As the festival season winds down, new bands are formed, band members play musical hop-scotch, and fans mostly watch from the sidelines, I’ve been thinking about what makes a good festival good. During the past several months a number of people have posted or responded to things I’ve written, and I’ve been packing them away. What follows are some of the ideas that have grown from these inputs and the experiences Irene and I have had along the trail. I hope they generate some comments, spike readers’ interest, and intrigue some promoters enough to encourage them to examine their own practices as they work to make their events ever more successful.
Promoters should know their real audience, not the one they wish it were or think it is. This is particularly difficult as the promoters own taste and preferences take precedence over a more analytical and thoughtful approach to developing a festival or event program and a lineup to support that program. Too often we’ve seen promoters make a couple of huge mistakes that weaken their appeal and cut their attendance. Perhaps their biggest mistake is to seek to give a party for their friends and call it a festival. The worst example we’ve ever seen was an event where a (now former) promoter established a series of rules concerning alcohol, tobacco, noise, and such and then preceded to break every one of his own rules as he sat in the front row, a cigarette in one hand, a beer in the other while he bathed in the happy glow of his buddies’ adulation. Meanwhile, people who valued listening to great music, breathing clean air, and not being assaulted by drunks exited in droves. They didn’t come back.
Promoters should seek to expand their audience to fully use the site available to them for both campers during the full three or four day run and day trippers on Friday evening and all day Saturday. I’m told that while people coming for the entire event and staying on site are the core for good attendance, the key to breaking even or perhaps making a profit lies in people who drive in for Friday night or Saturday’s show. It’s a useful idea to balance a program so that several major headliners appear in both these times to boost drive-in attendance. Several events we attend, ones that characterize themselves as traditional, reserve a somewhat edgier and less traditional headliner for closing on Saturday, successfully attracting a drive-in audience for whom a thirty dollar day fee is insignificant compared to attending a stand-alone concert. Bands like the Lonesome River Band, Cadillac Sky, Mountain Heart, and Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives (the wonderful irony of this band’s name never ceases to amuse me) are good examples of bands that fulfill this purpose. Putting such groups on late on Saturday allows older and/or more traditional fans to go home to their campers to jam or hit the sack, while those wishing a louder, rockier, more active band can stay to enjoy. This sort of scheduling also raises the issue of the traditional two set model, but I’ll leave that for another time.
A Canadian correspondent wrote saying he thought there was a pretty simple formula: location, location, location, service, service, service, followed by a great lineup. Simple, isn’t it? Well…not so simple when you think about it. The roots of bluegrass music are traditionally rural, but our national population doesn’t live in rural America any longer. Our people, including the fans of bluegrass music live in cities and many of them are upper-middle class professionals. Last summer, at the Jenny Brook Festival in extremely rural Tunbridge, VT, I was chatting with a fan who had come to see The Gibson Brothers. As we chatted, it soon emerged that he lives in the same apartment building in Manhattan that I lived in as a child in the 1940’s. How do we make it possible for this young doctor to get to as many bluegrass events as possible? Finding a location that looks and feels rural but which lies within a reasonable distance of tens of thousands of potential attendees while still be affordable to rent can present serious problems. The Podunk Bluegrass Festival, held during the first weekend in August in E. Hartford, CT, has an almost ideal situation. Podunk is held in a lovely city park, sponsored by the city, operates as a non-profit, and has a great lineup. It has taken years, however, for it to overcome the stigma of being located in a city and to attract a large audience. In San Francisco, I understand Hardly Strictly Bluegrass attracts over half a million people annually. Where are the bluegrass festivals in Boston, New York, and Washington? What kind of crowd could a block buster festival attract to Central Park or the Washington Mall?
Sometimes services are exactly the area where promoters cut back to save money. I’ll have more to say about saving money on sound at a later date, but let’s look at services people notice during a festival. Providing internal transportation for those attending a festival really makes an impression. Pickin’ in the Pasture, in Lodi, NY has a pretty steep uphill grade from the stage to the back of the campground. By providing a tractor-drawn cart, the festival makes friends while it forestalls heart attacks. The Palatka Bluegrass Festival at the Rodehever Boys Ranch in Florida has a very attractive trolley to take campers around the grounds. Other festivals use golf carts leaving from a convenient location to transport people needing assistance.
A quite different and very important service is providing a sufficient number of frequently cleaned porta-johns. For some reason this is an area in which promoters seem to think they can skimp. But to people attending events, the cleanliness and availability of portable toilets makes a huge difference. Merlefest has a fleet of pump-out trucks running all day long. Furthermore, judging from the lines, women very much appreciate air-conditioned flush toilet facilities. These certainly constitute a major expense, but keeping a festivals female customers happy is of utmost importance.
Just a few words about festival foods. At most festivals, they’re terrible. Hamburgers pre-cooked and dried out, too much deep fried stuff (including my obligatory dose of fried dough), and deep-fried Twinkies lead the list of stuff you can consume and then watch your blood sugar rise while your arteries clog. This isn’t necessary. Every festival should seriously consider inviting vendors who sell salads, vegetables, and non-fried meats. YeeHaw Junction often has a vendor called Outback Kate’s which sells Cajun and southern style vegetables that are simply delicious and wholesome. Gettysburg has an Asian fast food vendor whose wares are tasty. I’m still looking for a good salad vendor. Offering healthy, hearty food at a reasonable price is just good service.
I have a long enough list of other matters I want to consider to continue this piece in next month/s column. Suffice it to say, that promoters need constantly to consider their customers as they plan their events. It may be that they perceive much of what I’ve written to be beyond their current means, but working towards being more customer-centered, seeking feedback, and listening carefully all count towards increasing receipts. I look forward to reading your comments and continuing the conversation.
(Editor’s Note—Visit Ted’s bluegrass blog at http://tedlehmann.blogspot.com/. It’s absolutely loaded with stuff for the obsessive compulsive bluegrasser.)