Local promoter Prime Social Group overcomes a year-one bust with the fast-growing fest
In its inaugural year, Breakaway Music Festival was anything but a breakout success.
While headliners such as Kendrick Lamar and Twenty One Pilots are now arena draws, they exerted far less pull in 2013, attracting only 8,000 or so ticket buyers to the single-day event at Mapfre Stadium — a crowd that felt far smaller spread out within the confines of a near-empty soccer stadium. In the end, local promoter Prime Social Group, which created and booked the event, experienced such a significant financial hit that the festival immediately went on hiatus, with PSG co-founder and president Zach Ruben unsure of when or even if the company would bring it back.
“We kind of needed a couple recovery years. I think it was being a little gun-shy from that experience,” Ruben said in an early May interview. “We knew we had a good brand. We knew there was a need and a space for it in the Columbus market. But the questions were: When can we, A, afford to take that risk, and, B, feel confident in doing so?”
The answer arrived in 2016, when PSG rebooted Breakaway as a two-day affair at the Ohio Expo Center, shifting from Mapfre to reduce costs and, in turn, the risk. Regardless, Ruben still had reservations, though he opted to move ahead at the urging of PSG managing partner Adam Lynn, whom Ruben described as the dreamer to his realist.
“[Lynn] said, ‘We're ready,'” Ruben said. “I was like, ‘Fine. Let's keep it conservative.' I almost doubted him, like, ‘Good luck. You go figure this out.'”
With booking underway, Ruben departed for a long-planned honeymoon, returning to find the framework of a high-quality festival lineup in place, more heavily focused on up-and-coming EDM and hip-hop artists. All it lacked, Ruben believed, was a marquee headliner. The group got to work, and shortly thereafter announced its biggest catch: ascendant Chicago MC Chance the Rapper. Ticket sales, which had been strong, considering the group's initially modest aims, spiked considerably, with Breakaway drawing 16,000 for Chance's Friday set. (Saturday, headlined by Young Thug, also attracted a sizeable crowd of 10,000).
“With the support we received it was like, ‘We're back. This is here to stay now,'” Ruben said.
Since relaunching, Breakaway has grown at a rate that continues to surprise both Ruben and team. In 2017, the festival returned to the parking lot of Mapfre Stadium. And this year the event will expand to include a third day, taking place at Mapfre on Aug. 24-26 with a lineup headlined by Halsey, Odesza and Migos, among others. (Ruben said PSG has additional Columbus sites in mind for future years should the Crew move to Texas and place Mapfre at risk as Breakaway's home.)
The company has also continued to introduce the concept in other markets, with additional Breakaways taking place this year in Dallas, Texas; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Nashville, Tennessee; and Charlotte, North Carolina. Moving forward, the company is eyeing cities such as Portland, Oregon, for further expansion.
“The biggest thing we learned in 2013 was we want to be a festival-first company, and we can be a festival-first company,” said Ruben, noting that low-margin club and theater shows make the current economics of the industry difficult for promoters who aren't willing to think bigger. “We think there's a niche out there for every city that has a large populace to host its own music festival.”
It helps, of course, that PSG has developed a reputation for spotting next-big-thing-type talent (see: Kendrick and Twenty One Pilots in 2013, or Travis Scott and Lil Yachty in 2017), offering concertgoers the potential to see what could be the next generation of arena acts without paying the top dollar the nation's biggest fests command. The festival has also thrived by identifying its audience (largely younger) and targeting acts suited to that crowd (EDM and party-fueling rap), all while keeping costs modest.
“We're not trying to be Coachella or Bonnaroo. We want to provide value in our ticket price, and with the production and the talent,” Ruben said. “Your fans will buy into your event and support it if they feel like they're getting good value.”