Sixteen years ago J.K. McKnight scrounged up $200 to put on a music festival at a small park near his parent's house in Louisville, KY. Fifty people showed up to watch local musicians perform underneath a restroom gazebo.

Tomorrow over 75,000 people from across the country and around the world will flock to Louisville Waterfront Park for the 17th annual Forecastle Festival, a three-day music, art, and activism event that this year features artists like Modest Mouse, Arcade Fire, Jason Isbell, and headliner (and Kentucky native) Chris Stapleton.

And it's an event that makes a huge difference for the city. As Louisville mayor Greg Fischer told me, "Forecastle has grown in a way that's authentic and unique to our city. They involve our local musicians and give them a big stage. They involve local businesses and showcase what we like to call bourbanism, our local food and tourism. And in a broader sense the festival is a great economic development tool to recruit businesses to Louisville, to show potential employees that Louisville is a great place to live... Forecastle is a local festival that's important on a national level. As Louisvillians, we're proud of that."

So how did J.K. turn a bootstrapped free concert into one of the best (and longest-running) festivals in the country?

Good question. Let's find out.

Surely you weren't thinking this big all those years ago.

(Laughs.) I was going to the College of Charleston and after my freshman year dropped out to do music. I was thinking pre-med, had this future laid out in front of me... and it kept tugging at me that I didn't want to do it.

So I dropped everything, jumped off the high dive, left a beautiful city and great friends... and moved back to Louisville and slept in my parent's basement.

Wait. I have kids. How did that your folks take that? 

My dad took it better than my mom. My father is entrepreneurial, he's creative... he said, "Do this now, and if you want to go back to school later, you can." He was right. My mom saw school as security. She was also right. (Laughs.)  

An even worse day for them was when I said I was moving to this "Fight Club" house my buddies and I could live in for free by trading work for rent. People from the neighborhoods I grew up in never ventured into that part of the city.

It was scary... but it was also a great time in my life. I was trying to be an artist. I built a little studio. I was doing what I wanted to do instead of what everyone else wanted me to do... it was great.

But how does that turn into deciding to put together a "festival"?

Part of that process was coming up with an event to bring the community together and connect with other musicians. I was trying to create another platform for myself to perform, to bring other people together... hardly anyone showed up, but it had such a good vibe.

The second year is really where the current incarnation came from. I tried to take it up another level -- which admittedly wasn't hard, considering where we started from -- and added an art and activism level to it. I had so many friends in the visual arts, in the performance arts community... why not invite them? Plus I had always been into environmental issues... why not invite organizations so they could be represented?

That was the light bulb moment: Music, art, activism. 

And the audience size tripled. It was also more diverse: young people, older people, families... 

Of course I was open to any audience. The first year the bands comprised half the of crowd. (Laughs.)

It's still a big jump to go from local musicians to even "state," much less regional artists.

The music, art, activism blend really resonated with people. Plus Louisville is close to a number of major markets: Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Nashville... we invited people from those communities. And they loved it.

So the third year we again doubled in size. 

Growth is great, but where did the money to put on ever-larger shows come from?

The first two years I spent two to three months pulling things together, getting people to donate things, to volunteer...

In year three we secured a media deal and I used that as leverage for actual cash sponsorships. Keep in mind I didn't know how to pitch sponsors, but my mom did (laughs.)

Patagonia came on as a sponsor, Red Bull got behind us, we got some other corporate backing... but everything else was local.

We raised $20,000 which to a 23 year-old was a massive amount of money. That let us build real stages, attract touring acts... and that year we had over 5,000 people attend.

At that point, 5,000 people was a lot of people.

We kinda freaked out -- in a good way -- seeing all those people. It felt like a movement. People were just into it. It was like people had been waiting for something like this. The word really got out, billboards were donated, we had posters all over town...  there was really a huge buzz.

But it was still a free festival, and even with all the sponsors we found for the fourth year, we still lost money. it was all volunteer-driven. Lots of help from family and friends.

My parents basically gave me a gut check and said, "You can't keep doing this for free." 

Today I look at that year as the real liftoff. The band Shipping News headlined. They're an amazing band. I knew we would draw thousands of people. So I put on a shirt and tie, walked into the city offices and asked to move the festival to Cherokee Park... and they let me do it.

That was a huge draw, too. People said, "A festival at Cherokee? We're going!" 

That year was really the launching pad. We walked away from it with real momentum.

And started putting some real infrastructure in place.

Absolutely. I incorporated the name. I won a federal trademark for music, art, and activism programming because the model was unique.... Still, the next three years were incredibly tough from a growth standpoint because I had to learn everything as I went along.

And then we got really lucky. We had partnered with a local promoter, Billy Hardison, who really helped us build the scene. We were deciding whether to book Sleater-Kinney or Yo La Tengo and Billy said, "Yo La play here every year, they're a known quantity, I can tell you how much they'll sell... that's the safe play. On the flip side, Sleater-Kinney is relatively unknown but could be big because they get tons of national press, etc."

I chose Sleater-Kinney. 

Ticket sales were going okay... but not great. The one night I start getting all these message from people. "Congrats!" "We're flying in from Portland!" "We're coming in from Texas!" 

It turns out the band had decided to break up and Forecastle was one of the last events they would play.

We sold thousands of tickets overnight. We got national press coverage. Spin magazine named us one of their Top 101 Things to Do. It was huge.

I've talked to a several successful festival founders and they all say the "middle" years are the hardest.

I would tend to agree. And luck does play a part.

In 2009 the stars really aligned. Look at the lineup that year and we had a number of club and theater acts that soon became stadium acts: The Black Keys, Avett Brothers, Widespread Panic, The Black Crowes, Umphries McGee... it was a grand slam year. We just completely knocked it out of the park.

That year made Forecastle a national event. 

Let's talk about growth. Plenty of fizzles flare up and then fail. To what do you attribute not just your longevity but your sustained growth?

You're right. Very few festivals are still growing and still relevant 17 years after they're founded. Most have to pivot, to downsize... if you found a festival based on a specific genre and that genre goes out of style, obviously your festival has to change. 

Granted we started off as an indie rock festival. Early on Billy Hardison made an offhand comment that "we're doing a big rock festival," and that thought bothered me. So the next year we had Hip Hop headliners. We totally flipped it.

And that same year we started going deep into the different electronica genres.

So basically we've stayed with four core genres: Rock, hip hop, electronica, and Americana/country/bluegrass. We're not a festival that has 15 different genres. Some years we have more world music, or more jazz, but we've basically stayed in and around those four genres... because there's so much you can do within them.

As far as why Forecastle has stood the test of time, I think it's the strength of the brand. When we became activism-centric, no one else was doing that. Festivals did that "on the side." No one made activism an equal ingredient in the festival.

Look at our old posters: we market the non-profit organizations as prominently as the headliners. No one else did that.

They still don't.

Did the arts and activism component make finding partners more difficult?

That model definitely wasn't mainstream, although it did start becoming more widespread as the decade closed.

Companies were scared to death of the "activism" word. We have big brands in Louisville, and I approached them multiple times... but the big brands shied away from the activism component. They were intrigued by it but weren't sure what to do with it.  

But slowly a small group of early adopters tied in to what we were doing. Slowly we broke down some of those barriers. 

Keep in mind we didn't have bank loans. We had no family money. We depended on local partnerships, and corporate partnerships, and small businesses to pay for everything. There was no other way. No bank would touch me. They wouldn't even take me seriously.

That's a point I always emphasize. A number of companies like Patagonia, Red Bull, JanSport, Southern Comfort, Brown-Forman... they basically helped float us for several years. Without their support we couldn't have financed the festival.

At this point we've partnered with over 350 brands... but those early partners were huge.  

And now as environmental concerns have become more mainstream and less fringe, we are an authentic outlet for brands to associate with.

Forecastle is a major festival with a definite Kentucky vibe. How have you managed to maintain that?

Forecastle is a nautical term. Everything we do is nautically themed... and yes, a nautically themed music arts activism festival is pretty weird in a landlocked place like Kentucky. (Laughs.)

We put an emphasis on the consumer experience. People come not just for the music and art and activism but also for the micro experiences we build in. We focus on the DNA of Kentucky -- if you're traveling in from one of the 2,400 cities people come from, you want an authentic Kentucky experience. So we roll out that red carpet. We build in those micro experiences in a way that is authentic and unique... but also convenient and easily digestible.

You can get from one stage to another in less than 5 minutes. There's a beautiful view over the river, the hotels are right there... we're family friendly and accessible while also divergent and creative...

We have a small festival feel inside a big festival. It just works. 

Partnering with local businesses, large corporations, civic leaders, etc required countless pitches. How did you develop that skill?

It starts with my parents. My dad is the creative marketing guy; I joke he's like a guy on "Mad Men." My mom is great at sponsorship development.

Put those together and I could be up in the clouds creating a vision for a festival and also in the weeds writing proposals and developing contracts. I did that non-stop. I still do that non-stop. (Laughs.)

That was the only way I could finance it. There was no other option. 

I have boxes full of old letters I wrote to CEOs and companies asking for a partnership. There were definitely a lot of nos, but they weren't hard nos. People thought I was doing something interesting. They might have thought it was crazy... but they applauded the effort.

Even if you have an established brand, you're going to get shot down 9 times out of 10 with sponsorship asks. If you have one totally out of left field those odds get even worse.

That's why the real credit goes back to the community in Louisville. A lot of small businesses did what they could. A lot of big companies did a little... but that little went a really long way. There were a handful of companies that believed and were willing to stick their necks out to help make it happen.

All it takes is one person at a senior level position to stick their neck out, and I just seemed to find those people.

Take Maker's Mark. The marketing director was a friend of mine, is a huge music fan, wanted the brand associated with music... and convinced them to jump in at a big level.  Before that the PR director of Southern Comfort went out on a limb and said, "If this takes off it will be good not just for our brand but for the city. There's something really special here, it's in our backyard..."

Don't be afraid to approach anyone. All they can do is tell you no. Find that one advocate inside all those different partners.

If you truly believe in what you're doing, if you keep trying you can find people willing to believe in you.

Published on: Jul 12, 2018