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Time and Money: Can the River Music Experience Cut Its Way to Prosperity? PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 15 November 2006 02:34

Reader issue #607(This is part of a series of articles looking at the components of River Renaissance five years after Scott County voters agreed to contribute $5 million to the effort. While that amount was relatively small in the projects' financing, it secured $20 million in Vision Iowa funding from the State of Iowa.)


The most disheartening aspect of last week's announcement that River Music Experience President and CEO Lon Bozarth had quit was not the resignation itself but the hints that the organization doesn't have a clear sense of how to right itself.

In essence, the River Music Experience (RME) board of directors is trying to cut its way to prosperity - or at least the break-even point.

RME Board Chair Bill Patterson (a partner at McGladrey & Pullen) pledged that the public would not notice any changes at the facility, which opened in 2004. Educational programs and live music at the Redstone Room are "our core mission," Patterson said in an interview last week. "That's where we want to continue."

But fulfilling those missions required change, he said: "To deliver those jointly, we decided that we needed to do it with less administrative overhead." Bozarth's resignation was part of a cost-cutting package that Patterson said stemmed from "the need to match revenue sources with revenue uses."

The board had been anticipating that the River Roots Live festival - which was headlined by the Black Crowes this year - would generate enough profit to underwrite other programs at the RME. That didn't happen.

But the changes last week leave the RME with a leadership void, particularly in terms of music knowledge and passion. The board has decided to not fill Bozarth's president/CEO position and has shifted marketing and accounting functions to DavenportOne's Downtown Partnership division.

The business-leader-dominated RME board includes only two members with obvious music backgrounds: Larry Tierney of the Mississippi Valley Blues Society and Frank Cincola of the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society. That's not necessarily a problem with a CEO such as Bozarth, who lives and breathes music. It's almost certainly an issue with him gone.

When asked whether the board lacked musical expertise, Patterson said: "I don't know. We're interested in new and additional board members. That's all part of that [plan for increased] volunteer commitment. I do think the current board is passionate about the RME, is committed to the RME ... ."

Tierney suggested that the facility can and will shift to more of a volunteer model, not unlike the Mississippi Valley Blues Society.

"We were overly ambitious when we started," Tierney said. Scaling back the River Music Experience is the best way to ensure its survival, he said.

Patterson said it will take time for the RME to take root in the community: "We have been getting upticks in attendance at the Redstone Room. ... Time is what we need. We're not very old. We're working to change a long period of time in the community where people didn't come downtown. We didn't have events and things to attract young people. It's going to take time to do that. ... We are trying to change culture."

At the very least, the latest changes to the RME call into question the planning and leadership that have gone into the facility.

Millions of taxpayer dollars were spent renovating the Redstone building and creating a high-tech museum honoring the musical legacy of the Mississippi River. But within mere months of its opening, the board shifted the RME's roots-music-museum mission to live music - and the organization was stuck managing an old building too large for its space needs.

And now the man who was hired to bring the live-music vision to fruition has left, and the cornerstone festival he created might not return.


"Ambitious Projections"

The RME has now had two executive-leadership changes in the two-plus years it has been open.

Connie Gibbons was the facility's first director. She left in October 2004 after the board indicated it wanted more of a live-music focus for the facility. "I never saw it as a club," she said this week. (Gibbons is now executive director of the B.B. King Museum & Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, Mississippi. The facility is scheduled to open in May 2008.)

Live music was always an integral part of the RME, she said, but it was never its focus.

Gibbons said the board shifted the mission because attendance in the RME's first four months didn't meet expectations. "There were a lot of very ambitious projections made in terms of attendance," she said.

The board, she said, didn't give the educational and museum programs at the RME time to establish themselves. "You just have to give programs like that a chance to grow," she said. "Rather than stepping back, reassessing ... it [the board] was ... reacting to that without really giving a lot of thought to it."

She added that her mistake was not insisting to the board that it reduce attendance projections to a more realistic level and finding other sources of money to make up the shortfall. "We're not going to base our budget on those numbers," she said.

Gibbons also noted that it's not realistic for not-for-profit cultural organizations to expect to break even on program income alone; they need to emphasize grants, fundraising, and membership. When asked if she thought the River Music Experience could have been financially successful in the long run with its original mission, Gibbons said, "Yes, I do."

Gibbons didn't have the opportunity to see that, though. The RME board hired Bozarth to implement a new vision.

Bozarth has been, since his arrival in the Quad Cities in February 2005, a divisive community presence. Coarse, stubborn, passionate, and confident, Bozarth came to the Quad Cities from Austin, Texas, and immediately made a splash. He spearheaded the inaugural River Roots Live festival last year and in April 2006 opened the Redstone Room live-music venue inside the River Music Experience building at Second and Main streets in downtown Davenport.

He steered the River Music Experience from its original music-museum concept to its current emphasis on live-music performance. In February, Bozarth explained his concept of a "digital museum": "Our idea of preserving the blues or any other form is getting it on our stages - authentic, genuine players. ... That's preserving. We'll tape it. We'll record it. We'll archive it. We'll have it forever and we'll have it for research and for people to see, and [on] Web sites."

Although not without controversy, the board-initiated shift to live music has been unquestionably successful in terms of enriching the Quad Cities musical culture. Both the Redstone Room and River Roots Live have brought in regional bands and critically acclaimed national acts that hadn't played the Quad Cities before.

In Bozarth's debit column is his gruff manner and unapologetic nepotism. (His sons' business and band benefited from the RME's largess.) Both are evident in Bozarth's response last year to a question I asked about the public perception of hiring his own children: "I don't really care what it looks like. I had a job to do."

The RME board seemed willing to tolerate Bozarth's eccentricities if he delivered. What likely did Bozarth in as the RME's leader was the performance of this year's River Roots Live.

The circumstances behind Bozarth's departure remain unclear. Bozarth last week declined a request for an interview. Patterson said that Bozarth's resignation was "a joint decision."

In evaluating Bozarth's performance, Patterson praised how the former CEO led the RME through the strategic-planning process that resulted in the Redstone Room. Yet he also gave Bozarth what might be the faintest praise possible: "Lon did what he did for us, and he did it very well."


Future Uncertain for River Roots Live

It's evident that the board put a lot of eggs in the River Roots Live basket, and had put its faith in Bozarth. "We were counting on the festival to help us with our sources of funds," Patterson said. "When it didn't contribute as much as we had hoped, we had to take a realistic look and make changes."

When asked whether River Roots Live's financial performance was a key component of Bozarth's departure, Patterson said, "It was one of the factors in a lot of factors."

RME board member Cincola was direct: River Roots Live, he said, "was the sole reason for the need to step back" and make budget cuts.

Bozarth promised big things with the 2006 River Roots Live. In early July, he told the River Cities' Reader that he hoped for a $100,000 profit from this year's event, which was held over two days in late September. Bozarth targeted attendance of 7,500 each day.

Patterson said that River Roots Live drew between 5,000 and 6,000 people daily.

Patterson would not comment specifically on the festival's profitability. "It did not make a fairly substantial profit," he said. "I'd rather not comment on the specifics part. It did not contribute what we'd planned."

Tierney was more blunt: "It didn't make any money, I know." Cincola confirmed that River Roots Live lost money this year. "Our expectations ... were way too extravagant," he said.

Yet even if it isn't profitable, River Roots Live gives the RME a flagship branding event that can pay dividends in terms of community penetration. On the other hand, the festival is undoubtedly labor-intensive and expensive. Tierney and Cincola confirmed that the RME paid the Black Crowes $100,000 to perform at this year's event.

Tierney also said that the festival detracted from the organization's core activities: educational programming and the Redstone Room.

Patterson wouldn't say whether River Roots Live will happen in 2007. "It just finished this year, so it's a long way down the road for us," he said. "We would like to be able to in some fashion. Critically it was a success. We had great feedback. It did attract young people to downtown. ... Just needed more bodies."

He added that a decision on River Roots Live won't be made until next year, and will depend on "funding partners, size, business partners, opportunity. And I should add this: feedback from the community."

When asked to clarify, Patterson said: "Can it be the same size? Maybe, maybe not. All of those are interlinked. It can't be the same size if we don't get funding partners and business partners."

Aside from a maddening vagueness, Patterson's approach to River Roots Live has one critical flaw: Funding partners aren't going to commit a certain level of money to a hypothetical festival whose scope isn't firm, and the RME board surely isn't going to green-light a festival without underwriting already secured. It's easy to envision a situation in which the board is paralyzed by this chicken-or-the-egg dilemma.

Tierney said he thinks River Roots Live might happen on "a different scale - smaller, less expensive." But he added that the board's focus is on the Redstone Room and education programs: "I don't hear much talk of a festival. ... It's on the back burner."

Cincola said the festival could return next year, but "probably not in its current form." He added that it's "not something we can't live without if we can't make it work."


Revenue Sources, Revenue Uses

The River Music Experience is a public trust in the sense that the project was built with $7 million in state money. (The City of Davenport [$150,000] and the federal government [$800,000] also contributed funds.) That encompasses the renovation of the Redstone building and the construction of the RME exhibits.

So it's frustrating how guarded and vague the RME is being about its financial situation, as if it were a nuclear secret.

Patterson said the facility is in no danger of closing. "Our funding sources have enabled us to meet all our obligations and to be able to go forward. So we're okay," he said. "Had we not made these adjustments, long term it would have been more difficult. But today we're okay."

He further would not say how much money the RME will save with its cost-cutting moves. "I just don't feel comfortable getting into the specific dollars," he said. "About half of our salaries."

The press release announcing Bozarth's resignation stated that "the board also voted to eliminate several staff positions." Patterson confirmed that two employees were laid off, leaving four full-time positions and talent-booker Santo Pullella.

According to the RME's Form 990 for the period covering July 1, 2004, to June 30, 2005, the facility's salaries and wages accounted for nearly $418,000 of its $1.1 million in operating expenses. Bozarth's salary was listed as $30,000 on the form. Other "management and general" wages and salaries were listed as $181,000, while "program services" salaries and wages accounted for $206,000.

"It really came down to a time line, and that we weren't going to be able to afford the administrative overhead," Patterson said of the cost-cutting. "This is the best opportunity for keeping the Redstone Room and the programming and RME functioning where sources of funds matched up better with uses of funds."

But salaries weren't the only challenge. "The size of the building itself was a problem," Tierney said.

Basically, the RME is in charge of a lot of real estate that it doesn't need.

The RME is trying to find other tenants for its space. An open letter on its Web site reads: "The cost of maintaining a large historic building strains our core mission of live music and music education. Without the museum focus, we no longer require as much physical space to operate. We will be actively recruiting other cultural organizations and like-minded businesses to share space, ideas, and expenses in the Redstone Building." (For the full text of the letter, read "RME Public Statements" in Reader issue #607.)

That means the River Music Experience is a publicly built facility that now competes with three types of privately funded businesses: coffee shops, live-music venues, and MidCoast Fine Arts' Bucktown Center for the Arts, which is trying to lure cultural organizations.

The new RME business model also involves shifting responsibilities to the Downtown Partnership, which "volunteered to assist us with day-to-day management - the overall back-office management - in this interim period," Patterson said. Beyond that, "we hope to get an enhanced volunteer commitment from the community for ideas and assistance with delivery of programming," he said.

"You aren't going to to do it with volunteers," Gibbons said.

Patterson consistently suggested that the RME's new management structure was temporary. But he would not say how long this system would be in place. "There is no fixed plan now for a change in the future," he said.

The River Music Experience certainly could work with a greater emphasis on volunteers instead of paid staff; the Mississippi Valley Blues Society presents a wealth of educational programming along with its signature festival driven almost entirely by volunteers. But it doesn't have the overhead of the RME; even in its slimmed-down form, the organization has a lot of expenses.

At the least, Patterson talks a good game when it comes to the music.

"We're committed to the diversity piece," he said. "Are we reaching out to all parts of our community? Age-wise, culture-wise, type of music? If we're not doing that, then we're not doing our part."

In recent months, he added, "we have instituted a benchmarking system" to track how well certain acts and certain genres draw. The system also takes into account the cost of booking the talent and the cover charge.

The goal, he said, is not to eliminate acts that don't draw well, but to know what works and what doesn't. He said that not every act booked at the Redstone Room needs to make money: "You do need to make investments. ... But we need to know what is working, what is investment, and keep track of it on a more regular basis."

He also said that the Redstone Room remains committed to presenting a mix of local, regional, and national bands. "We have to work at that balance, between the national, local, and regional," he said. "There's a place for all of them. There will be a place for all of them in the Redstone Room."


A Plea for Patience

Several ironies are tied up in the RME's current situation. The first is that the board is emphasizing the role that volunteers and the community will play in the RME as the organization itself is in serious shut-up-and-spin mode; there's an obvious tension between claiming to be open while being fundamentally closed. I asked Patterson if RME board members and staff would refer me back to him, and he said, "Probably." A list of the RME's board of directors was removed from its Web site in the past week.

The other irony is that Patterson is pleading for patience - saying repeatedly that it takes time to change people's perceptions of downtown - while the RME board has shown consistent impatience. Founding director Gibbons left within a few months of the RME's opening, and now Bozarth is gone in less than two years. After two River Roots Live festivals, there's an excellent chance that the event will be a shadow of itself if it exists at all.

"We have to balance time with funding sources, uses of funds," Patterson said. "Time also costs money."

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