For 12 years, the annual Corndogorama music festival served as ground zero for the Atlanta/Athens indie-rock scenes. But last year, the fest took a heavy blow when attendance fell by about 1,000 due to higher ticket prices and a lineup that failed to pack the punch of the previous year's headliner, Mastodon. Immediately, banter on blogs and bar stools began to ring the death knell for the homegrown institution. But Corndogorama founder David Railey was having none of it.
"If I called myself a strict businessman and my vision was governed by money, then yes, last year's Corndogorama was a failure," he says. "But that's not me, and truth be told 2,000 happy people showed up. We pulled it off, but unfortunately it wasn't perceived that way. I lost a lot of money and when the dust settled I felt a little beaten up."
Rather than calling it quits, Railey has retooled his approach to Atlanta's quintessential summer music fest. He's learned from his mistakes, he says, and he's ready to adopt the same back-to-basics approach that turned corn dogs into the city's phallic symbol of pride in the first place.
Corndogorama began as Railey's birthday party in 1996 at lamented local dive Dottie's. When Dottie's shuttered, he moved the festival to the Earl in East Atlanta in the summer of 2000, then over to Lenny's in the Old Fourth Ward in 2007. Over the years it grew from a single night of heartburn, riotous punk and indie rock into a four-day carnival built around indoor/outdoor stages, a corn dog eating contest, dunk tank, stunt motorcyclists and dozens of other extracurricular activities. Hip-hop, electronic music, bluegrass and jazz all entered the fray, and with each passing year the festival mushroomed. But the rate of expansion became too much, and much like the Roman Empire, the Corndog began to crumble.
Now on the rebound, fliers for this year's Corndogorama — which happens to be unlucky No. 13 — boasts the motto, "Yes we Corn." It's Railey's attempt to poke fun at the economic mess of a fest he must clean up.
In an effort to rebuild, he's returned to East Atlanta Village, where the festival will set up shop in a vacant lot near the intersection of Flat Shoals and Metropolitan avenues. Railey has scaled back the production from four days to two. And rather than the $20-per-day cost of last year's Corndogorama, this year's cost for advance tickets is $20 for the entire weekend or $15 per day. Unlike years past, there's no club involved. Instead, Pabst Blue Ribbon will sell beer directly to attendees. "That will make a really big difference because it cuts out the middle man," Railey says. "It helps the bands, it helps me and it helps the fans."
Railey's recent partnership with Premiere Events will also help in restoring his original vision of Corndogorama. The local production company organizes events ranging from the Atlanta Dogwood and Inman Park festivals to Taste of Atlanta and the Decatur Book Festival. The pairing was brokered by one of Corndogorama's most notorious characters, Amanda Tarr, who is known to most as the Corndog Lady.
Tarr has been selling her deep-fried tube steaks at Corndogorama since '97. After last year's potential catastrophe, she wanted to help. "Dave has this event and he wants to keep it what it is. You don't want to get some big organizer involved because they'll take it over," Tarr says. "Premier Events really are team players. The Corndogorama is one of my favorite events and Premier is my favorite organizer, so I recommended that they talk. I work with Premier on everything they do and it seemed like they could work together and make it much stronger."
With Premier Events handling the logistical aspects (marketing, food and beverages, permits), Railey is free to focus on the music. "I don't have to struggle with the permitting and dealing with the city anymore," he says. "This allows me to really focus on what I do best, getting the best bands together and dealing with publicity."
Fifty bands are scheduled to perform at this year's Corndogorama, including Dead Confederate, the Howlies, Modern Skirts, Noot d' Noot, Western Civ, Cordero and more. "I'm really taking it back to the indie-rock roots of where it all started," Railey says. "This wasn't ever supposed to be about having a huge headliner. I want it to show off just how good our local talent is, at a show where bands put down their pretense and play their best 20-minute sets," he adds.
"And after 12 years with one bump in the road I'm not about to quit doing it. Atlanta wants the Corndogorama and I want the Corndogorama."