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What’s Going On With RiverFest?

Riverfest will take place in downtown Little Rock during Memorial Day weekend

RiverFest is a long running arts and music festival in downtown Little Rock. Originally founded in 1978 by  Junior League of Little Rock, it has played a key role in developing and growing Little Rock’s downtown area. The announcement that this event would be suspended came on July 18, 2017. Fortunately, a partnership between Riverfest Inc. and Universal Fairs of Memphis Tennessee allowed the festival to continue for its 2018 year. However, attendance for RiverFest 2018 was far lower than expected.

RiverFest has contributed greatly to the community in various ways. In 2013 RiverFest had an attendance of 250,000 and brought in over $30 million to the local community. Riverfest Inc. has made donations for the east fountain at Riverfront Park, Riverfest Amphitheater, and the River Market pavilion. Service to the community is second nature to the nonprofit.

In the first twelve years of RiverFest admission was free, but as the entertainment improved admission prices were introduced. In 2013 admission was $35, in 2016 it was $43.50. Admission for this year was even higher. Ticket prices were $65 for unlimited re-entry and $50 for single entry. This steady increase in admission prices could very likely be driving families away.

In 2015 the date of the event was moved from the long held spot of Memorial Day to June, and previously available children’s programming was removed and took place in April. 2015 is also the year that RiverFest stopped being a single-ticket event. RiverFest has become less family friendly due to rising prices, the removal of children’s programming and changing the weekend of the event.

The music of RiverFest has also experienced a change. Artists from previous years include Juicy J and X Ambassadors (2016), along with Wiz Khalifa and Jon Bellion (2017). Even earlier years included ZZ Top and Carrie Underwood. The music of 2018 included Peter Frampton, Young Thug and Echosmith. Recent artists are not as nationally known as artists of previous years.

Booking nationally recognized artists to perform has only become more difficult over the years. Two main reasons were listed in the 2017 statement of suspension. One was that the artist fees were becoming too expensive and the other was the competition with other music festivals is constantly on the rise.

RiverFest has always had problems socially. There have also been issues with alcohol and underage drinking. There were several arrests in 2010 for minors attempting to purchase alcohol and vendors selling alcohol to minors. Security is in place, but it might not be strong enough to create a safe feeling environment. Recurring incidents like these may drive families away and deter many other individuals from attending.

This year RiverFest was held on the traditional Memorial Day weekend slot and there was family appeal. The “Ford Family Fun Zone” consisted of carnival rides and a meet and greet with Disney star Skai Jackson. But even the carnival rides, fair food and Disney star were not enough to draw families as expected.

RiverFest Event Director Jack Daniels told Arkansas Online in May that this year’s festival did not hit the 10,000 attendees it had projected.

RiverFest 2018 was organized in only three months. Organizers only had early 2018 to the spring to put the whole event together. This lack of time for preparation and lack of big performers, in addition with the cost of admission, and rising costs of production have contributed to the downward shift in population.

RiverFest has struggled the last few years and this 2018’s numbers reflect the declining popularity of the event. However, the low attendance is not discouraging the event director, Jack Daniels. Daniels seems to look forward to continuing and improving upon this Arkansas tradition in the year to come and RiverFest 2019 is currently being planned. Hopefully 2019 will be a success. So, at least for one more year RiverFest will carry on as an Arkansas tradition.

1 Comment

  • The two reasons given for Riverfest shuttering strike me as music industry issues–not Little Rock issues. I wonder: why is Riverfest holding so tightly to the belief that it should be a music festival? Now, I’m a huge music fan, and in looking back over the line up, I see several artists from this past year I would have enjoyed seeing. That said, I don’t harbor any illusions that even a sliver of greater Little Rock has heard of them.

    In my view, music doesn’t really unify us as a society anymore. The typical black Little Rockian has never hear of Tracy Lawrence and Kip Moore. The average over 30 white LRian probably thinks Wiz Khalifa is a swear word or drug euphemism–not a popular hip-hop artist. These artists are going to pull very different crowds who will want different kinds of experiences.

    If I were picking a different model, I’d focus on food/local businesses and keep events during the day. Food still gathers very diverse people and I think Little Rock has a lot to offer. Look at the growth of the foodtruck and craft beer scene. Think Fayetteville’s Bock Street party–which sadly didn’t occur this year. Apparently 12,000 came in 2017. Notably the music line-up is all local bands. Significantly cheaper!

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