segue into LL Cool J. Headliners are geared toward both the cowboy-hat set and goths, via country star Eric Church and alternative-rock legends the Cure.

But without some major wheeling and dealing behind the scenes, BottleRock, which runs Friday through Sunday, could easily have been marked this year by the sounds of silence.

The festival debuted in 2013 as a 41/2-day event that drew 120,000 concertgoers to the Napa Valley Expo near downtown Napa. This usually sleepy section of wine country had never witnessed a music festival of this magnitude, which included such headliners as Black Keys and Kings of Leon. But organizers found themselves playing the financial blues soon after, with $8 million in losses and an angry chorus of unpaid vendors.

BottleRock, it seemed, was done. But then new group of business partners assumed control of the festival, and the multigenre musical lineup is set for this weekend.

“Things are buzzing,” said David Graham, the festival’s CEO, in a phone call from Napa. “We’re already doing the load-in, and the marketing is coming to a crescendo. Right now it’s all about the execution of the festival.”

Graham is joined by Justin Dragoo, Joe Fischer and Jason Scoggins as the partners behind Latitude 38 Entertainment, which acquired the BottleRock brand in January. Graham declined to disclose how much it would cost to produce BottleRock 2014.

These fellow Napans are longtime residents of wine country. Graham has been friends with Scroggins since third grade and has known Dragoo since junior high.

They know the feeling of Napa traditionally being a fairly quiet place for music. The inaugural BottleRock was to be the musical equivalent of the “Judgment of Paris,” the 1976 blind tasting which placed Napa on the radar as a world-class wine producer. It would redefine what people thought of the town by pairing big-name music acts with haute cuisine and fine wine that could only be found in Napa.

And in many ways, it worked. Festival goers noshed on food from Michelin-starred restaurants and other leading local eateries, in between rocking out to Jane’s Addiction, Alabama Shakes and Black Crowes.

“When we went to the festival last year, we were blown away,” Graham said. “This is our hometown and the next thing you know we’re listening to Black Keys, and eating Morimoto ribs and drinking fat cabernet. Really, this is Napa?”

Despite the good vibes floating around the festival grounds, the original organizers, BR Festivals would find itself in a deep financial hole. For example, more than $600,000 was owed to 140 stage technicians, and claims were filed to the California Department of Industrial Relations. Many food, security and transportation companies were also left unpaid. Millions in debt, BR Festivals filed for bankruptcy protection in February.

Graham and his crew didn’t want to BottleRock to be a one-hit wonder. Though none of them has experience in the concert game, they believed they could sustain the brand through their collective business acumen. Graham’s background includes finance and business development, while Fischer is a bankruptcy expert.

The group had submitted a proposal for BottleRock 2.0 to the Napa Valley Expo board in November. In it, they suggested shortening the festival to three days and addressing noise complaints from neighbors. They also offered to help find solutions to some of the debt. According to the Napa Valley Register, Latitude 38 Entertainment made a creditor who was owed $3 million an equity partner in exchange for withdrawing its creditor claim.

Graham and his team also proposed a number of cost-cutting measures. The 2013 version of the festival included more than 80 bands, as well as a roster of comedians. This year will find more than 60 musical performers and no comedy component.

Latitude 38 Entertainment was given the official go-ahead by the Napa Valley Expo board in January. That same month, it executed an asset purchase agreement (which included BottleRock name) and was booking bands by early February.

“Not only did we want to keep this in Napa for 2014, but we felt like we could deal with the debt in a way that was meaningful and impactful – and fast,” Graham said. “We were able to eliminate almost $5 million from the previous balance sheet almost immediately. We had a solution to make a bad situation better and said, ‘Let’s do this.’ ”

But securing acts wouldn’t be easy. Touring musicians tend to book their appearances many months in advance. The new BottleRock team had only about six weeks to book bands before tickets went on sale in March. The rush was on.

“It was brutal,” said Graham. “There was a lot of competition for talent and we were lucky to be able to book a world-class lineup.”

Graham and his crew landed a few coups in the process. They booked the Cure for its only North American date on the books thus far. They landed Outkast, the acclaimed hip-hop group that reunited recently at the Coachella Valley Arts and Music Festival. Church had the No. 1 album in the country when he was booked for BottleRock.

Much of the remaining lineup jump cuts between musical genres, with a particular nod to acts associated with the 1990s (Third Eye Blind, Smash Mouth, Spin Doctors, Cracker). Other acts seem like they were drawn randomly from a hat: Howie Day, LL Cool J, Heart, TV On The Radio. The music news website Stereogum even penned a story titled “Is BottleRock the Strangest Festival Lineup of 2014?”

Graham wanted a varied musical menu from the get-go.

“One of the unique things from the previous promoters is they had something for everyone, whether it was alternative or indie-rock, or a hippie jam band,” said Graham. “This year it’s very much the same. Last year they had some iconic bands and we were able to do the same.”

At $279 for a three-day pass, the price is $20 cheaper compared to 2013. Graham said the festival layout will look similar, albeit with a some tweaks. Music will be performed over four stages, and located in the same spots as 2014. The food court will once again be positioned near the center of the Napa Valley Expo. Some food vendors from the debut year are returning, including Morimoto Napa, Tarla Grill and Ca’ Momi. Organizers this time are looking to eliminate dust from BottleRock’s food court and make other site improvements.

“We approached this business as a start-up, but we had the benefit of having a blueprint for what worked last year and what didn’t,” said Graham. “What we can all say is it was a great time. Were there things that could be improved? Absolutely.”

Graham said BottleRock will likely draw fewer people this year, in part because of its shorter run and its smaller window for marketing. But he’s hopeful that BottleRock will become an established Napa brand, like the Silver Oak Cellars of the concert circuit. Even though BottleRock 2014 has yet to hear its first notes, the booking process is already underway for next year.

“BottleRock put Napa on the map in a good way,” said Graham. “Music marries perfectly with food and wine. It’s been a lot of trials and tribulation, but we got here. If we could put this together in 21/2 months, imagine what we can do in a year.”