The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
The organization that presents the east and west coast Creation festivals will resurrect Central Kentucky’s Ichthus Festival, though logistically it could be a very different event from the one that played for 43 years in Wilmore.
Ichthus, widely regarded as the original contemporary Christian musical festival, announced it was closing in December and put much of its physical and intellectual property up for auction early this year, primarily in an attempt to pay off outstanding debt.
But at the Winter Jam concert at Rupp Arena in March, the crowd of nearly 17,000 was the first to hear the news that Ichthus would return, and more information would be coming soon.
Festival director Mark Vermillion said it took a little bit longer than he and the new festival owners had hoped, but this week they announced that Ichthus will return in late September 2014 as a three-day, Thursday to Saturday event.
“The thing I’m really excited about with Ichthus being part of the Creation team is that we have very, very strong values alignment,” Vermillion said of Come Alive International, which produces the Creation festivals, as well as other Christian music festivals and events around the world.
“The things that have been important to Ichthus throughout its history are very important to the Creation team as well. Those things would be a ministry focus, doing things with operational excellence and being culturally innovative.”
Creation Festivals executive producer Bill Darpino echoed Vermillion’s assessment that there is a unity in purpose and history between Creation and Ichthus that persuaded the group to acquire the festival.
“We’re really excited for the future of Ichthus and coming in and becoming part of that family,” Darpino says. “The history there, the legacy, the ministry component really just resonated with us.”
Creation Festival Northeast started in 1979 in a park in Lancaster County, Penn., and later moved to its current venue of Agape Campground in Mount Union, Penn. Creation Northwest started in 1998 in George, Wash., and is now held in Enumclaw, Wash. Come Alive also produces the Sonshine Festival in Willmar, Minn., as well as events in Haiti and Ghana. Read the rest of this entry »
See more: Winter Jam 2013 photo gallery
Tobymac is one of the unlikeliest No. 1 artists to headline a Rupp Arena concert.
The former dc talk member operates firmly inside the contemporary Christian music world, but charted a No. 1 album overall on the Billboard Top 200 list last August with the debut of his latest effort, Eye on It.
Topping the bill at Saturday night’s Winter Jam concert, Tobymac (the stage name for Kevin Michael McKeehan) showed off the secret weapon in his success: his long serving Diverse City Band.
With him pretty much since he departed dc talk in 2001 for a break that turned into a solo career, Diverse City has formed into Christian music’s tightest ensemble capable of serving its frontman’s many moods: now we’re a hip-hop act, now we’re a rock band, now we’re worship, now we’re a drumline. One of the most illustrative moments was the pairing of the meditative Steal My Show and Boomin’, which sounds like its title. Falling back, a few members of the ensemble supported T-mac’s moment, and then we’re tight around him for the big number.
Steal My Show is Tobymac’s prayer to God to work through his music.
It is also something the other artists on the lineup, seen by an audience that packed 23,000-seat Rupp Arena to the rafters Saturday night, threatened to do.
Winter Jam has now made Rupp a regular stop, and this was one of its strongest, tightest presentations with even early evening artists like Royal Tailor giving arena-worthy sets and Red looking like a headliner itself with its blazing performance. When Red came to Winter Jam two years ago, it was stuck near the beginning of the lineup and missed by many who didn’t get into the arena until after the quartet played.
Saturday, they were highlighted after Nick Hall’s message and delivered a quick cathartic lineup with hits from their last two albums, Until We Have Faces (2011) and this year’s Release the Panic.
Sharing a lineup with Red and Toby, mellower acts Matthew West and Newsong, Winter Jam’s host band, also delivered surprisingly engaging sets. West, in particular, was electrified and funny, at one point joking everyone would leave with a copy of his new CD, Into the Light … if everyone went to his merchandise table and bought it. “This isn’t Oprah,” he joked. “I have to feed my kids.”
I did not get to see every act Saturday, as I had to leave the arena for a while to report and write an item for the Herald-Leader about the resurrection of the Ichthus Festival.
Newsong’s Russ Lee announced from the stage that the 43-year-old festival, which closed late last year due to financial troubles, is being brought back by the people who bought the intellectual property of the festival, including its name and website. Ichthus had a table at Winter Jam, and former director Mark Vermilion said more detailed announcements should be coming later this week about when and where an abbreviated Ichthus will be presented this year. He said the new owners, whose identities were not disclosed Saturday, want to bring back a full-fledged Ichthus, which ended as a four day-three night event, in 2014 and after.
So, Winter Jam will not have to fill the roll of Central Kentucky’s biggest annual Christian music event. But as it has proven before, it’s great in its own right.
Up until the end, Tobymac was a major part of the Ichthus Festival. His headlining appearance Thursday night at last year’s edition was the last of many at the annual Wilmore Christian music festival, which announced in December it is closing after 42 years.
We caught up with Toby this afternoon for an interview to preview his upcoming appearance headlining Winter Jam at Rupp Arena, March 16, and talked to him about the No. 1 debut for his latest album, Eye On It, his former dc talk bandmates’ new gigs and all sorts of other stuff. More on that, later. But we couldn’t let him get away without asking about Ichthus, where we watched his solo career grow:
“I didn’t just watch my solo career grow there, I watched dc talk’s career there. It’s a sad day for sure. That festival has meant a lot to me.
“I remember when the festival was struggling a little. I remember my agent called me and said, ‘Would you be willing to do it for this?’” he said, referring to his performance fee. “I said yes, because it was tough financially, and we wanted to be there for Ichthus because Ichthus has been there for us and for the people.
“I can remember one of the first times we really connected with a big audience was at Ichthus. I remember the guy that signed us drove from Nashville to watch us, and I just remember him after the show going, ‘Wow! That was electric. This is going to work.’ I remember that distinctly. So obviously, when I began my solo career, I looked to Ichthus too to be one of the electric moments. And it always was. One year, it was so electric the show got cancelled.”
Actually, that happened twice.
Tobymac was slated to perform Friday night at the 2005 festival when severe thunderstorms ripped through the festival, forcing the cancellation of that night’s performances by him and Audio Adrenaline. The storms were ushering in a cold front, and the next day it snowed on Ichthus. The next year, the festival was moved to June after one too many tangles with early spring weather. That didn’t fix everything, as Toby’s 2008 appearance was also lost to storms.
“It’s too bad,” he said of Ichthus’ end. “Ichthus was one of the foundational, pioneering festivals.”
One of the challenges that faced the now-closed Ichthus Festival and vexes other Christian rock presenters these days is a relatively small group of acts that can be legitimately billed as headliners.
There are plenty of bands and solo artists that can ably fill opening and smaller stage slots. But as far as Christian artists that can top a bill and attract audiences in the thousands and even tens of thousands, it’s a fairly small and somewhat stagnant club.
“There just aren’t a lot of headliners in Christian music,” says Mark Vermilion, the last executive director of Ichthus, which announced it was closing earlier this month after 42 continuous years.
“When there are so few headliners, it creates problems for us because they are so saturated with tours like Winter Jam and other festivals. We all have to go to the same well to get headliners.”
Tim Gerst, a Central Kentucky native who has worked in numerous aspects of Christian music, says, “The industry needs to figure something out because it’s hard to attract audiences when you consistently present the same 6 to 8 bands.”
Generating excitement about the acts at the top of the bill is harder when that group headlined the previous year or topped the bill at another festival or their own headlining tour that recently passed through the area. The groups have headliner status because they are widely liked, but the novelty can wear off.
This year’s edition of the Winter Jam tour, which stops at Rupp Arena in March, will feature Tobymac, 48, who just headlined at Ichthus. Last year’s Winter Jam presented the same situation with Skillet.
Skillet, with its pyrotechnic spectacle of a show, headlined Friday Night at Ichthus for several years until this year, when the spot was taken by Red, one of the few acts to emerge as a legitimate headliner in the last few years. Red is also coming back on Winter Jam.
In fact, every headlining artist at this year’s Ichthus had headlined the event before, including worship artist Chris Tomlin, who closed the festival for the second straight year.
Vermillion says the shallow pool of headliners for big events has come up at meetings of Christian Festival Association, not just because of the small pool, but it is aging too.
If the Ichthus Festival was going to go on, it had to go on.
Back in August, when we sat down with festival president and chief executive Mark Vermilion to talk about the financial difficulties that had put Ichthus in jeopardy, one of the possibilities he mentioned was Ichthus skipping its 2012 edition and coming back, “bigger and better in 2013.”
At the end of this year’s festival, Ichthus leaders announced the festival was in severe financial difficulties. They put the festival property, known as Ichthus Farm, up for sale with hopes to find a buyer who would lease it back to them for the annual Christian music event held each June but relieve Ichthus of the overhead costs of maintaining the 111-acre site in Wilmore.
If there was no sale, Vermilion said there was a good chance Ichthus 2012 wouldn’t happen.
Tuesday, Ichthus announced the festival would go on despite not selling the farm, citing positive momentum in fund-raising and belief that the property will be sold sometime soon. Vermilion had a much more frank view of that take-a-year off option.
“We were concerned that if we took a year off, some of those things that were moving in a positive direction might have to curtail, because there’s no fuel to drive them,” he said. “We were also concerned that if we took year 43 off that there would even be a year 44, because who knows if those folks who have been so loyal to the festival would take a year off and come back for year 44. Those are some unknowns that were concerns of ours.”
And he’s right. My colleagues and I struggled to conjure up any memories of entertainment organizations that closed down for significant periods of time and then actually came back “bigger and better than ever,” as is typically promised.
It can feel like a good thing to say, particularly if you’re looking at shutting down a major regional event that has been running more than four decades and was tremendous meaningful to a lot of people. It’s sort of like breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend and saying, “Oh, maybe we’ll get back together someday.” Actually, that probably has a better record of success than major arts and entertainment events trying to shut down and come back.
Closing down for a year is like putting a pin to the balloon of your event. It completely takes the air out of it, and try as you might, it is really hard to pump it back up.
Just think about this: Right now, the next Ichthus is nine months away. Not imminent, but close enough that die-hard fans can be a little excited and contributors can feel like they’ll see the results of their efforts soon.
The Ichthus Festival has not sold the farm, but it will continue with a full-fledged 2012 edition.
On the closing night of the 42nd annual Ichthus Festival in June, festival president and chief executive Mark Vermilion told the crowd that Ichthus Ministries was in financial straits that could force cancellation of future events. Two days later, the festival site in Wilmore known as Ichthus Farm was put up for sale, with organizers hoping to find a buyer who would lease the property back to Ichthus each June for the festival. The asking price began at $900,000, well below offers that the festival says it received from developers in the middle of the past decade.
On Tuesday afternoon, after a Monday meeting of Ichthus’ board, Vermilion said that the site has not been sold, but “there have been enough positive things happening in the last few months that we really felt like we could do a 43rd edition of the Ichthus Festival and do it with the same level of quality that we’ve always had at the festival. Once we knew we could do that, we were ready to pull the trigger.”
Vermilion said Ichthus is not out of the woods financially. He said the organization has radically reshaped its financial model, downsizing from five full-time staffers a few years ago to three part-timers now. They also have put a heavier emphasis on fund-raising. As for the property sale, Vermilion said, there have been discussions with a few potential buyers and there are hopes that a sale will be completed in four to six months.
“That would really reduce our overhead,” said Vermilion, who also teaches at Asbury University and is helping to launch its new center for cultural engagement.
Ichthus, which started at Asbury Seminary in 1970, moved to its current 111-acre home off U.S. 68 in Wilmore in 1999. At that time, the festival attracted 20,000 people a year. Recently, after moving the event from late April to June after repeated bouts with inclement early spring weather, crowds have been more modest, about 15,000. That’s due to the schedule change and to the changing dynamics of the Christian concert market, organizers said. The 2011 festival, Vermilion said, was the first edition in more than five years not to lose money.
WILMORE – The 2011 Ichthus Festival ended on a sobering note: Ichthus Ministries chief executive officer Mark Vermilion told the crowd that the festival site was going up for sale and that financial issues had put the 42-year-old event in jeopardy.
What festival organizers hoped, he said, was that a benevolent buyer would come forward and purchase the 111-acre site, relieving Ichthus of the mortgage and overhead costs of owning the property, and lease it back to Ichthus each year for the festival.
Today, the large yellow “for sale” signs he displayed onstage are nailed to the fence at the entrances to the festival site off U.S. 68 in Wilmore. Vermilion said there have been three or four discussions with potential buyers but no offers yet for the property, which has an asking price of $900,000.
“In the next six weeks, we’re going to get into significant layoffs and consider not doing a 2012 festival if things don’t change – if we don’t have donors that step up and help us through this season of need, or if we don’t sell the land,” Vermilion said while sitting in the gazebo at the Wilmore city park that was built after Ichthus gave the city a portion of its festival property. “Our board of directors will meet on Sept. 12 and make some hard decisions. In the meantime, we have the opportunity to see who’s really serious about helping us out.”
The festival’s financial situation is a result of a variety of factors, including a downturn in the economy and changes in the Christian concert and festival market. Since the festival moved from being held in late April to mid-June in 2006, each edition has lost money. That has made what once seemed like a great investment – a permanent site for the festival – into a crippling financial burden.
Jun3Filed under: Ichthus Festival, Music, rc talk - Christian pop culture, Religion; Tagged as: Anberlin, Britt Nicole, Casting Crowns, Chris Tomlin, Community Day, Hillsong United, Ichthus Festival, Mark Vermilion, Matthew West, Night of Worship, Phil Keaggy, Quest Community Church, Questapalooza, Rupp Arena, Switchfoot, The Almost, the Newsboys, TobyMac, wilmore, Winter Jam
The Ichthus Festival is focusing on a new market: Central Kentucky.
During the past four decades, the Wilmore Christian pop music festival has drawn fans from all over the Eastern United States and even farther away.
Ichthus CEO Mark Vermilion points to the festival’s heyday 10 years ago, when entire sections of the camping area would be made up of people from Michigan. Now, just a handful of the event’s more than 10,000 patrons are from the Great Lake State.
And the same is true of Georgia, Illinois, Virginia and other areas more than half a day’s drive from Wilmore.
“Our market has shrunk to a 200-, maximum 250-mile radius of Wilmore,” Vermilion said.
Two big factors contribute to that.
First, there’s everyone’s favorite headline: gas prices. If you think your SUV can drink up the fuel, wait until you try filling up a church van.
Also, the number of festivals and similar opportunities to see Christian bands has increased, so audiences are finding they don’t have to travel as far to see favorite bands. Even in Central Kentucky, where Ichthus used to be the sole annual Christian music event, other attractions such as two one-day festivals in Lexington — September’s Questapalooza at Quest Community Church and March’s Winter Jam at Rupp Arena — have given music fans other opportunities to see many of the same acts.
And in some ways, while there is still free camping on site and four straight days of rock at Ichthus Farm, the event is marketing itself to locals as an attraction similar to those one-nighters.
It started last year with a festival-opening “Community Night” featuring chart-topping artists TobyMac and the Newsboys. This year, Ichthus is offering two days geared toward locals. The festival will open June 15 with a Night of Worship featuring praise superstars Hillsong United. Three days later, it will close with Community Day, letting single-day attendees access the festival for a discounted price.
Both days are $25 each, if tickets are purchased by June 10, or a Night of Worship/Community Day package is $40.
“There will always be people who want to come for the full three- and four-day experience, and we believe that’s where real community happens,” Vermilion said. “But we also want the people from Central Kentucky to look at Community Day and say, ‘That’s my day.’”
Mar11Filed under: Ichthus Festival, Music, rc talk - Christian pop culture, Religion, Rupp Arena; Tagged as: Anthony Armstrong, Break Me Down, C.S. Lewis, Chris August, Conan, Faceless, Feed the Machine, Francesca Battistelli, Ichthus Festival, iTunes, Jason Castro, Joe Rickard, KJ-52, Kutless, Michael Barnes, Newsboys, NewSong, Randy Armstrong, reathe Into Me, Red, Rupp Arena, Sidewalk Prophets, Skillet, TBS, the David Crowder Band, Till We Have Faces, Tonight Show With Jay Leno, Until We Have Faces, Winter Jam
In 2006, the band Red released its debut album, hoping someone would listen.
The group wasn’t even on a label at the time, but slowly people tuned in to the hard-rock sounds of the disc, which spawned the hits Breathe Into Me, Break Me Down and a couple of other chart-toppers. The album ended up nominated for the Grammy Award for best rock or rap gospel record.
Five years later, Red doesn’t release albums quietly.
Quickly after the Feb. 1 release of Until We Have Faces, Red was hovering near No. 1 on iTunes’ sales charts, and the band was booked on TBS’s Conan and NBC’s Tonight Show With Jay Leno, national television debuts for the band.
“We can’t even believe the numbers that are coming in,” guitarist Anthony Armstrong said a few days after the album’s release. “Some amazing things are happening.”
For Central Kentucky fans of Red, one of those things is a slot on the Winter Jam tour, which comes to Rupp Arena on March 12. The bill is topped by the resurgent Newsboys, the David Crowder Band, Kutless, Francesca Battistelli, Jason Castro, Chris August, Sidewalk Prophets, KJ-52 and tour hosts NewSong.
But Red is easily the hottest band at the moment on the show, like many other bands successfully crossing the line between mainstream and Christian venues.
“We try to play the same way whether we are playing in a church or a bar,” Armstrong said at last summer’s Ichthus Festival. “We want people who see us to say, ‘Those guys are the same no matter where they play. They’re not putting on an act or trying to hide anything.’”
One thing Red showed very well at Ichthus, where it was the Friday evening main stage opener for Skillet, was that it could play to a huge crowd — sort of like the one it will see in Rupp Arena, where last year’s Winter Jam drew 14,756 fans.
When Skillet comes to the Ichthus Festival this summer, they will be missing a very familiar face: guitarist Ben Kasica. In an announcement Monday, the band said Kasica, who has been with the group for 10 years, will be leaving to pursue other interests.
“Joining the band shortly after turning 16 and basically growing up on the road, I had no idea how long the ride would last but have enjoyed it immensely and been thankful to God for everything I’ve been a part of,” Kasica said in a message sent to the band’s email list and posted on its myspace page. “We’ve traveled to loads of places, met many many wonderful people, drunk way too much coffee, made tons of memories and hopefully touched lives with eternity. I feel completely blessed and honored to have been a part of Skillet’s history …
“After getting off the road, I will be focusing on building my other companies, producing and developing artists at Skies Fall Studios and designing for LifeLoveMusic Clothing. I also look forward very much to being home and catching up on churchlife, family and friends.”
In the same statement, Skillet frontman John Cooper said, “From the years we spent driving through the night in a van; to playing concerts all the way around the world, I’ve seen Ben transform from the kid who was nervous to play a guitar solo, to the rocker who now plays a solo … with his teeth! I always knew the time would come for Ben to leave and pursue other dreams, and now it is here. We are a family and we are going to miss him.”
Kasica’s departure leaves a significant lineup hole for Skillet to fill, at least on tour, as the only other guitarist, Korey Cooper, splits her stage time between guitar and keyboards. The statement did not address how Kasica’s spot will be filled.
About Rich Copley & Copious Notes
Raised by opera-loving parents in a rock ’n’ roll world, Rich Copley has parlayed his broad interests into his career writing about arts and entertainment. Since 1998, he has covered performing arts, film and faith-based popular culture for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the daily newspaper in Lexington, Ky. MORE | E-mail Rich