Strong Foundation: The Cornerstone Festival says goodbye, for now

Jul 5, 2012 at 4:00 am
Norma Jean will headline the final Cornerstone Festival
Norma Jean will headline the final Cornerstone Festival

On July 7 at 10:45 p.m., metal-core outfit Norma Jean is scheduled to perform at the Cornerstone Festival in Bushnell, Illinois, at a farm-turned-campground three hours north of St. Louis. The following day, after the makeshift stages are disassembled and the concertgoing campers are shuffled off the premises, the event organizers from Chicago's Jesus People Evangelical Covenant Church will close the gates and officially end the festival's 29-year run.

The Cornerstone Festival began as a concert for Jesus People's Resurrection Band and an extension of the church's contemporary Christian music publication, Cornerstone Magazine. Throughout its existence, the annual event has grown into a summer landmark, becoming one of the most attended music festivals in the Midwest and, in its heyday, one of the largest Christian music festivals in the country.

Cornerstone sold as many as 25,000 tickets in its prime during the late '90s and early 2000s. For this year's final hurrah, after years of dwindling attendance, organizers anticipate a crowd of 6,000, a mere 1,000 more than the inaugural go-round in 1984.

"Cornerstone has been struggling financially the past few years, and we are not able to keep operating it at a loss," organizer Genesis Winter says. "Running a festival can be breathtakingly expensive: portable toilets, large circus tents and enough electricity for a medium sized town, production costs, insurance, grounds maintenance and finally bands. It all really adds up. While the mission of our festival has not changed, we do have to adapt to reality."

Fuel costs are a major factor in Cornerstone's current reality. "Many of our attendees were having a hard time financially with traveling out to the fest grounds," Winter says. "Most of our attendees are from more than 300 miles away, so gas prices are a big issue to them."Especially with Bushnell's location on the northern cusp of the Bible Belt, the family-friendly aspect of the festival certainly did not hurt its ticket sales. Parents may have been reluctant to let their children run wild at Woodstock '99, but Cornerstone's church-camp vibe was far less threatening.

The festival consistently catered to its niche by booking the heaviest hitters in contemporary Christian music such as DC Talk, Petra, Phil Keaggy and MxPx. Spiritually minded mainstream crossover acts including Switchfoot, Sixpence None the Richer, Jars of Clay, P.O.D. and Stryper have headlined as well. Even Los Lonely Boys, rapper-turned-preacher MC Hammer and born-again former Korn guitarist Brian "Head" Welch have made appearances.

Throughout the last decade, Cornerstone has made a notable effort to expand its audience beyond the Christian market; admirably, it has done so without pressuring the outsiders to convert. Many of the noteworthy bands in recent years have existed in the gray area between Christian and secular cultures. Hardcore-leaning acts Underoath and the Devil Wears Prada and pop-punk bands Anberlin and Relient K are Cornerstone veterans, as are dark indie rockers mewithoutYou and La Dispute. In 2001 alone the festival hosted Sufjan Stevens, Damien Jurado, Unwed Sailor, Further Seems Forever, Starflyer 59 and Pedro the Lion — all acts whose fanbases represent a wider demographic than just youth-group members and Joy FM listeners.

The festival's 2012 lineup is shorter on such universal artists or hot-ticket headliners. The aforementioned Norma Jean is by far the largest draw, its Christian undertones less important as a whole than its position as an icon in modern hardcore. In a distant second is punk band Squad Five-O, which is reuniting for the first time since its 2006 breakup. Other key names include Celtic punk group Flatfoot 56, folk weirdo Danielson and White Collar Sideshow, which performs shock-rock about the dangers of addiction in vaudevillian horror-movie performances.

Earlier this year, however, the lineup had more gravity. Christian ska titan the O.C. Supertones, indie-pop family band Eisley and mathy hardcore group (and Norma Jean comrades) the Chariot were all confirmed for the festival via Cornerstone's Twitter and listed on the festival's official website.

When the announcement was made that this would be Cornerstone's final jaunt, organizers also said that they would "be making some changes to the lineup and schedule that reflect an adjusted budget." Shortly afterward, all three bands quietly disappeared from the bill, with no proper cancellation announcement outside of the catchall warning that "Artist lineup is subject to change."

"We realized in the middle of May that we were not going to be able to put on the festival we had planned to put on, due to lack of ticket sales," Winter says. "I wrote a letter to all of our bands and said that this would be the final festival, and we would not be able to pay our bands this year, but they were welcome to come play one last time to say goodbye. The overwhelming response we got from bands was that they wanted to come say goodbye to the festival, and they were honored to be part of the final Cornerstone. Not every band felt this way or was able to make it work."

Jesus People had already decreased ticket prices by 25 percent for this year's event. Compared to the astronomical entry fees at competitive fests, $120 for a one-week pass to the festival plus camping facilities is a bargain. The group even organized a ride-sharing program to cut down on gas costs and keep money in attendees' wallets.

Although some people are disheartened by the shorter lineup, plenty are still undeterred, their hearts set on attending. Many concertgoers, Christian or otherwise, consider Cornerstone a staple of their summer routine. Like those who preorder tickets to Bonnaroo or Coachella before their lineups are announced, dedicated patrons of Cornerstone are drawn to an overall experience rather than a collection of specific bands. The festival also features seminars ("Can You Have a Brain and Still Be a Christian?") and art workshops ("Cigar Box/Found Object Guitar Building") alongside a kickball tournament, swimming and something called the Imaginarium that is not actually as magical as it sounds.

Now in its last days, the festival has adopted a sentimental tone. On the website's farewell statement, its organizers said, "Cornerstone 2012 promises to be a time of thankful reflection and sharing among people who've walked this significant part of their life's journey together." For the die-hard Cornerstoners, the end of the festival carries more significance than just one fewer entry on their summer to-do lists. Regardless of one's belief system, Cornerstone was a catalyst for creativity and a safe haven for the curious.

"There is a sense of community at Cornerstone that is difficult to express but very real for those who have attended more than a couple of years," says Winter, who has attended all 29 festivals. "People have told us that Cornerstone is one place where they felt at home, accepted and a part of something bigger than themselves. This is especially true of people who have not felt accepted in traditional church settings — Goths, punks, skater kids, people who are questioning their faith. They come to Cornerstone and feel a sense of community, and that is what I will miss the most."

Although the Jesus People Evangelical Covenant Church is closing down shop in Bushnell, the church plans to open a venue near Wrigley Field to host Christian concerts. If this plan succeeds, it will likely spotlight the same groups who would have appeared on the stages out on the farm.

For Jesus People, the Cornerstone Festival is a form of ministry, and the spirit of the festival will live on through other outreach programs that spread beyond its church walls. Cornerstone may be dead for the time being, but Jesus People have a knack for rebirth.