This Friday, Riot Fest kicks off its 15th year in Chicago and fifth in Douglas Park. The punk and metal festival, which began as a series of concerts at disparate venues, has grown into one of Chicago’s largest three-day festivals, vying for attention in a saturated market along with Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, North Coast, and host of neighborhood events.
Riot Fest’s edge? Booking legacy acts and unlikely reunions a la Iggy and the Stooges, Patti Smith, the Descendents, Misfits, and more.
The event, like many festivals in Chicago’s crowded market, has weathered its share of controversy. While this year’s Mamby on the Beach was canceled due to environmental concerns at Montrose Beach and Lollapalooza continues to capitalize on its exclusive contract in Grant Park, Riot Fest has drawn complaints from neighbors about noise and a messy park — mostly during its stay in Humboldt Park from 2012 to 2014.
But Riot Fest’s most unexpected hurdle came in December of 2016, when its cofounder Sean McKeough died suddenly from a stroke. Following McKeough’s passing, his business partner and cofounder Mike Petryshyn decided to scrap Riot Fest’s sister festival in Denver. But in Chicago, he says, there was never any question about moving forward.
Ahead of Riot Fest’s big anniversary, we spoke with Petryshyn about his long run in Chicago.
This will be the 15th Riot Fest. What’s been the biggest challenge over the years?
Every year is a little bit different. Sometimes it’s weather, sometimes it’s a headliner needing to cancel. You just have to not get too stressed out and roll with the punches.
Is the weather a concern this year?
I don’t start checking weather until three days out because it changes all the time. I hope it doesn’t rain. I peeked yesterday and we may be in the clear. You work all year long for an event and you cross your Ts and dot your Is a million times to make sure things are right, but when it rains, depending on how much, things can get hairy.
Chicago may be the most crowded festival market in the country. How do you compete?
We started indoors as a venue-based festival for years, so we were able to build our crowd organically. Because of that, our fans are pretty loyal. Even with Lolla, Pitchfork, Spring Awakening, North Coast, everyone has their own lane. We’re kind of that punk festival with rock and metal. We just stick to what we do.
Your friend and Riot Fest cofounder Sean McKeough passed away in 2016. Did you think about ending Riot Fest at that time?
No, there was no thought about that. We were [also] doing Denver at the time so I decided not to do that going forward. Chicago was never a question.
Riot Fest seems to draw an older demographic than other festivals. How long can you continue with the same bands from the same era?
Most of our crowd is under the age of 30. Our sweet spot still is 24 to 34. There are plenty of young bands and older bands. When it comes to the younger artists, most don’t get a chance to play with bands like Jawbreaker or Bikini Kill or Patti Smith, and they want to do that kind of stuff.
We’ve had plenty of bands who have kind of popped since playing Riot Fest. They were playing opening stages or the fifth stage. One is Imagine Dragons. Nobody knew who they were and they played Riot in 2012. Three months later they became one of the biggest bands in the world.
There have been issues over the years. The narrative is that Alderman Roberto Maldonado (26) kicked Riot Fest out of Humboldt Park because of damages related to rain in 2014. What’s your take on that?
There was a lot of things that went into it, but at the same time that was a long time ago. This will be our fifth year in Douglas Park, so that is completely in the rearview mirror. And when it comes to Douglas Park, it has a lot of benefits to having it there — mainly how open the field is, so it doesn’t take people 35 minutes to go to another stage.
Were there any lessons you took from the Humboldt Park years?
For sure. We are pretty mindful of the community, and upped it in the Douglas Park neighborhood. We have a great relationship with the alderman and neighborhood. Maybe it would be a different story if it didn’t rain, who knows.
Some of the same complaints have come up in Douglas Park.
We try to work with local leaders and listen to their suggestions, which we generally follow. It’s hard to please everybody but we understand we are only there for a week from the time we start building [the stages] to the end. But we try to have a positive impact.
Last year there was a hack on Ticketfly that left fans who’d bought tickets without access to the festival. You reached a settlement with Ticketfly, and compensated those fans in the form of discounted tickets for 2019. Whose idea was that?
Mine. Once we understood that the settlement was coming, I thought that was the fair thing to do. That’s why maybe we’re a different festival. I don’t know many others that would do that.
What’s one act you’ve always wanted to book but couldn’t?
The Sex Pistols — one of the bands that started it all. There’s no more Ramones, and Joe Strummer of The Clash passed away, so it really comes down to the original four members of the Sex Pistols doing it one more time.
Have there been talks with them?
Yeah, we’ve talked throughout the last several years. They know if they ever want to do it they’ll have a stage waiting for them.
You’ve had a number of bands play multiple times — what determines who is invited back?
The ones who have played multiple times are like members of the family. Especially this year, I wanted bands that played in the past like Taking Back Sunday and Rancid and Blink-182. Slayer played a few years ago and now they’re doing their final Chicago show with us.
Is there anyone you’d refuse to have back?
No. You hear horror stories, but we’ve never really had any issues with artists. I’ve had one show up late but that sometimes happens.
If you could book either the return of Talking Heads or the return of The Smiths, which would you choose?
The Smiths, without a doubt. I love Talking Heads, but I’m a big Morrissey fan and he’s played Riot before, and so has Johnny Marr.
What are you looking forward to most this weekend?
Seeing a lot of people celebrate our 15th with us. I remember our 10th and it doesn’t seem like five more years have passed.
You think you’ll make it another 15?