BottleRock 2019: Dave Graham Talks Cutting Neil Young's Sound & Beating Back the Rain at The West Coast's Premiere Fest

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Chyna/Courtesy BottleRock Napa Valley
Neil Young + Promise of the Real photographed at 2019 BottleRock Napa Valley on May 25, 2019. 

Bottlerock partner said Young's sound was muted as part of a promise to neighbors not to miss curfew.

It's been nearly six years since Dave Graham and his partners Justin Drago and Jason Scoggins took the reins of Bottlerock, turning around the bankrupt first year-event with an embrace of the community and a company culture focused on hospitality and unforgetable experiences. 

Today, Bottlerock is the premiere food, wine and music festival on the West Coast, set each year during Memorial Day weekend, making it the unofficial kickoff to summer festival season. Known for having a general admission atmosphere that's better than most festival VIP areas, BottleRock once again delivered in 2019 with a three-day festival that saw Imagine Dragons make a daring stand for mental illness awareness, Mumford and Sons close out with a Beatles' classic and Neil Young and the Promise of the Real rock just a little too long into the night — festival organizers cut their sound after they went past curfew friday.

While music is certainly the main attraction, BottleRock's setting within the Napa Valley and its pairing with some of the region's best vineyards and restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Meadowood, allow the festival to stand out in a crowded pack of multi-genre events on the West Coast. With its deep talent pool of the region's best chefs and sommeliers and curated culinary experiences that generate as much buzz as the artists -- whether that's Thomas Keller's famous buttermilk fried chicken or Garth Brooks making a surprise appearance during Trisha Yearwood's time on the Williams Sonoma Culinary Stage -- the partners at Bottlerock have methodically aligned every aspect of the three-day event with food, wine and culture. 

Billboard caught up with Graham after the wrap of this year's festival to learn how his team fought back against heavy rains prior to the event and once again, delivered an unrivaled experience for fans, brands and bands.

How are you doing after your fourth sold out BottleRock?

I am doing just fine. My body is craving a little more of the adrenaline that I had going and we're still loading out and working on the site, but everyone is in a great place. The festival was definitely a big success no matter how you measure it. I think the team has a special pride in this year’s event because we overcame several obstacles presented by the weather in the run-up to the festival.

How much rain did you get prior to Friday?

Going in, there was a .004% chance that we would have less than .18 inches of rain (according to meterologists), which means we don’t have rain. We ended up having five inches of rain in the week leading up to the festival which really delayed the site ops team. Thanks to the leadership of our site ops director Jose Montano, attendees didn't know just how challenging it had been to dry everything off and get it built to our standards. At other festivals it might be okay to have a little mud, but at our festival it’s not. Ultimately, the festival ended in a very positive way, both emotionally and financially. It’s good stuff.

Let’s talk about Neil Young’s set. Was it your team that cut the sound at the end?

I want to be absolutely crystal clear on that — yes, we did cut his sound. Many people don't realize that our venue sits directly within a neighborhood in Napa. When we took over the festival in 2014, we made several commitments to our community including a commitment to end the sound at the festival every night at 10 p.m. We're not going to just pay a fine so that bands can keep playing past curfew or doing anything that would come at the expense of the trust that we've built with the community. As we have done historically with The Cure, Foo Fighters, Heart and now Neil Young and the Promise of the Real, we have no other option than to stop the performance.

So who makes that call?

I do. I called up our sound, lights and video person at around 9 p.m. and told him I had a feeling that this might happen. I've been working with the same company every year and they know that's the policy. I let him know we aren’t making any exceptions in 2019. He said he understood and that's just what happened. 

What were the big musical moments for you this year?

I thought Lord Huron’s set was incredible and I loved seeing and hearing Skylar Grey perform Sunday on the main stage with just a piano. She overcame the coolness of that day and gave a gripping performance that showed just how unique and talented she is. Pharrell's set was incredible and Mumford and Sons blew everyone away. I don’t think anyone knew they played Saturday night in England and then Sunday at BottleRock. They closed with guests The War and Treaty and Gang of Youths performing “With A Little Help From My Friends” by the Beatles (sung in the style of Joe Cocker). It was such a perfect call to close the night out. I had goosebumps during that last song. 

What did you think about Imagine Dragons using their set to tackle mental health issues?

I think Dan Reynolds and Imagine Dragons nailed it. It’s hard to share an important message like that and not make people feel uncomfortable, but they did it in a way that allowed fans to digest what he was saying without taking away from the performance and the energy. He navigated those waters pretty flawlessly. 

Let’s talk about the other aspects of the festival, like the culinary stage. Andrew Zimmern and Alice Cooper tried to break the record for the most rubber chickens thrown in the air at the same time. Did they succeed?

They didn't accomplish the world record, but it was a fantastic set and very entertaining. The crowd was almost rebellious because they wanted to throw the chickens right away. We paired Trisha Yearwood with Jerry Rice and witnessed Morimoto smash the world record for breaking down tuna into sushi, with help from some incredible sumo wrestlers. Bottlerock is the intersection of food and wine and music and I think those examples show where that intersection sits.

You’re now in your third year with Live Nation. How has your partnership evolved?

When we first sat down with (chief executive) Michael Rapino to talk about partnering, it was important to us that we be allowed to do what we know and Rapino agreed and said that if we did a deal, it would be a requirement that we continue to oversee Bottlerock. It’s been a great partnership and everything Live Nation said they would do, they have done.

Are you helping Live Nation implement VIP programs at their events?

What we're doing is offering to share out key learnings and best practices. To the extent they have questions or want to see how it’s done, Justin, Jason and myself will share whatever we can. Each festival within the Live Nation portfolio is a unique entity with its own fan experience, but we are always happy to tell anyone about what we do.

What’s the takeaway at Bottlerock this year for the festival business?

Experience matters. You can't forecast what band you're going to be able to book each year, but you can forecast the kind of experience that you're going to be providing to your customers, whether that be GA or VIP. We sold out our 96 suites (32 total spread over three days) prior to the lineup being announced because our customers know the type of experience that we offer. For the festival business to truly evolve, there needs to be a new approach to design thinking and the cognitive, strategic and practical processes by which design concepts are developed. There’s companies out there like Ideo and Frog Design that take a different approach to customer experience and how challenges are framed and problems are solve. That kind of thinking hasn't proliferated yet within the festival business. It's gonna take time for promoters to see what is possible.

Festivals 2019


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