Following a year’s hiatus, the Railbird Festival returns to Lexington June 3–4. Festiva" />

Railbird Redux – Smiley Pete Publishing

Following a year’s hiatus, the Railbird Festival returns to Lexington June 3–4. Festival organizers have made several significant changes to the event, including a revamped management team, moving the venue from Keeneland to the Red Mile racetrack, an earlier summer date, and a focus on country and roots music with headliners Zach Bryan on Saturday and Tyler Childers on Sunday, along with acts like Whiskey Myers, Charley Crockett, Nickel Creek and Ricky Skaggs.

All are alterations that festival organizers say are designed to boost the fledgling festival in its third year and beyond, to showcase Lexington as a unique destination and sustain a long-term presence in the city.

Railbird’s organizers understand the challenging nature of the festival business. Brad Parker, project manager with event producer C3 Presents, cites a pre-pandemic study that found most music festivals do not turn a profit in their first three years and 85% of festivals fail to make it past their third year.

“It’s an extremely competitive business,” Parker said.

However, with their experience running successful festivals like Moon River in Chattanooga, Tennessee and High Water in Charleston, South Carolina, as well as being involved in the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, Parker and festival director Ted Heinig are determined to make Railbird thrive.

Each festival produced by C3 Presents and its parent company, Live Nation Entertainment, operates as its own business within the larger company. “We don’t own the assets — we build these shows and run them through the vendors that we work with,” Parker said. With a core team of 50 to 60 employees working in various departments — including artists’ relations, marketing, and talent acquisition — festivals the size of Railbird rely on the combined efforts of about 400 to 500 sta. members, Parker said, including third-party vendors and independent contractors. Overall, vendor costs have risen by about 40% to 50% since the pandemic.

“As our expenses continue to rise, we have to be very careful on how we’re matching that on the revenue side because we want to make our festivals accessible to the fan and … the core demo of who we want to be able to enjoy these experiences,” Parker said. “It’s a very delicate balance.”

Railbird, in particular, has faced its own set of challenges. In 2021, the second year for the event, a significant sta. no-show rate of more than 50% and technical issues, including a point-of-sale system failure and a water station malfunction, caused a challenging Saturday for attendees who faced long lines for food and drink.

“It was a perfect storm that created a very challenging Saturday for everybody,” said Heinig, who noted that a different management team headed up that year’s festival. “But we recovered. Brad went to Louisville twice and loaded up a tractor-trailer truck full of water bottles. We got the water station fixed. We fixed the point of sale and recruited more people to come out and sell the food and beverage for the next day, and Sunday was a very good day.

“Sometimes things happen that, as much as you plan and want to have an excellent experience for everybody, are outside of your control, and you just try to do the best you can,” he said.

Heinig says that Keeneland was a “fantastic partner” in the event, and that moving venues to the Red Mile offers several advantages, including a flat festival ground and closer proximity to downtown and more hotels, restaurants and bars.

Tickets for this year’s festival sold out within three hours of going on sale. Approximately 50% of tickets were sold to visitors outside Lexington, and about 40% of those attendees are from outside Kentucky, including ticket buyers from more than 40 states.

“We have slightly more capacity this year than what we did at Keeneland in ’21,” Heinig said of the number of tickets sold. “The number of people that you can hold at the Red Mile is astronomical, but we are not doing that. We want to make sure that everyone has an incredible experience this year and want to make sure that getting on and off the site is also as smooth and as seamless as possible.”

In addition to music, Railbird includes numerous local vendors among its food offerings and mercantile, chef demonstrations, and an array of single-barrel bourbons selected for the festival in partnership with Justins’ House of Bourbon. Festival organizers also work with three local nonprofits through its earned ticket program — Fayette Alliance, Central Kentucky Riding for Hope and the Central Music Academy. Each nonprofit receives a bank of tickets and space onsite to promote their organization, as well as a direct donation Parker said this year is expected to be about $50,000 each.

“We’re trying to build something that’s able to get national attention, and we’re super excited to see how we can continue to grow the festival and grow our partnerships … and make it something that people can be proud to say happens in their backyard,” Parker said.

“We’re tyringto build something that’s able to get national attention, and we’re super excited to see how we can continue to grow the festival and grow our partnerships … and make it something that people can be proud to say happens in their backyard.” —Brad Parker, Project Manager of U.S. Festivals, C3 Presents

“VisitLEX is thrilled to welcome Railbird back to Lexington,” said Mary Quinn Ramer, president of the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau, which works closely with the event. “In its inaugural year, the festival was met with tremendous enthusiasm and success. And, given the record sellout of the 2023 event, VisitLEX is ready to welcome fans from across the country to our city.

“The new location also allows for a more urban concert experience, with proximity to hotels, restaurants and bars and more,” she said. “Hosting Railbird brings significant economic impact to our city, and VisitLEX looks forward to making the event a staple in the destination’s calendar of events.”

Heinig said planning for the 2024 festival is already underway, with bookings for musical acts typically beginning about 15 months before the festival dates.

Said Heinig: “Our goal is for Railbird to be a signature event for the city of Lexington and for the state of Kentucky, and that would be a reflection of the community, the culture, the arts, the food scene and all the incredible things that Lexington is as a community.”

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