Rock on the Range: How to grow a festival

By Columbus Alive
From the May 17, 2012 edition

Rock on the Range began as a twinkle (or is that a skull and crossbones?) in the eye of Los Angeles-based promoter Gary Spivack.

Upon co-founding event production company Right Arm Entertainment in 2006, Spivack couldn’t help but notice a trend among the rising tide of big-ticket music festivals. Bonnaroo, Coachella, Lollapalooza — despite distinct identities, all of them tapped into a similar audience. To put it bluntly, they were all geared toward hipsters.

“I make no illusions. Rock music is not the sexiest or coolest kid in the classroom right now,” Spivack said. “Our music, the music that we love, was not being represented at a festival.”

As a fan of the “active rock” format — the loud, guitar-based stuff you’d hear locally on 99.7 The Blitz — Spivack sought to create an event that would appeal to what he suspected was a vast, underserved segment of the music community.

He decided to start a destination rock festival. He would locate it literally in the middle of America, at the core of the so-called “flyover country” where active rock flourishes. Pointing his finger at the middle of a map led him to St. Louis. He immediately knew to call Joe Livtag, who oversees a 12-state Midwest territory for another L.A.-based event promoter, AEG Live.

Livtag was already promoting an annual radio festival called Rockfest in Kansas City, so he was hesitant to plan something in St. Louis that might squash that concert’s audience. So they started searching for another home base and soon realized the untapped potential of Columbus.

“We kind of zeroed in on the fact that there really wasn’t anything major happening in Ohio,” Livtag said. “It seemed to be kind of an underserved market with a lot of great rock fans and stations.”

Not only that, but Ohio is a quick zip down the highway from a number of other metro areas like Pittsburgh, Detroit and Indianapolis. So the partners called up Crew Stadium, invested millions of corporate dollars and made plans for a loud, proud celebration of all things rock. Then they held their breath.

“Fortunately our gut and our instinct was right,” Spivack said. “There was a big genre of people or lifestyle that was being underserved. As we’ve grown, I think the audience has grown.”

And, boy, has Rock on the Range grown, both in size and scope.

After 2007’s event drew nearly 35,000 fans to see ZZ Top, Velvet Revolver and more, the festival expanded to two days in 2008. By last year’s installment, attendance surged above 70,000, only about a third of that from Columbus. Rock on the Range has become the destination they envisioned.

At the same time, the variety of bands has expanded beyond the original base of nu-metal and classic rock acts that first defined the event. Over the years, the festival’s definition of rock has grown to include punk (Danzig, Rise Against), post-hardcore (Circa Survive, Attack Attack), hip-hop (Cypress Hill) and even the all-cello heavy metal tribute act Apocalyptica.

“When we started it, we had a lane. We can’t go too far left. We can’t go too far right,” Spivack said. “As we’ve evolved, we’ve been able to expand that lane little by little — Cypress Hill on the left, Megadeth on the right, Incubus on the left, Anthrax on the right.”

The festival has become a celebration of rock in many shades. Spivack honestly believes his festival has something for everybody, that even the most stringent skeptic will consider Rock on the Range a worthwhile investment.

All he is saying is give rock a chance.

“It’s such a positive experience to attend Rock on the Range,” Spivack said. “It’s not all black T-shirts and tattoos. It’s a complete brother- and sisterhood at this festival.”