There were 2, now there’s 1: Are floating music festivals on Lake Murray a dying breed?

Amid a cove filled with boats and happily inebriated revelers, Doug Gainey’s was one of the few faces that looked tired.

The local event producer was in the midst of mounting his seventh and final Drift Jam Flotilla Music Festival, the famously floating party on Lake Murray that was, in this last hurrah, bound by land. The festival announced two days before its June 1 date that it wouldn’t be anchored at Spence Island as planned but would instead move across the reservoir to the lakeside deck of the old Frayed Knot, a former bar in the Chapin area.

The move came when the floating festival found itself with nothing to float on. Long story short, the barges weren’t delivered on time — just one symptom of the problems that have made floating festivals of this sort on the Midlands’ crown jewel lake such a difficult task to pull off, and may be pushing them toward extinction.

The festival had both barges and back-up barges lined up, but both fell through, Gainey posted to social media.

Things didn’t get much easier when the festival got rolling. None of the people who pledged to ride jet skis and help Gainey get boats organized into rows and anchored showed up. The task was harder than normal anyway, as the Frayed Knot’s cove sits along a channel, making it narrower than the cove at Spence Island. As Gainey rushed around to get all the boats settled, he lost his phone to the bottom of the lake — contributing to why he couldn’t be reached by The State to talk after the event.

In a brief post after the final Drift Jam, Gainey said, “It has been (mostly) fun Miss Murray, but it is time to take my baby on to a bigger and better market.”

The Reggaetronic Lake Murray Music Festival returns June 15.
The Reggaetronic Lake Murray Music Festival returns June 15.

Since 2014, there have been two floating festivals on the lake, with the Reggaetronic Lake Murray Music Festival, which bills itself as “South Carolina’s longest running flotilla music festival,” having started its run in 2011.

The events draw a crowd — Reggaetronic claimed an attendance of 2,200 boats and 13,000 people from 34 states last year — but they’re a bear to pull off.

Reggaetronic founder Ronnie Alexander said that while the event is moving forward this Saturday, June 15, he was 80% sure he’d have to cancel it a little more than three weeks prior to logistical challenges. Drift Jam canceled in 2022 and at the last minute in 2023 before coming back for one more go.

As with many events, COVID-19 scuttled both festivals in 2020, with Reggaetronic getting the permit for its postponed date pulled a little more than two weeks before it was scheduled to take place.

Finding a float

Alexander has called putting on Reggaetronic a “logistical nightmare” in the past, and it’s only gotten worse in the past three years due to a project that’s high on many commuters’ minds.

The barges the festival typically uses are floating downstream from Lake Murray in the Saluda River, below an in-progress bridge that will soon carry Interstate 26. They’re being used in the ongoing effort to reconfigure the conglomerated interstate interchange known as “Malfunction Junction.”

The barges continuing to be occupied almost caused this year’s festival to be canceled. Reggaetronic had its lineup booked and held back on announcing it until June 5, after finding barges and being sure they’d have a floating stage for artists to perform on.

“We have to use all kinds of resources and call around and go a little further to truck them in,” Alexander said of the difficulty to find barges that can accommodate their needs. “One of our sponsors, Coogler Construction, provides the trucking. So, you know, you don’t want to dial them in to go all the way to Indiana, right? But if it’s anywhere in the Southeast, probably do that. So we try to find them logistically in the Southeast area and see if we can make it work.”

The Reggaetronic Lake Murray Music Festival returns June 15.
The Reggaetronic Lake Murray Music Festival returns June 15.

Any disruption to the process and timing of assembling the event is hard to manage since there are so many moving parts. For instance, a crane has to be in there to get the barge in the water.

“Whenever you’re trying to schedule the crane, you’ve got to get an ETA on when the barges will be available and kind of coordinate everything at once. So it’s kind of hard when it’s, ‘It might be Monday, it might be Tuesday. We’re expecting some barges in. You could pick it up. I’ll let you know soon,’” Alexander said, explaining that if the right barges aren’t available, that necessitates a change in the stage they must use.

“It’s gotten a little harder now because we’re used to going to the same people. It should be copy and paste,” he added. “But now, since it’s different vendors, it makes it a little more challenging.”

Paying the bills

Alexander said Reggaetronic is steadied by a slate of reliable sponsors, which he said is crucial. When you’re worrying about so many logistical variables, the budget needs to be rock solid.

Neither Drift Jam nor Reggaetronic can sell tickets to most of their attendees due to the fact that they’re out on open water and anybody who can drive up a boat is free to be there. Both festivals sell VIP parking up front with priority viewing and lounge space to help them pay the bills and set some cash aside to donate to charity.

“It’s definitely instrumental, vital,” Alexander said of maintaining a consistent pool of sponsors. “Without them, there’s no show.”

That proved to be the case with Drift Jam last year, which had a sponsor pull out late in the process.

“Unfortunately, we had a major sponsor fail to honor their financial commitment to the festival on the day of our sponsor deadline last week,” Gainey posted online a little more than a week before the 2023 festival was set to take place. “After exhausting all possible avenues to continue on with the festival, we simply cannot make it work at this point.”

The final Drift Jam Flotilla Music Festival was held June 1, 2024.
The final Drift Jam Flotilla Music Festival was held June 1, 2024.

That was the same day he announced the 2024 Drift Jam would be the last.

Gainey and his production company ran into trouble after stretching further than ever in 2021, putting on a second year of the grounded country festival Land Jam in Lugoff and throwing two Drift Jams, matching the Lake Murray throwdown with a second on Lake Marion.

All three were scheduled to come back the next year along with the first year of a 3 Rivers Float Festival, which would have placed bands at various spots along Columbia’s rivers for people to float past and enjoy. But Gainey announced in February 2022 that all of that year’s events were canceled.

Gainey posted in 2022 that he needed to “restructure my events to run more efficiently.”

But while there have been struggles, Reggaetronic’s Alexander said he feels it’s still very viable to float a festival on Lake Murray. There are no plans to stop his annual summer event, and his production team is adding to its portfolio with a festival in North Charleston Aug. 24 at Riverfront Park (the same location used by the famed High Water Music Festival). The new event will be land- and water-based, allowing organizers to sell hard tickets and push to a higher echelon of performers: Alexander mentioned names such as Rebelution, Snoop Dogg and DJ Steve Aoki, all regular inclusions at big-ticket festivals.

Alexander said his team has also been approached about putting on a floating festival in Key West.

“I think people kind of rely on it,” he said of Reggaetronic. “As it continues to grow, I think people kind of depend on it.”

Making an impact

The festival definitely seems to be making a local impact. Alexander said his team has been able to pull reports from stores, owners, marinas, rental companies and Airbnb that show that all rentals around the lake were booked up the day of the festival and local businesses were 19% over flatline.

“We know in the past the hotel rooms utilized for Reggaetronic have involved two hotels over the years,” said Miriam Atria, president and CEO of the Capital City Lake Murray Country regional tourism board. “We also know they have room blocks at the Aloft in The Vista for this year, and many lake rentals are full for the weekend of the 15th. Capital City/Lake Murray Country gathers all statistics after the events from various sources including AirDNA reports. Both of these events usually have visitors booking homes over hotels.”

And while it was the final go-round, the crowd at this year’s Drift Jam certainly seemed to appreciate it.

“Can I hear some horns here? Hello!” shouted Tyler Ryan, the day’s emcee as well as an ABC Columbia meteorologist and master captain with Lake Murray Boat Tours.

A chorus of honks quickly followed, reverberating around the cove.

The final Drift Jam Flotilla Music Festival was held June 1, 2024.
The final Drift Jam Flotilla Music Festival was held June 1, 2024.