Daydream Believers: Planning a Music Festival

Red Frog Events is better known for its footraces than its festivals, but that could change after Firefly Music Festival, the company's first foray into major music events, featuring headliners Jack White, The Killers, and OK Go. Find out how they pulled it off.

The inaugural Firefly Music Festival, which kicks off in Dover, Del., on July 20, represents one promotional company’s first foray into live events. Even more interesting than who’s playing at the fest, though, is how they got there in the first place. Rising from almost total obscurity, Red Frog Events has gone from being a lesser-known Chicago promotional firm to a major national player seemingly overnight.

Clearly, “It’s Red Frog time.”

The phrase, coined by the Chicago-based event planners Red Frog Events, refers to the point at which company employees frantically work to accomplish the task at hand. Between now and July 20th, the Windy City team are in full-on Red Frog mode preparing for Firefly. The star-studded event will feature some of the biggest names in music, including headliners Jack White, The Black Keys, and The Killers, as well as breakout groups such as The Head and the Heart, Bombay Bicycle Club, and J Roddy Walston and the Business.

Hobnobbing with the musical elite didn’t happen overnight, said Matt Robinson, director of ticketing for the festival. Spending its first few years organizing smaller events such as local bar crawls, the company gained local momentum in 2007 when they organized The Great Urban Race, a local adventure race modeled after the CBS TV series, The Amazing Race, that mixes physical challenges with brain teasers.

After a successful initial venture in Chicago, Red Frog set up seven additional races across the country. By 2008, the small Chicago event had expanded to 20 US cities, including a Vegas national championship event with a $10,000 grand prize. The number of contestants and participating cities has continued to grow every year since, with 2012 boasting 37 stateside events and three international races. And with it, awareness about Red Frog Events has also grown.

The Great Urban Race success led the company to create a more physically extreme, mud and beer-soaked spinoff called The Warrior Dash, which now brings in 15,000 to 25,000 participants.

It started out in 2009 and sold out at a capacity of 2,000 people,” explained Robinson. “… Since then, Warrior Dash has become the largest and fastest growing running series in the world. That’s kind of been the catalyst for all the other things that we have been able to do, including FireFly.”

But how did a small event planning company that is best known for local pub crawls and real life “amazing races” get to plan one of the East Coast’s biggest music festivals and convince the rock elite to join them?

The way Robinson tells the story, it seems better suited for a storyline on The Office—a small group of employees sitting in the break room enjoying lunch began tossing around the pipe dream of organizing a music festival. In the beginning, it seemed implausible, unrealistic, and completely ridiculous, but the more they talked, the more realistic the idea becomes.

“From the start, the festival was a completely internal idea. It started last March, and we decided that this was something we were serious about and something we really wanted to do,” Robinson said.

More concisely, “We knew what we wanted to do, so we just did it.”

This DIY attitude doesn’t just apply to daydreaming in the break room. Since its initial event, the Red Frog family has prided itself on being built from the ground up. Every position in the company, aside from the attorney and accountant, was originally filled following a paid internship. According to Robinson, this system allows both Red Frog and the recruit a chance to make sure the relationship is a good fit. When it comes to new employees, the company is much more focused on throwing potential candidates into real time situations to see how they are handled, as opposed to expecting them to remember how many sugars each coworker prefers in his or her coffee.

“It’s not a normal internship,” he added. “You get real duties in things that make a huge difference in events that we put on.”

If Robinson speaks of the internship program like an expert, that’s because he is. Just like every other member of the staff, he began his journey at the bottom of the ladder last summer, when Firefly was little more than research and planning across many sheets of paper.

But taking that internal homegrown attitude and applying it to a large-scale event like Firefly is much easier said than done. To transition from promoting races to wooing top performers, the Red Frog team reached out to vendors to start mobilizing on a grassroots level. Then they brainstormed which musical acts would best represent the festival they envisioned.

“We did research for months on all sorts of acts that we’ve wanted for a really long time, and it started with the headliners,” Robinson noted. “We had a team, dedicated solely to researching talent and the bands we wanted to shape our music festival with, and a talent buyer out of Nashville, who has been helping us along and getting us in touch with artists and the finer points of the deals organized.”

Creating a dream list of bands is one thing. Breaking through the PR wall and seducing them to play a brand spankin’ new festival is a different beast.

Talent has been a little bit of a challenge for us because it’s a little bit slower of a process,” said Robinson. “It takes some time to do the negotiations that go into securing top acts, and it’s kind of a Domino effect in that you have to start at the top and get those headliners nailed down before you can fill out the rest of your festival.”

Then there was the problem of location. Talent hubs like New York and LA are practically bursting with rock stars, but a new festival would face large start-up expenses kicking off in a big city and have a tough time competing against well-known events. Finding a place with lower start-up costs and fewer competing festivals that was close to larger urban hubs was a challenge.

“The east coast was a strategic move. For a variety of reasons, there hasn’t been a really large festival that has been able to take root here for a long time,” said Robinson. “We did research and looked at over 60 different venues to find out where we wanted to host Firefly. We visited 12 of those sites … Dover is less than two hours from DC, Philly, and Baltimore and a few more hours from New York and Richmond … . We also have a location that is really pumped to have us.”

But aside from the general excitement about possibly being remembered for something other than an infamous nod in Wayne’s World, the state of Delaware and the Dover International Speedway has proven to be a solid choice for another important reason— experience.  

Since opening in 1969, the venue has hosted a variety of high-profile events, including at least two major NASCAR races per year. This means they come equipped with plenty of contacts, vendors, and connections in place to make the behind-the-scenes portion of the planning slightly easier on everybody involved, Robinson included.  

“It’s been a very successful process, but it’s a lot of organizing logistics, permits, and back-end paperwork,” he said. “That’s an area where the Speedway has been able to help us out tremendously with their contacts across the city.”

With a city picked and an experienced venue locked, it was the tiny details that remained left to hammer out. Using the planning and development skills they had sharpened and perfected through years of putting together The Great Urban Race and Warrior Dash, the staff at Red Frog became focused on the minuscule festival details. Everything from the location of each food vendor and trashcan to every Porta-Potty on site was meticulously planned.  

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“We have a very detailed map that shows us exactly where every single piece of the festival is going to be placed,” Robinson added. “It’s going to be amazing to be able to see all of that come into place … seeing all those things come together will probably be my favorite part of this entire experience.”

With just days to go until that gigantic detailed map becomes a full-scale reality, Robinson and the rest of Red Frog aren’t the least bit worried. On Friday, the curtain will rise, and the culmination of a year and a half of hard work will begin. It’s enough pressure to make just about anybody slightly weak in the knees.

The key, at least at Red Frog, is to be prepared and just roll with the punches.

“We already know that some things aren’t going to go exactly as planned,” Robinson said. “That’s the life of event planning. As much as you can plan things, they don’t always go exactly how you expect them and how you deal with that is the key.”

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