“Do I see that a lot of people aren’t coming to town? Yeah, I do,” Sweetwood told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay at the end of February. “The good part is it really hasn’t affected the elements of the festival because at the end of the day, it’s just that—it is a music festival with a baseball theme.”
With games returning (Yankees host the Detroit Tigers on Sunday, just across the street), Sweetwood has more of a built-in audience to work with, but he was already charging at Innings Florida like Robin Venture making his way towards Nolan Ryan.
Sweetwood—together with C3 and Live Nation, who he’s now worked with for seven years—has dedicated a seven-figure budget to Innings Florida and hopes to bring 20,000 people a day to the south lot of Raymond James Stadium where more than two dozen bands—including Green Day, The Lumineers, Incubus, 311, Khruangbin, Nathaniel Rateliff, Jimmy Eat World and Liz Cooper—will play over two days. Ancillary activations featuring ex-MLB players and even a Jake Peavy-led baseball jam featuring athletes playing music are also on the agenda.
“It’s a large scale investment,” Sweetwood, who founded Atlanta’s Shaky Knees Festival, said. He’s also put more effort than ever into this first-year festival, and knows that the ticket price is significant for Bay area festival goers who’re used to the value at independent, established local nonprofit festivals like Clearwater Jazz Holiday and Gasparilla Music Festival which use proceeds to boost nearby music education programs.
“Ten years ago, I would have hoped to introduce a price of $79 or something like that for a two-day GA ticket, and you just can’t do it in today’s financial climate,” he explained, pointing out that the price of everything related to a music festival—from talent to fencing and everything in between—has gone up not just for him, but for indies, too. “We’re defenseless against the inflation that exists these days.”
In response, Sweetwood has gone on the offensive.
Top to bottom, Innings features at least half a dozen bands that could headline MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre—capacity in between 19,000 and 20,000 people—on any given day.
“Sometimes there’s a climate where you can build from small to big and other times, it’s like let’s get some real headliners and try to drive some people there,” he said. Sweetwood also chose the site so that he could design a festival footprint from scratch—something he hopes to do again next year, no matter what happens at Innings during its first time on the mound.
“I can’t give you financial specifics regarding what we’re going to lose or make or whatever it may be, but we’re really happy with the venue—it’s been great to work with, Tampa Sports Authority,” he said. “And we’re seeing enough sales and enough traction that we can already say that we’ll be giving it a go again in ‘23.”
Read our full Q&A below. I really just want to know if we're doing this Innings thing in Florida just to go to the Disney Star Wars Hotel.
Well, me and my wife are Disney dorks. So don't let it be known that I may or may not have a Disney trip on the front or backside of the festival.
When I heard that you bring the Disney customer service ethos to the festival and the festival staff, I was like, "This guy is just coming here to do some Star Wars stuff."
Work hard, play harder.
I want to ask since this news kind of developed recently. Obviously ancillary elements are important in festivals these days. I don't think you're planning any festivals without them. And obviously there's this idea around Innings that fans are in town for spring training, looking for things to do after that 3 p.m. game wraps. How does the spring training delay affect your plans in Florida and even in Arizona?
The good part is it really hasn't affected the elements of the festival because at the end of the day, it's just that—it is a music festival with a baseball theme, and then incorporating a lot of these players who are for the most part alumni and MLB greats. Do I see that a lot of people aren't coming to town? Yeah, I do. But at least in Arizona, it's been established and around enough that people are coming. We've also seen an uptick, funny enough, in Arizona. The amount of press coming out to the festival is like triple of what it normally is because they have a bunch of press out here that's supposed to be covering baseball, but they don't have any baseball to cover so we're actually seeing an uptick in press coverage.
That makes a lot of sense because I think it's a little bit more concentrated in Arizona. I was gonna ask you this later, but you kind of mentioned being established in Arizona, and a big part of the festivals is adapting to the city, or the location where the festival is and the people of the surrounding area. There's that precedent in Arizona, and the baseball, but as far as Tampa Bay, how's your scouting of the festival scene been down here? I mean, I know you founded Shaky Knees, so you're somewhat familiar with what happens down here, but I think a lot of people back in the day would focus on a Langerado, III Points, or Okeechobee even. But there's some stuff here in Central Florida—be it like Clearwater Jazz Holiday or Gasparilla Music Festival, those types of things—so what's your scouting in Tampa Bay been like?
It's been good. I think that one of the nice pieces about Tampa Bay and Clearwater and everything around there is that those that are there know it's continuing to be a growing market. So that's number one from scouting. We want to go to places where more people are coming and when markets are growing, it means that cities and places and landlords that we would work with for a site are more willing to support and invest in us as well because it's continued growth for the city. So what I also saw a little bit in Tampa was that there was a chance for us as a company to do kind of a marquee festival, if you will, as well. I think there's a ton of great stuff going on Tampa, from the sports to tradition that's been there with Gasparilla for a long time and then even to the smaller Gasparilla Music Festival, but as you can see with our headliners, we're not shying away from trying to go a little bigger than what is existed there before.
And to just kind of stay here because you did kind of talk about that Arizona infrastructure. Reaching ticket buyers is obviously a huge key to longevity. But I wonder how that plays out for a first year festival like Innings, even though you do have the past in Arizona—how much does being part of C3 and that Live Nation product give you a heads up as far as ticket buyer info, whether it's email addresses or buying habits, and stuff like that?
I've been a part of C3 and our parent company Live Nation coming up on seven years now. There's definitely value to being part of a big, cool polished machine. We have a lot of info and then we work well together. There's Live Nation offices in Florida, and I work in conjunction with them in knowing what's going on. So it adds a ton of value. To be an independent music festival producer in the current climate would be really tough these days. So for me, it's an advantage and it's amazing. And you know this—Shaky Knees was independent at one point—festival prices are insane. They didn't really change much during the pandemic, so to be indie, and doing that, but forgive me if I'm getting too granular here, but I'm kind of nerdy about this kind of stuff.
I have always been curious about that database with Live Nation and C3 as far as being able to send targeted ads out within a market with all these different data points. What's that been like for you as far as the marketing and feedback and converting people into buying tickets?
It's been good but specifically in Tampa it is definitely a new audience. We've had a lot of feedback and we are trying to be a lot more informative, because when we've done a lot of this marketing, we've captured fans, but we get a lot of questions like how does this work, when's my ticket arriving, all that kind of good stuff. It's a new festival and a new concept for people that they're getting used to down there, but then to also touch on marketing and digital aspects—that is one of the coolest things about the current climate and the technology that exists—we can market to some people. The headliner of Inning Tampa is Green Day—it's not it's not John Williams conducting an orchestra as the headliner. That modern technology allows us to do a better job of targeting those fans, too, because marketing can be annoying sometimes if you're not interested in something. That technology and being able to track down that specific audience is advantageous.
Yeah, it'd be great to have that magic number—how many times can I serve an ad up on programmatic before the person is definitely not going to convert, or is going to be that person that eventually converts. You mentioned Green Day and when the lineup for something like this breaks, everyone in the office is like, "Jesus Christ. How much do you think they're getting paid?" You can look at Pollstar as much as you want, and I don't know that I'm expecting you to tell me how much you're paying Green Day, but do you think you could share some kind of range about the budget, the talent budget for innings in Florida? Just to kind of give people an idea of what you're doing here and how it's different.
I can't give you the specific number. But it's a large scale investment. Funny enough, as you mentioned before, coming out of the pandemic, every piece is more expensive. So the price of bands has gone up, the price of the stage has gone up, the price of the fencing has gone up—we're, we're defenseless against the inflation that exists these days. Unfortunately, that's why our prices go up and all that kind of stuff, but you can see it in the prices. Ten years ago, I would have hoped to introduce a price of $79 or something like that for a two-day GA ticket, and you just can't do it in today's financial climate. To answer that specifically, I can't give you this specific number, but I'm sure as you can imagine, to produce a festival the size that we're producing, there's definitely, you know, seven figures involved.
Would you put it on like, on par with producing like Shaky Knees especially as it grew as far as the push and the load, per se?
I mean Innings Tampa year one is probably me putting a stronger foot forward than we have over the past five to seven years, when we've started festivals. We found that, let's kind of go for it. Sometimes there's a climate where you can build from small to big and other times, it's like let's get some real headliners and try to drive some people there.
I kind of want to stay on some of this granular stuff, but real quick because it popped in my head. You landed in Atlanta because of your job with AT&T and hated it pretty quickly. You still working with Brian McNamara? I used to work at the Masquerade here in Tampa.
Brian is still a great friend. He's in the background with us. Let's put it that way.
I guess I'll ask you this question out of order, too. You mentioned this first Innings. Is there a hard line on whether or not Innings Tampa is going to have another go in 2023? Have you decided that yet?
Yes, we are looking to bring it back. Again, I can't give you financial specifics regarding what we're going to lose or make or whatever it may be, but we're really happy with the venue—they've been great to work with with, Tampa Sports Authority—and we're seeing enough sales and enough traction that we can already say that we'll be giving it a go again in '23.
OK, cool. Thinking of a Free Press festival in Houston. I think you kind of were aiming for this 32,00-35,000 daily attendance. Is their attendance goal for Innings? What would you call a success here? I'm sure it's more than just a turnstile number, but in terms of what you're kind of hoping to learn this weekend.
We'd love to land in the 20,000-plus per day, is what our goals are for Innings Tampa this year. That would be a good start for a year one festival. That's kind of where we're hoping to land.
Moving away from some of this more hard data type stuff, you've talked a lot about listening to customers at your festivals—and obviously, customers aren't always 100% correct—but there's something to be said when the majority of them are saying something, you have to hear them out. How much of the Innings Arizona feedback and lessons over the years do you take to Florida, or is it just such a completely different market that you're almost starting fresh?
I think you hit it on the head, but I think we listen to fans across all our festivals and try to find what works, so it's not even specific to Innings Arizona. We take some of that feedback and try to improve on all of it whether it be a certain premium area or something else. Just like you said, we're not perfect just like the next person, but we want people to have a great experience. No different than when we talked about Disney. Does Disney do a lot of things right? Yeah, they do a lot of things right. But can they always be improving? Yeah. So I think that's what comes out of our festivals. We do a lot of things right, and we have a lot of customers, the lion's share, 95%, leave happy, and the other ones that don't, we're trying to get them back and make them happy as well. So we're always taking the feedback from all of our festivals combined.
Nobody's perfect on Yelp.
Ha! I find it to be the exact opposite.
Staying on this lineup thing I mean, obviously, I love the lineup and there are a lot of bands we didn't expect to see in Tampa. Khruangbin, thinking of them, and we've seen Liz Cooper at the bottom of that festival which just kind of speaks to the top to bottom of the lineup. We talk about exposure and festival lineups, is exposure—and this is definitely in the context of the pandemic now—is exposure something an artist is looking for when deciding whether or not to play Innings Florida? Like, in your negotiations with them—and this is me making the assumption that you're still doing a lot of talent buying—what are the guiding factors on the artist and talent buying side that land a band on the lineup this year? Why would you pass on a band? Why would a band pass on Innings?
We could probably talk for an hour on that subject alone, but it's the combination of everything. Of course I always have my wish list of bands you want to go out with, right? You start with number one: Is the band available and working? That's normally the number one challenge to see if we can get them. Then we get into: Are they on a current sales cycle and supporting an album so that you're getting the marketing push from the band and label side and we're pushing the band. Of course, to your word "exposure," the lower you go down the lineup, the more that exposure becomes an important piece. And if I can get some of those bands that are a little bit like-minded, right—like is there a fan of The Lumineers and a fan of Nathaniel Rateliff that should be becoming a fan of Liz Cooper? I think there is, right, so that talent buying is definitely done intentionally. But then—I'm sure you can imagine—once the word gets out that we're producing a festival and buying for a festival, we get hit up just as much as we hit up artists. There are hundreds of bands that want to get on a festival, and do that.
In particular, one of the things that I did take away from Innings Arizona, on talent buying for this—and it's a unique thing that probably doesn't get talked about enough—is if you are a super music fan and really diehard, you can go to Innings Tampa both of these days and technically you can see every band. I think there's something to be said for that and takeaway. Sometimes there's only 12 or 15 bands on a lineup for a single day, then when you get over to the big juggernauts—Lollapalooza or Coachella—you physically can't see every band. So what's cool about these is if you want to be diehard and bounce back and forth, you can see every band, so I think that influences some of my talent buying as well. I'm not always looking for bands that are opposite of something else, right? A certain festival may have two stages going at the same time. So it's like, do you want to have a punk-rock band with the exact same audience on both those stages? No, you have a hip-hop one over here and a punk-rock one over there, and then that way, it's an easier decision. Whereas for this people don't have to make a decision—you can see every band.
I don't know why my mind went there, but I was thinking about this tour announcement from The Smile; Tom Skinner drumming, and Tom and Johnny, are obviously out, and I was like, "I wonder how whether or not you know, Tom or the agent gives festivals advanced knowledge or says, 'We're looking to tour.'" It would have been crazy to see a Radiohead on that bill, not not to take away from Green Day, but I think when you see C3, Radiohead in Tampa Bay becomes a possibility.
Yeah, totally. Look, there's ones where it's like, I'd love to have Radiohead on every festival and we do get heads up from some of these that they're doing different, you know, acts and all that. You got a couple members or a few members of Radiohead, for sure, so we get heads up on these things, and they're around. I don't know if that was a question or just geeking out over Radiohead. Nah it just popped into my head when you were talking about talent stuff. I thought to myself, "Well, Radiohead is not touring," but then I thought of that Smile announcement. I also know that you've always been a music fan first, I think more than anything, and I assume you'll be doing a little bit more running around at Innings Tampa than at some of your other festivals where people know you and there's a system and a flow and tradition as far as the minutiae of how to pull off the festival. But are there any sets at Innings which you're absolutely not going to miss?
That's a really good question. Let me look.
I'm sure you've seen all these bands 1,000 times.
I definitely have. You know, that's a great question. There is an element of where I would happily stand in front of any of these bands and watch their sets. But in particular, Highly Suspect is gonna have some new music out there, so I definitely want to stand in front of them and watch that. I'm a big Wolf Alice fan—I think they're very underrated, they don't get as much credit—they're super cool. Khruangbin has been hitting their mark for sure. Those are a handful that will be great to see. I mean Khruangbin in the dark at a festival—that sounds like a lot of fun.
And I mean, obviously, Tampa fans won't have to drive to Miami to experience that band. So that's nice.
Something I'm excited to see—and it's, it's been something in the making—Jake Peavy is a friend of mine and he's an alumni MLB player, won World Series and the Cy Young and all that stuff. He's putting together the details of this all-star baseball jam, so he's going to bring in other ex-players, and they're actually going to be up there performing. That should actually be kind of fun.
Combined with David Duchovny on the bill, it is interesting. When I was gonna write about the baseball stuff I was really gonna frame it in the context of what you've previously done in Arizona as far as the way the fans interact with them. Is there anything notable that's different about that programming for Tampa that I should know?
I don't think so. The programming is the same, but as you can see, it's a pretty stacked lineup if you're a traditional baseball fan. There are some heavy hitters on there: Ozzie Smith and Gary Sheffield than A. J. Pierzynski and Ray Lankford. It's a more crowded baseball lineup than we've ever had, but the interactions are going to be the same. They're going to be hosting these activations, if you will, for about an hour, whether it's the speed pitch or the batting cage and stuff. Kids can throw a pitch in front of these guys and do some stuff, which is pretty cool. Ryan Dempster is doing his talk show again, so with all these guys here, and then other Yankees around and stuff that's right down the street, he'll have some good stories and some cool programming there for sure.
Lou Piniella actually went to high school less than a mile away from the festival site.
I didn't know that that's super cool.
Yeah, I think he has a basketball scoring record at that school. Kind of going back a little bit to the granular stuff, festivals make a lot of their nut on food and beverage, ticket sales and sponsorship. What's that look like for this first outing for Innings Florida?
You're smart. You said it. It's very similar whether you're at a theater or an amphitheater, the ticket sales generally help cover the production, the talent and all that stuff. And if we're lucky enough to be positive and make some money, most of it comes from the bars and sponsors. That goes back a little bit to the fact that we are a part of Live Nation at the end of the day and so there's a cool machine helping us drive and find some of that sponsorship that as an independent promoter, I wouldn't be able to track down in year one. So it definitely helps to get this festival off on the right foot, but that's looking good. We try to do our best with the food choices to make them locally based as well. Hopefully some people that have the ability to get out but highlights a little bit of Florida showcase along with some other nationally touring food vendors that are always at these things.
You mentioned the Sports Authority earlier. Can you say why MidFlorida Credit Union amphitheater and those grounds weren't an option or not the final choice? I mean, I've seen Live Nation do some pretty cool festivals there, obviously they tended to be one offs like Big Guava, Coral Skies. Was that site ever considered for you all and was there like a deciding factor to go with Raymond James over there the shed that we have here?
I considered everything. It's good to know because I've had a lot of questions on that. The festival itself is not in the stadium—it's in the south lot. The most attractive part of that, to me, was it's a clean palette, right? It’s this big open space so we can design it how we want. I mean, that's the trickiest part, sometimes going into parks here in Tempe, where I'm at right now, you have to work with the dynamics of what the park is where a clean palette allowed me to design the site however, we wanted to design it. That was probably the deciding factor, and in working with Tampa Sports Authority, they deal with events and large concerts and all that so they're a great partner, landlord, whatever you want to call them. They speak our language.
They have lots of experience over there with Sunset Music Festival happening in those lots there for a long time. So you still can't share sweat or get beer spilled on you on a live stream. How much has that element of the pandemic changed your festival strategy and ability to boost the bottom line and the viability of a festival? Not necessarily whether or not people come out to festivals because this is Florida and I mean, you probably know—the pandemic doesn't really exist down here—so people are going out. There are a lot of people opting to stream stuff at home, whether it's a free stream or they pay for it. How much of that figures into your strategy yet, or is it still kind of a fledgling thing?
I don't know if it's a strategy, but again, I don't think live is going anywhere. I love how you reference past interviews and statements I did.You can't you can't experience that, so I think part of the strategy is people still do want to go. Some of these things when they're new, it's allowing the chance for us to capture people in a way that they may have forgotten. Even at Innings festival, I guarantee you there'll be people that that's their first festival back from the pandemic. A lot of people came out in the fall, but I still think there'll be people that are out there for the first time, coming out of the pandemic.
I know we're running short on time here. What would you say to people in a town where you have festivals—Arizona is a little bit different, you've been there for a while—where you're going to open festivals, about the coexistence between festivals like yours and independent festivals that are eeking it out whether it's a 40-year festival like Clearwater Jazz or Gasparilla Music Festival going on 11 years this weekend. I don't know if Okeechobee is a good example. It's kind of come and gone and come back. But what about the coexistence of stuff like that?
It's a pretty good question. I think they can all coexist because I think that there's traditional people that are going to those festivals, and that's their staple, and they're not necessarily going to come to a new festival that we create. I also think it goes back to a little bit of what we talked about it being a growing market. I mean, the amount of millions and millions and millions of people down there in between Orlando and all the way to the beaches of Clearwater—there's enough to go around. I don't think it's oversaturated. Another thing, too, to mention is, whatever it is just a month from now and we'll be over there in Tampa, is—knock on wood—that temperature should be fantastic. That's something where in Minnesota and New York, it's not fantastic still in March. So we have a ton of people that still fly in, and those are opportunities as well. It can't be understated on any of our festivals how many people come from out of town. UPDATED 03/16/22 11:45 p.m. Updated to better describe the Nolan Ryan/Robin Ventura tilt.
Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...