Have you ever wondered what it takes to put on one of Louisville’s biggest music festivals, Abbey Road on the River ? Approximately 25,000 enthusiastic Beatles fans from 50 states and 10 countries will attend the festival May 24-28 to watch more than 60 bands play music, mostly by The Beatles. Obviously this undertaking is a logistics nightmare and requires tons of planning and preparation.
Louisville.com  was able to discuss preparation for the festival with the mastermind behind AROTR, Gary Jacob, an experienced event producer from Cleveland who has organized other events such as the National Rib Cook-off, Millennium events for Kodak in 2000, and Easter at the White House during the Clinton Administration. Jacob started organizing the festival in late fall 2001. “It really does take 12 months to make it all work, he said”
Abbey Road on the River is not organized like most, if any, other festivals in the country. Jacob is the only full-time employee of the festival and works alone most of the time. His secret weapon is his network of local freelancers who assist with PR, marketing, graphic design, website development, production, food and beverage, band relations, and much more. In this network there are 10 to 12 department heads and close to 200 people working during the festival. The first day of the festival is the first time everyone comes together as a group. Sure that sounds scary, but they have pulled it off since its Cleveland inception in 2002.
The last two weeks prior to the festival are the most hectic, with all of the various elements needing to come together in a timely manner. This past Wednesday, May 16, eight days before the festival is set to open, Jacob and his staff were finishing stage drawings, band advances and hotel reservations, signage, last-minute advertising, staff meetings and taking care of sponsor requests—and that to-do list changes minute by minute. At this rate there is no time for them to do anything else except to continue to accelerating forward to opening day, start at 6 a.m. and work until they sleep. They eat on the run and keep their meetings short and efficient. All energy focuses on the vision of the final product and how it needs to look like to ensure a safe, clean and fun environment.
There will be a total of 10 stages this year. Five outdoors stages will be on the Belvedere and three inside the Galt House. AROTR also will use two stages on Fourth Street Live! in Hard Rock Café and one in the street on Friday, May 25 for a free lunchtime concert (this year is the second the festival has hosted concerts at Fourth Street Live!, last year was the first).
Obviously none of this planning is possible without funding. Abbey Road on the River is in two cities annually now, Louisville and Washington DC. The combined budget for both cities is close to $1 million. Jacob expressed how difficult it is to organize a festival and securing sponsorships is near impossible. Jacob said “The most difficult aspect, of planning Abbey Road on the river, is communicating to the establishment in Louisville what this event really means. We bring in families from all over the world who sing the praises of Louisville 12 months a year. These people tell us that Abbey Road on the River is their families’ annual vacation, or that Abbey Road on the River is the most important weekend of the year for them, or that Abbey Road on the river helped them get through a job loss or sickness or breakup or death of a partner. Abbey Road on the River is much more, much much more than some bands playing Beatles music. It has become an important ‘community’ that enriches many many peoples’ spirit. Companies in Louisville like Humana should be jumping at the chance to be part of something that offers so much happiness and yet we have produced this event here in Louisville now since 2005 with no corporate sponsorship to speak of. Louisville and its citizens pride themselves on being one of the best festival towns in America, but really, at the end of the day corporate support only goes to the Derby Festival, and now the YUM center. Sponsorships are the difference between events that last, and those that don't. Our product, the music of the Beatles, can last here in Louisville for another 20 years, if just one company reading this story would realize what it means to make people's lives better through music.”
Despite the challenges of sponsorship, weather threats, and the everyday realities of the economy, the festival has remained profitable through smart work and careful management since 2002.
One way the festival remains profitable is its careful budget management. Most of the bands that perform at the festival are paid. Besides compensating bands’ travel expenses, hotel, meals, and beer (“Beatles bands love beer,” Jacob said) their talent budget is 25 percent of the entire festival operating budget. Talent, production, stages, sound backline and the like all make up 50 percent of the entire festival's operating budget. Sometimes new or local bands volunteer to play for free just for the love of playing and the festival tries their best to fit them in the schedule.
The process of selecting bands begins during the current festival where the bands are being evaluated for the next year. On average about 60 percent of the bands are invited back, and the festival tries to invite approximately 20 to 25 new bands for the next year. The festival receives hundreds of band submittals, so the selection process can be difficult. Jacob explains that he really only wants to hear a band play two songs: either "Help" or "Nowhere Man." By hearing those two songs he really hears everything he needs. Jacob is particularly open to European bands. “I am inclined to select bands from Europe more liberally than I would from USA-based bands. The European bands usually bring a new edge to the music that I believe is the main reason for our festivals longevity and success.” This year the festival will have 10 international bands from Italy, Holland, Sweden, Germany, Norway and England.
All the bands have their own ways of rehearsing and preparing for the festival, but one show in particular takes extra preparation. Last year was the first year the LOVE show was presented, a Beatles compilation based off the Cirque du Soleil show . This year the LOVE show will be performed again letting listeners re-live the whole Beatles musical lifespan in a condensed period. All You Need Is Love, BritBeat, The Newbees, Rachel Blanton, Classical Strings, Kevin Ashba, and Jesse Jordan will be teaming up to present this show on the lawn stage Saturday, May 26, 7-9 p.m. This production is one of the hardest shows for the bands to prepare since they are all from different places and normally don't play together. Last year took several months of planning, phone calls, and meetings with a week of rehearsals. This year there will be one big rehearsal the day before.
When asked if there was anything Jacob would like to say to readers he responded, “If you attend Abbey Road on the River, you know exactly what I mean, but if you have never been to Abbey Road on the River, you need to treat yourself to our festival. No one leaves Abbey Road on the River unhappy; more clearly stated everyone leaves Abbey Road on the River feeling a lot better about whatever it was that was ailing them before they arrived.”
Photos and video: Courtesy Anna Blanton