It's the end of an era in Ybor City.
Community radio station WMNF-88.5 FM is suspending its long-running Tropical Heatwave music festival, an eclectic event that for 35 years has brought hundreds of bands and thousands of music fans to the Cuban Club and other venues.
Blame an overcrowded music festival industry that has priced WMNF out of the game, said WMNF general manager Craig Kopp.
"The festival market is just too competitive," Kopp said Friday, a day after announcing the news to a group of some 40 station volunteers. "Bands that would be a couple of thousand dollars are now 10-, 15-, 20 thousand dollars because that's what they're paying for a third- or fourth-stage (performer) at a Bonnaroo or an Okeechobee. We can't afford to play. It's just too much money."
It's the second Tampa music festival to be canceled in 2016 due to competition from events like the Gasparilla Music Festival and Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival. The Big Guava Music Festival, a Live Nation-backed event at the Florida State Fairgrounds, also announced in January it was going on hiatus "due to an overabundance of returning and new festivals in Florida."
For Heatwave, Kopp said, the writing has been on the wall for several years.
"This station did it for a long time, and they did it strictly for fun, and a couple of times they made some good money," he said. "But when it gets to the festival level in the current competitive market, it's really not for us. We've got to find the next thing."
Since it was founded in 1982, Tropical Heatwave has brought such varied acts as Bo Diddley, Sun Ra, Alejandro Escovedo, Dave Alvin and the Hold Steady to Ybor City, in the process becoming one of Tampa Bay's signature music events. In many ways, it set the stage for events that followed, such as GMF in Curtis Hixon Park.
But once it no longer became the only game in town, Heatwave's fortunes sank — or at least fluctuated wildly. One year, Kopp said, the station lost $40,000.
This year, Heatwave took a huge hit when it left the Cuban Club for the first time ever, instead shifting to handful of clubs and stages in and around Ybor City in April (a move forced, in part, by the Cuban Club hosting an unrelated concert by the Alabama Shakes the night before). The station barely made money — "Enough to buy a crappy used car," Kopp said. Not enough to keep things running.
The news came as a shock to Tom DeGeorge, the owner of Crowbar, a regular Tropical Heatwave stage. The festival was always a strong night for his club — "the last big event before the slow summer months," he said — and this year's event was no different. DeGeorge couldn't believe station officials pulled the plug without first consulting him and other local partners.
"I really wish that they would've reached out to a few of the players that maybe could've done something to try to help out," said DeGeorge, who sits on the board of directors of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce. "It's something that's profitable for everybody, so if they weren't making money, and we needed to bend on certain things, I for one would've done something to try to help."
Kopp said there was no reason to inform the venues in advance.
"We absorbed all the costs of the shows" — about $100,000 per year, he said — "and so it really had to be our decision to make."
Cuban Club president Patrick Manteiga wasn't surprised, but was disappointed nonetheless.
"Any tradition that we lose in Tampa is a sad passing, whether it's Valencia Gardens closing or Tropical Heatwave boarding up or one of a hundred other things that have passed or faded away," he said. "I'm sure there were a lot of people who their one foray into Ybor each year was going to be Tropical Heatwave. Anytime you have those kinds of events, it's always good for Ybor."
Kopp emphasized that the station itself is doing fine, even gaining listeners over the past year. Its signal strength and programming remain strong, he said. And the station still does well sponsoring concerts at venues like Skipper's Smokehouse, including Sarah Jarosz and Parker Millsap on Sept. 29 and Cracker on Oct. 8. The station plans to keep the "Tropical Heatwave" brand alive in some form.
But after this year's lackluster Heatwave, many station employees were resigned to the fact that it might not return in 2017.
"For me and the rest of the people that were very involved, it's pretty emotional," said WMNF special events coordinator Linda Reisinger, who has been with the station since the beginning. "But it's time to venture out. We can't keep up with the big guys."
"The most painful part for the longtime volunteers and longtime listeners is that that's just been a part of their lives for 30 some years," he said. "To see people you don't see all year long? That's the hard part. Change is hard, but part of our responsibility is, it's not our radio station. It's the community's radio station, and the community is changing. And we want to change along with it."
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.