The Toadlick Music Festival brought in two dozen of some of the biggest stars in country music and Southern rock, performing over three days at the National Peanut Festival fairgrounds. It was an unlikely success even in its second year, and was an unlikely project in the first place for the 35-year-old Gilbert, a Dothan builder who has a degree in civil engineering from Auburn University.
What did he know about putting on a 3-day music festival?
“I’ve always gone to music festivals with my family. I have always enjoyed them. I’ve always been impressed by the crowds. I was at a festival one time and I just said, ‘We can do this.’”
His family and friends were skeptical.
“I told him he was crazy,” said Gilbert’s mother, Donna Gilbert Chumney. “I asked him if he had lost his mind.”
It’s not like putting on a major music festival from scratch was going to be easy, or something Gilbert had time for. He owns five businesses, including Gilbert Construction, Gilbert Restoration, two subdivisions in Headland, 50 rental houses and mini storage units. Yet it was this vast business experience which served him well as he learned the ins and outs of festival organization, logistics and promotions.
“I felt like Dothan was a good place to have a major festival. I really didn’t know how to go about it, but I starting making phone calls and doing research,” Gilbert said. “What I found was overwhelming support and interest.”
Gilbert needed a partner and he knew exactly where to turn. Ron McGlothlin is a Texas hunting buddy Gilbert had met several years prior. The two businessmen became friends and always talked about having a venture together.
Gilbert put together a business plan, hopped on a plane to Fort Worth and presented his plan to McGlothlin in the summer of 2011. Nine months later, the first Toadlick festival arrived in Dothan.
“I really was very excited and optimistic about the festival,” said McGlothlin, who has diverse business interests himself. “It was something new and a challenge for me. We saw an opportunity and a void in the market and wanted to take advantage of that.”
Gilbert relied on the help of about a dozen family and friends who jumped in and handled everything from camping and vendors to security and promotions. He also relied on the expertise of Peanut Festival Facilities Manager Greg Yost.
“He gave me a list of phone numbers and I just started making phone calls to Nashville. Everybody and their brother wants to put on a music festival until they realize what it costs.”
Even the Nashville production company Gilbert hired tried to talk him out of the festival business.
“Jayson Promotions out of Nashville books our talent and produces the shows. They told me I would lose my butt the first year. They said it would take three years to realize any profit. I was still gung ho. I kept persisting.”
While their advice was sound, some things that first year did come together effortlessly.
“The location was an absolute no brainer,” Gilbert said. “The Peanut Festival fairgrounds is a facility second to none. It was drop off some porta potties, turn the lights on and go.”
The first Toadlick festival was held March 22-24, 2012. Gilbert picked that weekend thinking early spring wouldn’t be too hot and festivalgoers would be ready to throw off their winter coats for some warm weather down south. And there weren’t many competing events that time of year.
Attendance that first year topped 20,000, even with rainy and unsettled weather. The fairgrounds had to be evacuated two hours before the show was to start on that Thursday. That was one of the first-year mistakes Gilbert thought to rectify in 2013 by moving the festival back three weeks. The April 11-13 date was also intended to attract some Spring Break traffic. It didn’t.
“College kids going to the beach just wanted to get to the beach,” he said. “And we had bad weather on that Thursday again. We started calling it tornado Thursday at Toadlick.”
Rather than compete with the beach and in an attempt to find calmer weather, Gilbert has moved the festival dates for a third time. The event has been pushed back two more weeks to April 24-26, 2014. He hopes the last weekend of April will be the panacea.
“After this year’s festival, we announced that it was moving to June. We started hearing a lot of negativity because of the heat. People didn’t want to go to a music festival in June. There were a lot of comments on Face Book and the Website,” Gilbert said. “We looked at it and decided we can’t ignore our customers, the music fans who support us.”
Another big change from year one to two was in the alcohol policy. The first year the festival allowed alcohol vendors. The second year, Gilbert went to the city and obtained a brown-bag permit to allow festivalgoers to bring their own. Gilbert sold collapsible coolers at the gate, netting much more from not selling beer.
Fans loved the idea. Instead of paying higher festival prices for beer, they stocked up at local grocery and convenient stores and packed their coolers with ice, saving hundreds of dollars while contributing greatly to the local economy.
Sales tax collections for the city of Dothan shot up an astounding 10.9 percent in May to $5 million, reflecting sales made in April. It was the highest year-to-date increase in tax dollars for fiscal year 2013. For Houston County, it was also a record-breaking month. The county collected more sales taxes in May than ever before -- $1.4 million.
Another change in the second year was letting all children 12 and under in free. That increased the family friendliness of the event. It was a move fans also appreciated.
The mistakes of year one became opportunities for year two. As the brand has gained recognition, Gilbert believes this new kid on the block festival is poised for growth.
“The first year of Toadlick, we didn’t have a clue,” Gilbert said. “We learned from our mistakes. Good heavens, we learned from year one to year two. Once we got things set up and relationships made, by the second year our sponsors were ready to go with us.
“We came real close to breaking even our second year and do expect to gain some profit the third year if we see the same growth as we did from year one to year two. As the festival continues, it’s wide open.”
But for McGlothlin, it’s slow getting there. “Little did I know that the music industry is this tough to figure out. But we are seeing growth and the Peanut Festival type venue is great. I like the fact that family and friends are getting together to be part of the Toadlick festivities.”
Gilbert hopes more of those family and friends will be from the Dothan area. The Northview High School graduate is fiercely loyal to his hometown, and is almost hurt by the fact that less than 10 percent of the attendees were from the Wiregrass.
“Chris truly wants Toadlick to work for Dothan,” Chumney said. “When he planned that first festival, it was in Dothan. Chris wanted it for Dothan. No one gets rich by putting on music festivals. They do it because they love it. In a way, this is like Chris’s gift to his hometown. He loves Dothan and wanted Dothan to benefit.”
Chumney, a single parent most of her life who worked several jobs to support her two children, looks at her son, also a single parent, and feels optimistic his strong work ethic will bring success.
“When Chris was 14 years old he knew what kind of truck he wanted when he got his driver’s license. I told him to start saving his money and when he turned 16, whatever he had saved I would match. I was expecting maybe he would put back $1,000 or $1,500. He had $4,000 hidden in picture frames! I had to come up with some money!
“We work because we have to. It’s the same with the festival. We have no paid year-round employees. It’s family and friends helping out. The festival was such a risk but as they say, no guts, no glory.”
Follow Toadlick on Facebook and go to www.toadlick.com for the latest festival information. Look for lineup announcements to begin in October.