Festival survives simply by rockin'

Twelve years ago, promoters Gary Spivack and Danny Wimmer looked at the music festival landscape across the country and wondered: Where is the great American rock festival?

“We all collectively had this very innocent and a little arrogant mission. We wanted to put on America's biggest rock 'n' roll festival,” said Spivack, talent booker for Danny Wimmer Presents, which partnered with Joe Litvag at AEG Live and co-founder Del Williams to put on the first Rock on the Range at Crew Stadium in 2007.

While plenty of destination music festivals existed, Spivack and his partners saw a rock-sized void they thought they could fill. “We talked to [Litvag] about it, and he suggested, ‘Why not Columbus, Ohio?'” Spivack said. “We looked at the map and noticed all these feeder markets like Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton, Toledo, Akron, Detroit, Grand Rapids. Columbus is three to four hours from all these great rock 'n' roll towns that were underserved, so we wanted to go serve the underserved.”

Rock on the Range began as a one-day event with headliners ZZ Top, Velvet Revolver and Evanescence, then returned to Crew Stadium (now Mapfre Stadium) in 2008 as a two-day fest. By 2012, the event grew to three days, and before this year's Rock on the Range, which took place May 18-20 and featured headliners like Tool, Alice in Chains, Avenged Sevenfold and A Perfect Circle, Spivack expected more than 125,000 rock fans to come through the gates.

Those fans, he said, are key to the fest's success. “These self-dubbed ‘Rangers,' as they call themselves, have become this large and beautiful family. This festival is truly the people's festival. It's about them. We listen to them,” Spivack said. “As long as we stick to the soul of Rock on the Range, which is, ‘Rock on the Range … where rock lives,' then we're gonna be good.”

As the fest grows, Rock on the Range's producers have continual conversations about how to expand while also staying true to its rock-centric mission, and doing so at an affordable price. “That's a daily debate within the partners,” Spivack said. “You wanna grow, but you don't wanna jump the shark. You wanna grow but keep the family spirit. It's a delicate dance, and we do that dance every year in every booking meeting and conference call. … Our ticket prices, compared to other major festivals, are competitive as can be. We leave money on the table every year. We're not a fly-by-night festival.”

That said, with the Crew potentially leaving for Austin, Texas, Rock on the Range's home stadium is in flux, making the fest's future there uncertain. “We're continually talking to Mapfre Stadium, but we're in this for the long term, so we're thinking long term,” Spivack said. “We're committed to the Ohio Valley for Rock on the Range. That's its home.”

Location aside, Rock on the Range pins its success on the same mission it had from the very beginning: to rock. “While many festivals try to be so many things to so many people, at the core we are a rock 'n' roll festival and always will be,” Spivack said. “America has gone festival crazy. They try to throw in an EDM act with a rock act and a hip-hop act and a pop act, and it just becomes this mess of a painting. Our painting is a little more clear.”