The Wichita Riverfest is known for its fireworks, its fried food, its bouncy kiddie fun, its eating contests and its random river races – and president and CEO Mary Beth Jarvis says that’s as it should be.
That’s the 46-year-old festival’s identity. That’s its legacy.
But during the past five years, the festival has started to develop a second identity: that of a legitimate music event that national artists want to be part of.
And the festival’s ever-improving lineup of headlining performances of late has been earning it something else pretty valuable, too: positive word-of-mouth with in-the-know music fans. The same kind of people who may have previously avoided the festival or ridiculed it to their friends are now publicly praising it on social media.
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Just a sampling from last week’s Facebook feed in Wichita:
“The Flaming Lips are one of my favorite bands and it was a very special treat to watch them perform live in Wichita ... I just want to thank all of the wonderful people at Wichita Festivals Inc. that made this magical night possible.”
“The Common concert ALONE was worth a Riverfest button.”
“OK GO was an awesome way to end Riverfest! I really love Wichita and all the awesome fun we have!”
Attendance at this year’s Wichita Riverfest, which wrapped up on Saturday night, was estimated at about 410,000, according to Riverfest organizers. That’s down about 45,000 from 2016. In 2015, attendance was just more than 405,000.
The numbers are good, especially considering the rainy conditions during the opening weekend, Jarvis said. And the solid numbers were driven in part by people attending to watch the festival’s marquee headliners.
An estimated 25,000 people turned out to watch rockers OK Go on Saturday, the event’s closing night. That same number was estimated to have been in the crowd for rapper Common, who caused a buzz by inviting a local gospel singer to perform his award-winning song “Glory” with him onstage.
The Flaming Lips, whose lead singer thrilled the crowd by surfing over it in a human-sized hamster ball, drew 18,000 enthusiastic (and social media-savvy) fans.
Three of the smaller concert crowds were still so big, they would have filled every seat inside Intrust Bank Arena, Wichita’s main music venue. Mavis Staples, Randy Newman and the norteno bands that made up the Fiesta Del Rio all drew crowds of 15,000.
In all, about 200,000 people attended the festival’s lineup of concerts, organizers say. That’s 20,000 fewer than last year, when The Roots drew a record-setting crowd of 35,000 people. But it’s double the number of people who attended shows at the 2013 festival.
“When people ask me who our Riverfest headliner is, I have to answer with the names of six or seven artists, where before it would have just been Rick Springfield,” Jarvis said. “And that’s definitely what we’ve tried to evolve to.”
The Wichita Riverfest has a colorful history with musical acts.
In recent history, concerts were sometimes in Kennedy Plaza, sometimes on the West Bank Stage (whose location now is covered in apartment construction).
Some years, the concerts were free with a button. Some years, they required an extra admission fee.
Sometimes, the latest “American Idol” winner would come and cause a frenzy, such as Ruben Studdard, who drew more than 37,000 people in 2004. Sometimes, big-name acts would draw disappointing crowds (Rick Springfield and Kellie Picker in 2012, whose concerts cost $15 on top of the $5 button).
When Jarvis and her crew took over leadership in 2013, she said, they heard fans saying they wanted quality concerts, and they wanted them to be free with the price of their button.
The festival organizers had to make a few changes, though, to make that happen. The main one: raise the price of the button. In 2015, the festival raised the price of the adult button from $5 to $10, the first time the price had gone up in more than a decade.
That price increase, along with increased sponsorships, has helped the festival devote a much larger amount of money to securing musical acts.
In 2012, Jarvis said, the music budget was less than $200,000. This year, it was close to $450,000.
“It’s been a conscious investment,” Jarvis said. “As we’ve been able to bring in more revenue from buttons and increased sponsorships, our musical entertainment budget line item has grown the absolute most in the last five years.”
Good word-of-mouth reviews from visiting artists have helped, Jarvis said.
Common and his representatives told festival organizers this year that hearing The Roots rave about the festival persuaded them to book a date this year. And OK Go’s managers said they’d been reassured by good experiences reported by past festival performers like Elle King and Reel Big Fish, who played last year.
Adam Hartke, a longtime band booker in Wichita, joined the festival staff in 2013.
Hartke, who previously worked at The Orpheum, said he’s been trying to get acts like Common and The Flaming Lips to Wichita for years. Getting bands to sign on gets easier every year, he said.
He’s already started working on the 2018 lineup.
“I feel like we’re definitely making strides to really create a very musically charged atmosphere,” he said. “I’ve been trying to book some of these acts for about a decade, and to be able to get them all in a festival setting and have the community react the way they have is awesome. There’s lots of good energy around the festival, locally and nationally.”
Recent concert attendance
Setup: Kennedy Plaza stage and four days of a smaller stage on the Hyatt Lawn
Total concert attendance: 100,000
Notable artists: Chris Mann with symphony, Mike Finnegan, Montgomery Gentry, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Big Head Todd, the GoGo’s
Setup: Kennedy Plaza stage and a full schedule down at the smaller stage on Hyatt Lawn
Total concert attendance: 168,000
Notable artists: Music Theatre with symphony, Jarrod Neimann, Joan Jett, Tamela Mann, Grandmaster Flash, Kelly Hunt, the Romantics, Marky Ramone’s Blitzkrieg with Andrew W. K.
Setup: Kennedy Plaza stage and a full schedule on the RedGuard stage (bigger, and in parking lot south of the Hyatt)
Total concert attendance: 184,000
Notable artists: Robert Randolph, Easton Corbin, Split Lip Rayfield, Kyle Park, Village People, Charles Bradley, Flogging Molly, D.J. Jazzy Jeff, Mayer Hawthorne, D.J. 4-Color Zach
Setup: Kennedy Plaza stage and a full schedule on the RedGuard stage
Total concert attendance: 220,000
Notable artists: Violent Femmes, A Thousand Horses, The Brothers Osborne, The Love Family, Naughty by Nature, Moreland & Arbuckle, Reel Big Fish, Elle King, William Clark Green, The Roots
Setup: Kennedy Plaza stage and a full schedule on the RedGuard stage
Total concert attendance: 200,000
Notable artists: Flaming Lips, LoCash, Carrie Nation, Jenny Wood, Less Than Jake, Darryl Worley, Mavis Staples, Common, Marcia Ball, Randy Newman, OK Go
Source: Wichita Riverfest