Bunbury Festival: Here's what goes into booking a three-day, 80-band extravaganza

It's about more than simply opening a checkbook

CINCINNATI -- It sounds like a dream job: You have a seven-figure budget at your disposal and the task of hiring your favorite artists to perform at a major summer outdoor rock music festival.

“It’s not as easy as you might think,” said Ian Bolender, a 30-year-old, lifelong Cincinnatian, who is chiefly responsible for the music you’ll hear at the third annual Bunbury Festival , July 11-13. Bolender, in his role as a talent programmer with Nederlander Entertainment, also booked the first Buckle Up country music festival, July 18-20. Both festivals are at Sawyer Point.

“I have a wish list of about 12 bands I shoot for every year, guilty pleasures I think would be really cool, and I get shot down pretty much by all 12 every year,” said Bolender, who on the side runs CincyMusic.com with two siblings. “We always shoot for the moon. If I told you about all the bands we almost got, we’d have some awesome stories.”

Comparing lineups for all three years of the festival, some might suggest Bunbury is trending away from guitar rock toward synth pop, trance and other niches on the softer side of rock. If so, Bolender said, it isn’t intentional.

The tone of an entire festival is set by the first few secured headliners, he said, adding that he looks to populate the festival with artists who share fan bases.

“It’s not just about the bands, but whether the people who listen to Weezer will also want to see enough other bands to make it worthwhile for them to buy a ticket,” he said. “I was looking at booking some dubstep bands, but to make it worthwhile, you have to book 10 other dubstep bands like Skrillex or Bassnectar, because there are people who only want to hear other dubstep bands.”

Budget—chiefly, the (in)ability to meet top artists’ demands—is the key factor limiting Bunbury’s drawing power. Major artists often hike their fees for summer weekend festivals, Bolender said, and Bunbury is further challenged by dozens of other major rock festivals competing for the same bands.

Rumors swirled several months ago Bolender was close to inking Soundgarden for the coming festival. Such a booking, he said, would have ensured more Marshall amplifier stacks on at least the rest of that day’s lineup, if not the entire festival.

As it is, main stage headliners this year are dance pop outfit Empire of the Sun (Friday), the lite-rock darlings Fall Out Boy (Saturday) and veteran indie weirdos Flaming Lips (Sunday). Paramore, who have been on the road this year with Fall Out Boy and also perform on the main stage Saturday, are among the festival’s most anticipated jewels.

While headliners fuel the box office, the undercard gives the festival its signature, Bolender said. There, you’ll find emerging national talent and hidden local treasures. At the direction of festival founder Bill Donabedian, about a third of Bunbury’s lineup is rooted in the Tri-State area.

“It’s about showcasing local bands people might not otherwise see because of the stigma that they’re local,” Bolender said. “A lot of people won’t go to the bars to see bands but they’ll come to Bunbury, and hopefully they’ll learn what an amazing local scene we have.”

There’s such a stylistic mix among the 83 artists at Bunbury that it’s impossible to define the audience. Indeed, several Bunbury artists, such as Lydia Loveless (6:30 p.m. Friday, Amphitheater Stage) and Brent James (2 p.m. Saturday, Amphitheater) would be just as welcome the following weekend in the Buckle Up lineup.

That brings positives and negatives to a festival dependent on demographics-conscious sponsors, whose dollars make it possible to keep Bunbury’s ticket prices on the lower end of the spectrum of multi-band, multi-day festivals. Rockstar Energy Drink, the largest sponsor of Bunbury 2013, didn’t renew its contract for this rendition.

“For Bunbury, it’s not really about the A-card,” said Brian Kitzmiller, who markets the festival for Donabedian and also drums for one Bunbury’s local rock staples, Black Owls. “For us, it’s important to be better known as a festival for up-and-comers. You can have them in your festival and, the next year, they’re winning Grammys.”


What: Third annual Bunbury Festival

When: Music happens 2 p.m. to 11:15 p.m. July 11-13

Where: Sawyer Point/Yeatman's Cove, Cincinnati

Tickets: $65 single day, $145 all three days

Info: bunburyfestival.com

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