Dave Graham

Dave Graham is the chief executive officer of Latitude 38 Entertainment which is producing BottleRock at the Napa Valley Expo later this month.

J.L. Sousa/Register

Crickets.

That’s the sound that Dave Graham described hearing after asking certain bands to play at BottleRock 2014.

Even as Graham and his partners at Latitude 38 Entertainment were finalizing negotiations to acquire the BottleRock name and assets and the right to hold the festival at the Napa Valley Expo, they were also calling the agents who booked performers in 2013, hoping to secure artists for 2014, Graham said.

The agents’ reaction?

“It wasn’t warm at all,” Graham said. “It was tough in the beginning.” Agents were “irritated” about the financial fallout from BottleRock 2013.

The road to BottleRock 2014 hasn’t been an easy one, said Graham. After the debacle of 2013, convincing agents and others to take a chance with a new group of music industry “outsiders” like Latitude 38 has been a task, he said.

The inaugural festival, produced by Napans Bob Vogt and Gabe Meyers of BR Festivals, was a hit with the approximately 120,000 concertgoers but the stages had barely been removed in 2013 when the festival’s financial disarray became apparent.

Festival expenses for the five-day event, held Mother’s Day weekend in 2013, topped $20 million, yet the event generated gross income of only $11.2 million. Hundreds of vendors and staffers, including union employees, went unpaid.

BR Festivals filed for bankruptcy protection in February. At the same time, Latitude 38 Entertainment — unaffiliated with BR Festivals — stepped forward with a proposal to produce BottleRock 2014. Latitude 38 is comprised of Napans Graham, Jason Scoggins, Justin Dragoo and Joe Fischer.

For most agents asked to consider booking artists at BottleRock 2014, “it took a lot of time to warm up” to the idea, Graham said. “It was really difficult to book the bands,” he said.

“It took time to build trust” — time the group didn’t have, especially since the May 2014 festival was only months away at that point.

He and his partners tried to tell agents that they were not Vogt and Meyers, Graham said. “We may not be experienced in the festival business, but we are experienced in building and running successful businesses,” he said. The four partners come from diverse business backgrounds including technology and other start-ups.

Besides the skepticism toward his group, Graham said he quickly found out that by February, the number of available bands “was not as abundant as we had hoped.”

Graham said another disadvantage his team faced was “the agents realize you are over a barrel. They come out of the gate with very high prices,” which led to “a lot of interesting moments to say the least,” he said.

Graham admitted that Latitude 38 did pay a premium for some performers because of the financial troubles of last year.

“No doubt that with certain bands that was the case,” he said. “We know we overpaid for a couple bands,” which he declined to name. “Did we do that with every band? Hell no.”

“It’s a rebuilding year,” said Graham. “We are taking it on the chin in a lot of different ways. We knew that going into it.” But they had to “jump in,” he said.

Graham said the group never considered waiting until 2015 to produce the next BottleRock. “We made three promises to the community and Expo,” he said. “We would make sure the festival took place in 2014, we’d help eliminate debt (from the 2013 festival), and keep uniqueness of Napa in the festival.”

Latitude 38 partners said they have eliminated more than $4.6 million, or about half the debts belonging to BR Festivals. One creditor who was owed $3 million has been made an equity partner in Latitude 38 in exchange for withdrawing its creditor claim.

Latitude 38 has also made arrangements to settle BR Festivals’ debt with the city of Napa, owed $106,730, and the Napa Valley Expo, owed $310,938.

In addition, Latitude 38 “satisfied” $500,000 of the $630,000 in wage and benefit claims from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union.

Both the city and Expo held leverage over the new promoters. The city threatened not to issue a special-event permit unless BR Festivals’ debt was cleared up. Similarly the Expo said it wouldn’t rent the fairgrounds for a repeat of BottleRock unless it was paid in full for last year. Participation by the stage employees union was also considered key for a return of BottleRock.

While attempting to secure a returning lineup, Graham said at one point the Latitude 38 partners did consider one other option. “We thought we’d have to have an entirely different lineup of bands that weren’t in as much demand as the bands we did get,” he said. BottleRock 2014 could have featured only so-called “emerging artists” or “oldies but goodies.”

Graham said the tipping point for the festival came at a meeting with a Los Angeles-based William Morris music executive named Marc Geiger.

“We flew down there, and we told him our story,” said Graham. “Who we were. Our intentions. Our background.” In the end, “He let us give them our money,” said Graham with a laugh.

The producers ended up booking all-important headliners Outkast and Eric Church through Geiger, Graham said.

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The Cure was a last-minute, but “much welcomed,” addition, and just in time to announce the entire lineup, he said.

Mostly a fan of “indie” artists, Graham admitted that BottleRock 2014 isn’t tailored to his own particular musical preferences. “We don’t book the lineup based upon our preferences. We book it based up on what is the best interests of the brand,” he said.

“Truth be told I would have liked to have had more and bigger-named indies,” said Graham. However, given the circumstances, “It’s the best solution to meet the needs of the brand we want to move forward with.”

Bankruptcy court documents report that BR Festivals spent $8 million on talent for BottleRock 2013. Graham wouldn’t say how much of the 2014 budget has been spent on talent, only that it is “a lot less than $8 million.”

Graham noted there had been moments of feeling overwhelmed by what they had set out to accomplish. “You’re pulling off something that is unprecedented given the timing. It is 24/7,” Graham said.

While Dragoo is also president of Gargiulo Vineyards and Fischer also works for the Gasser Foundation, BottleRock has been Graham and Scoggins’ full time job. “We didn’t do this to do it one year,” he said. Come June 2, “We start on 2015.”

“We’re already starting the booking process. I’m already being approached with available artists” for next year, he said. He declined to elaborate on exactly which artists they are courting, saying only, “We’ll continue to improve on everything” in 2015, including the lineup, he said.

“There is interest in the festival,” he continued. “People want to partner with us. But that’s not on our radar right now. We’re just focused on pulling off this festival and making it even better next year.”

Graham addressed rumors that ticket prices will be cut as the festival date gets closer. “Prices will not drop, and you won’t see two-for-ones and major discounts before the festival like last year,” he said. Box office prices are set at $149, $279 and $599 for single, 3-day and VIP tickets, said Graham.

With less than two weeks to opening night, Graham said his team is at work on the festival’s finishing details.

“We are going full-steam ahead on every single level,” said Graham. “There are literally hundreds of people circling the wagons and putting things into place.”

“Can you imagine the logistics involved in having 60 bands and their entourages, equipment, lighting, sound, transportation (and) food? That is a huge endeavor,” he said.

“It’s all coming to a crescendo.”

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Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.

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