Forecastle Festival, Louisville’s annual music, arts and activism festival, released its lineup of artists Tuesday, January 27. But despite featuring internationally recognized acts like Sam Smith and My Morning Jacket, the festival did not gain its success overnight.
In fact, it may not exist if founder JK McKnight’s music studio had not flooded.
McKnight was raised in Louisville and returned to pursue a career as a musician in 2002 after attending College of Charleston. He had his own band, then moved on as a solo artist, managing himself while booking his own shows.
After returning home, he went through a period of “super isolation”, he said. McKnight’s time in South Carolina for college had been his longest time away from home. As a musician, he was able to find a spark to reconnect with the community.
“I’m a musician, I’m writing all this music, I’m trying to start a career here,” said McKnight. “Why not start this festival?”
The festival was an opportunity to play a show himself while inviting his friends to play. The first Forecastle Festival featured six bands and was held at Tyler Park in 2002. Because of his experience booking shows and managing himself, McKnight was confident he had a niche ability to plan events.
Arts and activism elements were added to the festival in 2003, and the audience tripled. The event was put together on the same budget as the first, between $500-$1,000, but people connected with it differently, McKnight said. Arts and activism play major roles in McKnight’s life, and including them helped him see the potential the festival had.
It soon became clear that McKnight would have to choose between the festival and being a musician. In a twist of fate, a flood effectively made the decision for McKnight when his studio was destroyed by a creek overflowing.
“I remember thinking that I couldn’t do the festival and my music on the same parallel forever,” said McKnight. “I was devastated about the studio, it was the perfect space. But it made the decision a lot easier.”
In 2005, there was another turning point in the festival as it moved to Cherokee Park. This was the first time that the nautical theme became noticeable. It was becoming equal parts music, arts and activism. The brand was starting to take shape.
Things moved forward quickly with the festival. McKnight recalls being “chewed out” by an associate when he first proposed the festival be taken to Waterfront Park, he says.
“‘Are your parents ready to put up their house?’” said McKnight, recalling the associate’s words. “‘Do you even know what you’re doing?’”
The conversation sunk in and McKnight came to the conclusion he was right. McKnight, a Guitar Emporium employee at the time, was trying to build things too quickly. He decided the next festival would instead move to Mellwood Arts & Entertainment Center.
The following three years were among the most challenging, said McKnight. Obtaining licensing and building the festival as a brand became a priority. Despite the challenges, the festival continued to grow and made the move to Waterfront Park by 2010.
“It was kind of like the sensation of having a baby, as people say,” said McKnight. “We were really glad to have gotten there but it was extremely terrifying.”
Although it would prove to be a new challenge, McKnight was excited by the opportunity to fulfill his vision.
McKnight had managed a majority of the festival’s several departments for more than a decade. Today he has help from a team that “works great together”, he says.
“My hours are much more normal than they used to be,” said McKnight. “During those developmental years it was not uncommon for me to work 16, 20, sometimes 24 hour shifts.”
Despite how far the festival has come, McKnight chooses not to reminisce too much about the years it took to see his dream become a reality. He instead focuses on the many things left to do.
“There will be moments when I’m out on the Waterfront, walking my dog or something, and a wave of emotion will come over when I think how far it’s come,” said McKnight. “But there will be years later where I can be thinking about it. For now, there are still things to be done.”
Forecastle Festival is an event that naturally requires plenty of planning, but McKnight is not sure the public realizes what goes on behind the scenes. There are dozens of departments in charge of various festival aspects. Art design and activism are two of the areas that require major attention. The artistic props for the festival’s nautical theme alone fill an entire warehouse. The Forecastle Foundation, the festival’s activism sister organization, has raised over a $100,000 in the past couple years.
McKnight stresses the importance of being equal part music, arts and activism.
“You see a lot of festivals that say music, arts and activism, but a lot of times it’s not backed up,” said McKnight. “When you come to Forecastle, you realize it is backed up.”
The festival’s music is represented this year by headliners such as Sam Smith, My Morning Jacket and Widespread Panic. The lineup is assembled each year with the audience’s interest in mind with an emphasis on including an eclectic group of genres.
“When you look at our lineup, it may be very diverse, but it’s also very high quality from the top to the very bottom,” said McKnight.
Favoring quality over quantity of bands in the lineup is Forecastle Festival’s way of gaining its audience’s trust. McKnight hopes that the festival can gain enough trust that attendees will come to discover new artists.
Representing Louisville’s local acts and nationally recognized acts from the state and region is an important aspect of the festival. This year’s lineup features My Morning Jacket from Louisville, Houndmouth from the border with Indiana, Cage the Elephant from Bowling Green and more.
The lineup proves exciting for McKnight because of the variety of genres, some returning artists and what he expects to be some “pretty amazing moments,” he says.
As far as the festival has come, McKnight still believes there is plenty of room for growth for Forecastle and other festivals in the United States.
“Everyone just needs to find their own niche, and focus on creating their own unique identity,” said McKnight. “If so, festivals will only continue to grow.”
Over a decade later, a flood has proven to play a major factor in the growth of Louisville’s own festival. Forecastle Festival will be held at Waterfront Park July 17-19. Tickets are on sale now online.