Bluegrass festivals, especially mid-range and small ones, are facing twin challenges threatening their continued existence. Severe weather accompanied by apparently changing weather patterns and serious under-capitalization are making it difficult or impossible to attract and maintain the size and quality of audiences that would make it possible to book bands and schedule events to assure their continuance. During the past year we’ve seen an increase in the pattern of unpredictability as the seasons appear to be in a state of transition along with the weather patterns. This year, the entire eastern half of the U.S. has been plagued by extreme cold accompanied by extensive rain and cold.
During the past couple of years, we’ve seen dangerously hot weather and highly uncomfortable wet weather wherever we go. These variable weather patterns suggest that removal to appropriate indoor facilities would serve to make the event more predictable and manageable. A large number of people who attend bluegrass events, according to our experience, are still people who do so by hooking up their trailer or driving their motor homes to relatively nearby events. Nevertheless, it still appears to us, in our travels, that the vast majority of those people are from the state in which the event is being held. Even in Florida, where a lot of snowbirds come to winter festivals, most license plates are from Florida, and many people we talk to are traveling less than 100 miles. Meanwhile, though at many events music is continual from noon until 11:00 PM, seats are largely empty during the heat of the day, around both sides of the dinner break, and in the late evening. Jammers, who’ve been up all night because the stage show never ends must find times and places to get their jamming in while seeing and hearing the bands they want to encounter, but thereby making the seats look empty much of the time. Vendors at many of the festivals we attend continue to offer unhealthy food choices at unconscionably high prices, making it even more important to return to the camper for any kind of balanced meal.
A second factor threatening many bluegrass festivals lies in their being under-capitalized. The place where under-capitalization most hurts a festival lies in making it difficult to book anchor bands that will attract a strong and sizable audience. At a minimum, a good lineup must feature at least two good national bands, several other bands with recognizable national or regional appeal, and at least a couple of local or regional bands seeking to break into greater prominence. Showcases, band contests, and open stage events may help in this latter category. Attracting such talent requires promoters to be able to put out up-front money to schedule and book top bands at least a year in advance to permit publicity and organization to progress. It also requires sufficient funds available to be able to reserve facilities. Unless the promoter is lucky enough to have a stake or agreement with a venue, this is prohibitively expensive. Meanwhile, upgrading a personally owned facility to meet a state’s safety and health requirements is also costly. Too many events find these combinations of circumstances too expensive and are forced to disband after a too brief time or even after years of marginal success.
The proliferation of community cultural centers and convention centers built to attract business and tourism to a town or region suggest that another attractive alternative exists. A year or two ago we drove past the Hickory (NC) Metro Convention Center. A quick look suggested it would be a fine venue for winter or summer bluegrass festival. A look at its web site shows a large, flexible auditorium for big performances, lots of smaller meeting rooms for jamming and workshops, places for vendors, and lots of space. According to the web site, there are three nearby campgrounds, four bed and breakfasts, and twenty or so motels at a variety of price ranges. The list of places to eat is sufficient to meet the tastes of almost any diner. Hickory is a small city in the heart of the downtrodden former furniture capital seeking revitalization. Such centers exist all over the country. Successful indoor festivals such as Wintergrass, Joe Val, Bluegrass First Class, and the Southern Ohio Indoor Music Festival attest to the success of the indoor format. Why not expand it to a broader season?
Bluegrass promoters need to rethink how they are organizing and paying for their events. Two recent trends seem to offer good alternative solutions,and I’m certain others will emerge as people start to re-think the future of festivals. Promoter combines and not-for-profit tax status both offer wonderful opportunities. Recently a group of NC festival promoters have banded together to create a group they call Bluegrass Circle Productions. According to Bluegrass Today the group involves “Cory Hemilright (Outer Banks Bluegrass Festival), Lorraine Jordan (Bluegrass Christmas In the Smokies), John Locust (Bluegrass in Cherokee), Don Mitchell (Blue Grass by the Rock), and Tim White (Song of the Mountains Bluegrass Festival). At this point they represent major festivals in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.” It is clear that such coordinated buying power is in a strong position to bargain, provide resources, and coordinate activities in a region. My greatest concern lies in wondering whether they will reduce diversity and prove to be destructive to independent festivals. This remains to be seen.
Festivals find themselves plagued with the costs of trying to make a profit and engaging in seeking to pay taxes while seeking to make enough money to get to the next year. One way to reduce costs and attract sponsors is to become chartered as a 501 (c)3 non-profit organization. Such non profits must have a charity or cause to which they are dedicated and are governed by a number of rules and regulations. The promoter may be paid a salary from the receipts of the festival. The biggest attraction of non-profit designation is that it can attract local, regional, and national sponsors who can deduct their sponsorship costs. Attracting sponsors can make the difference between making money and failing as well as providing resources for booking bands and attracting customers. This is a win-win opportunity.
We live in a highly competitive entertainment environment with a changing environmental situation and a need to find new markets for bluegrass music. Considering changing to indoor format and becoming chartered as a not-for-profit corporation represent only two of many ways to become more relevant as we enter into a new century. The bluegrass festival, as imagined and realized by Carlton Haney is now nearly fifty years old. That’s a long time for any form of entertainment to continue in much the same format. It’s time to re-think the bluegrass festival in terms of content, location and structure while finding new audiences to deliver live bluegrass music to and seeking to maintain the current one.