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    By Chris Kenning
     

    Danny Hayes is telling the Milk Bar story.

    Hayes, a fast-talking former entertainment lawyer, is the CEO of Danny Wimmer Presents, the LA-based festival promoter behind this month’s trio of back-to-back-to-back festivals: Hometown Rising, Bourbon & Beyond and Louder Than Life. It’s 8 p.m. and he is chatting in the July heat on the open back patio at Butchertown Social. Publicists, staff and musicians sipping bourbon mingle around him. They are in town for a promotional push about the fests, which are moving to a new location near the airport this year after flooding in 2018 canceled a day of Bourbon & Beyond and all of Louder Than Life at Champions Park off River Road. 

    The stories spill out of Hayes as he gets to talking about the two Dannys — himself and company founder Danny Wimmer. Theirs is an odd-couple, almost bromantic friendship that has helped the company grow to run music festivals in 13 U.S. cities.

    The two Dannys live a mile apart in the Cheviot Hills neighborhood of west Los Angeles. Their kids go the same school. They have dinner together two or three nights each week. They spend weekends together, travel and go on family vacations together. People mix them up. But Wimmer is the creative guy, Hayes the business one. Wimmer is more reserved and doesn’t love interviews. Hayes can tell stories for days. That’s how the Milk Bar comes up.

    Wimmer was with Hayes to lobby the city council in Jacksonville, Florida, Wimmer’s hometown, against a proposal that could limit outdoor music. Wimmer, who for a time ran a festival there, had gotten his start in Jacksonville as co-owner of the Milk Bar, a legendary 1990s club named for the lounge in A Clockwork Orange. It’s where Wimmer discovered the band Limp Bizkit. 

    “The whole ride (to the city council),” Hayes recalls, “he’s like, ‘Listen, I’m not going to say a word. Are you clear on what you’re going to say?’ ‘Yes, Danny, I’m clear.’”

    Let me see it. What are you going to say?
    Yes, Danny, I’m clear.

    “We get there, they call me up,” Hayes continues. “I go up to the mic to talk, and he goes running down the lane, pushes me out of the way and goes, ‘He works for me! I’m going to talk.’ I’m like: What the hell? And then he just poured his heart out” — and helped defeat the measure.

    During the hearing, a city councilor waved Hayes over.

    “Did Wimmer once own the Milk Bar?”

    “Yep.”

    “He’s probably got pictures of me,” the official joked. “Better support you guys.”

    Hayes takes a bite of his cheeseburger, and Wimmer walks over to the patio. “I was just telling the Milk Bar story,” Hayes yells out to him.


    The Danny Duo: Wimmer (left) with Hayes at the new Highland Festival Grounds.

    Wimmer, wearing a black hoodie, his hair short and graying beard neatly trimmed, comes over to the table, where Hayes is doing an interview. “He starts talking about my past...” Wimmer says. “We being recorded? Oh, terrific.”

    Hayes got to know Wimmer while representing bands. “We met through Staind,” Hayes says. “I was Staind’s lawyer. And Danny was their A&R guy.” Wimmer, who helped get Limp Bizkit signed to a record label, had moved to Los Angeles to work in A&R at Atlantic Records, Epic Records and Flawless Records. A window into Wimmer’s world appears in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. In one scene, Wimmer calls Limp Bizkit singer Fred Durst and plays him the song “Freetime,” by Kenna. “Sign him!” Durst says.

    Hayes and Wimmer began working more closely together, and Hayes invested in Wimmer’s concerts. Danny Wimmer Presents formed in 2011. His festivals, which would include Rock on the Range in Columbus, Ohio, eventually prompted him to leave his work with record companies. “(Wimmer) used one of my favorite sayings (of his),” Hayes says. “‘You can’t keep one foot on the boat and one on the dock for too long.’ He used it on me and was like, ‘You’ve gotta choose: Are you on the boat?’” Hayes’ response? “I fired all my clients.”

    The Dannys came to produce shows in Louisville by accident as their festival portfolio expanded. “We started thinking...rock ’n’ roll needs a bourbon,” Hayes says. “Where was the young cool bourbon in rock ’n’ roll? We got excited about it; our investors got excited about it.” Wimmer called Hayes from Louisville. “You’re not going to believe this: I don’t want to do bourbon anymore. I want to do a music festival. This is Austin when we first started going to South by Southwest. I’m telling you: There’s something happening here.” Hayes was skeptical, but it fit a business model of targeting rising but underserved mid-size markets. And Hayes had grown to trust Wimmer’s vision.

    Mayor Greg Fischer had “worked his voodoo,” says Hayes, who overcame the most Louisville faux-pas. “At the very first meeting I had with the Mayor’s Office, I ordered a Ketel One and soda with a lime. It’s an LA drink,” he says. “And they went crazy. They went crazy! Wimmer was all embarrassed.”

    By 2018, metal-focused Louder Than Life was well established, and Bourbon & Beyond had been a hit with distillers, celebrity chefs like Edward Lee and musicians like the Steve Miller Band, Stevie Nicks and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder (who reportedly told the audience, “I’m more of a tequila guy”). The Dannys loved the city-owned and leafy Champions Park. Things seemed headed toward their goal of weeks of events resembling South by Southwest.

    They were on the verge of moving to Louisville. That summer, the two Dannys had rented apartments next to each other in the Whiskey Row Lofts on Main Street. The cost of living was lower in Louisville compared with LA, so any staff would effectively get a raise by moving to Louisville. They were shopping for office space. “We had a realtor, looking for houses. We were both going to buy houses,” Hayes says. “My rule was I would only do it if we were walking distance to each other. That was my condition.”

    Hays says the momentum seemed unstoppable. “And then the weather happened.”

    On the Saturday of Bourbon & Beyond, heavy rains inundated the park, located on a floodplain above a landfill, making it dangerous. (The landfill wasn’t breached.) The next day at 3 a.m., in a trailer at Champions Park, water pumps running furiously, it became clear they had to shut down the second day. That was painful enough. But they later also canceled Louder Than Life, which had a lineup of 51 bands, including Nine Inch Nails. It wasn’t a Fyre Festival-level debacle, but it wasn’t good, either. They submitted a $12-million claim. “We took a beating,” Hayes says.


    Rendering of new festival area.

    They put plans to move to Louisville on hold. “We just thought: We need to take a deep breath,” Hayes says.

    But they vowed to press ahead with the festivals. Despite initially saying they were “so committed to Champions Park,” they ultimately realized they had to pick a new site. Putting in pumps and drainage would have cost millions. 

    They considered Waterfront Park, site of the Forecastle Festival, but determined it was too small. They thought about a 400-acre plot at the Kentucky Exposition Center near the airport. “At first we were like: No, we can’t go to the Fairgrounds — it won’t work. But then once we kind of got over the stigma and really looked at it, it was like, wait a minute. There’s a lot of grass here,” Hayes says.

    They leased the state-owned site near the I-65 and I-264 interchange for $50,000 a year, according to the Courier-Journal, and dubbed it the Highland Festival Grounds. Maps show bourbon and craft-beer bars, five stages, sites for culinary demonstrations and bourbon workshops spread across a grassy expanse. Several large camping areas are nearby. Recently, Wimmer filmed himself going up in a helicopter to view the site, his way to allay fears from fans who prefer festivals to be in a park setting. (This year, Bourbon & Beyond will feature such acts as the Foo Fighters, John Fogerty, Robert Plant, Hall & Oates, Zac Brown Band and ZZ Top. Louder Than Life has the likes of Guns N’ Roses, Slipknot, Disturbed, Godsmack and Rob Zombie. And Hometown Rising includes Luke Bryan, Keith Urban and Tim McGraw.)

    At Butchertown Social, the conversation turns to the economics of music. Which have changed, Hayes says, with bands making most of their money from touring rather than recording. In turn, the importance and number of festivals has boomed. More festivals also means more competition for booking bands. And artist fees have “gone insane,” Hayes says. Louder than Life will cost the Dannys $6 million for the artists. “Bands that we once would have paid $70,000 are now $350,000. Headliners are over seven figures. When we first started, our biggest talent budget might be $1 million for a weekend. Now it’s a million for one act,” Hayes says.

    As Hayes talks, Wimmer circles back to the table. 

    “You guys are still doing this?” Wimmer says. 

    “You just want to get in on it,” Hayes teases. “Just admit it. You want to get in on the interview.”

     

    This originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline “A Tale of Two Dannys.” To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photo by Mickie Winters, mickiewinters.com

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