Riot Fest’s Mike Petryshyn On Remaining Independent, Reining In Expenses

As America continues to emerge from pandemic, the level of difficulty involved in affordably staging live concerts has been well-documented.

Amidst staffing shortages, logistics issues and inflation, keeping ticket prices low has become a challenge for promoters across the country, impacting the festival experience.

In Chicago, Riot Fest has operated since 2005. In its earliest days, the festival focused on punk rock over the course of two nights indoors at Congress Theater (capacity 3,500), moving outside in 2012.

Acting as host for the once unthinkable reunion of acts like The Replacements, Misfits and Jawbreaker, Riot Fest has continued to grow, staging the festival in front of 50,000 fans each day in Chicago’s Douglass Park since 2015.

This year, Riot Fest is bigger than ever, with headlining acts September 15-17 including alt rockers Foo Fighters and alternative architects The Cure. Despite the hurdles in place, single day passes start at just $109.98, with the festival’s independent roots helping rein in prices.

“I think with each passing year or festival cycle, Riot Fest is more on an island than ever before,” said co-founder Mike Petryshyn, highlighting the fact that Riot Fest remains wholly independent, unaffiliated with conglomerates like Live Nation or AEG. “Everything is up. It is up across the board. You talk to any festival promoter. Whether it’s inflationary pressures, pocketbook pressures – it’s not cheap to throw one of these things,” he acknowledged. “I had a big time festival promoter – probably number one or two in the ranking of things – call me a couple of weeks ago. He said, ‘Man, I can’t believe how low you can keep your tickets.’ Well, it’s because we do everything ourselves. Everything is in-house. That’s one of the reasons why. We are able to cut costs because we do it ourselves,” Petryshyn explained. “So, in terms of being left of the dial, I think it speaks volumes that we’re independent these days.”

Further incorporating elements of rap, rock, reggae and country as it’s grown, Riot Fest has presented carefully curated bookings including artists like Jimmy Cliff, Merle Haggard and members of N.W.A. who embody the punk rock spirit, an ethos which has guided Petryshyn’s mission since day one.

“It’s a medium,” he said of the artform. “Punk rock was never about three chords and leather jackets. It assumed a visual like that – but the authenticity and the autonomy of punk rock, which makes it important, is just really punk at its heart,” Petryshyn said. “And it doesn’t matter whether you’re painting or you’re sculpting – whether you’re a chef, a writer, a cinematographer or photographer. It doesn’t matter. It really, in and of itself, is an artistic movement. And that’s how I treat it.”

Remaining independent has allowed Riot Fest to super serve a loyal community in a way that’s virtually unparalleled in an increasingly crowded American festival sphere.

Coordinated and run by fans at every level, Riot Fest has forged a unique connection with its audience, driving and sustaining the fest’s remarkable growth over nearly two decades.

“It’s our biggest investment if that makes sense. It depends how you define capital I guess,” said Petryshyn, highlighting the importance of that fest/fan bond. “Everybody is welcome. The atmosphere is one I haven’t seen at another festival. We’re a reflection of the crowd and vice versa. I think a good chunk of our crowd, who maybe have been coming for a few years, see that the people behind who are putting this together, we’re one in the same,” he said. “If your ultimate motivation is to make as much money as humanly possible, I think it leaves a sense of dissonance with the crowd where they don’t emotionally connect with it,” said the Riot Fest co-founder, known to local concertgoers as Riot Mike. “That is the 1% of things that I think keeps me motivated – that we have that connection.”

More than just random bands thrown together in a park, each year the Riot Fest schedule makes sense, reflecting the hand of a fan.

Legendary socially conscious poet and musician Patti Smith acted as the bridge between Against Me! and reunited feminist punks Bikini Kill in 2019. Two years prior, punk icons The Buzzcocks gave way to industrial rockers Ministry and a headlining performance by Nine Inch Nails, consecutive festival bookings doubling as a musical lineage presented in real time.

“We try to tell stories when we book this,” said Petryshyn. “We’re at heart a punk rock festival. But punk rock in its singular cell is really just being authentic and original – creative,” he explained. “For instance, this year we have The Cure playing. We also have AFI performing. And that’s on purpose. AFI was a hardcore band – Bay Area. And they toured with Snapcase, which is one of my favorite hardcore bands. But look how much their music progressed to where it is now. They weren’t playing three chords any longer – they developed. In so much that the inspiration to a lot of their music was from The Cure or Joy Division,” Petryshyn explained. “That’s what we try to do.”

Last year, in collaboration with System Seltzers, Riot Fest debuted Riot Pop!!, a branded, gluten-free seltzer available in 0, 5 and 8% alcohol by volume offerings – another way in which the festival can keep a closer eye on expenses, taking some on site beverage choices in-house.

Charged with electrolytes, Riot Pop!! expanded to include CBD offerings this past June, debuting the new beverages in August at Cultivate Fest, a Chicago concert event celebrating music and cannabis.

Today, the beverage line expands even further, growing to include a pair of new flavors which will be available this weekend at Riot Fest.

MORE FROM FORBESA Hard Seltzer Brand Creates A System For Drinking Alcohol And Not Drinking Alcohol

As always, that relationship with its fanbase impacts the branding of the new beverages.

“We’re announcing two new flavors and it’s going to be a lot of fun,” said Petryshyn, adding to last year’s cherry flavored offering. “I was able to trademark Purple Nurple. So we have a grape flavor. And we have an orange one now called Nothing Rhymes With Orange,” he explained of the two new seltzer options. “But the cool thing is they all have color. Did you ever take a seltzer and pour it into a glass – and it’s clear and then you drink it? It doesn’t taste the same. It doesn’t taste like cherry anymore – because your brain is like, ‘What is this?’ So they’re going to be color,” said Petryshyn laughing. “It’s so stupid. It’s a parody of itself. But it’s us. Because we know it’s fun, right? So it’s just knowing your crowd a little bit.”

Following an update earlier this month, the Riot Fest app now features a Google-driven, GPS-enabled map that helps concertgoers become better acquainted with the surrounding neighborhood, highlighting nearby dining options.

Powered by YouTube, the app also features Riot Fest TV. Part of the tongue-in-cheek titled RFSN (the Riot Fest Sucks Network), the app now features staff-curated content including music videos, cartoons, vintage commercials and more.

Looking ahead to this year’s festival, Riot Mike doubles down on his punk roots as Riot Fest maintains its fan first approach.

“Let’s just say 1976 – that’s really when punk hit the world in the U.K. through McLaren. That’s 20 years removed from Elvis. Look where punk is now,” he mused. “I treat it as, this isn’t going anywhere. It’s about something that’s important – that isn’t just about commercialism. It’s about passing it down,” said Petryshyn. “And it’s about finding other like-minded people – who are disenfranchised about this or that but putting them all together. They could be from polar opposite sides of the spectrum on many a thing but the one thing they connect on is a medium. And that’s my job is to continue that as long as I can. And pass it forward.”

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