The First One Was Free

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Today’s column from Nancy Zuniga
Thursday, July 2, 2009

I clearly remember the first time I heard the term “bluegrass festival”. It was 1973, and I was a grad student at USC, sitting in a classroom before the start of class, when I overheard a conversation between the professor, Dr. Sklaar, and one of his colleagues. Dr. Sklaar was telling his friend about where he had gone on his vacation, and mentioned that he and his wife had attended a bluegrass festival, adding “They’re so much fun!” I filed that bit of information somewhere in the back of my brain. I knew I liked bluegrass music, but up to that point had only heard it on the soundtracks of TV shows and movies. It would be many years before I would experience a live bluegrass performance, which would take the music to a whole different level for me.

In 1986, I moved to the town of Auburn, about half-an-hour’s drive from Grass Valley. Before long, I saw posters popping up in store windows advertising the Fathers Day Festival, and shortly thereafter, the Midsummer Bluegrass Festival. As I recall, single-day tickets for Saturday were around $22. Knowing what I now know, that wasn’t a bad deal at all for 12+ hours of stage entertainment plus countless jams, but to a divorced mom who never received a nickel of child support, I couldn’t justify the expenditure, so I resisted the urge to check out either festival. The following year, curiosity got the best of me. I decided to take advantage of the slightly lower admission price for Sunday, and drove up to Grass Valley with my son Jesse who was then four years old. Much to my pleasant surprise, the folks at the gate had stopped collecting money for that day, and waved me in at no charge. Whether they realized it or not, there turned out to be a method to their madness…I was hooked from then on, and have returned nearly every year since as a paying customer.

This has gotten me to thinking of the concept of “free samples”, an age-old marketing tool used to encourage consumers into trying a product or service that they might not otherwise try, with the hope that they will be so impressed that they’ll be willing to pay for future use of said product or service. I know that on occasion, individuals or groups have been comped in to festivals by Board members so they could see what the festival was about. Many other members have paid out of their own pockets for visiting friends or relatives to be their guests at bluegrass festivals. Undoubtedly, this ploy has resulted in new converts to the music and many return customers who were bowled over by the festival experience.

There will always be a few folks who are unmoved by immersion in bluegrass. Wives or husbands who reluctantly accompany their bluegrass-loving spouses to festivals often retreat to their RVs, or may be spotted in campsites reading a paperback novel, knitting a blanket, or listening to a sporting event on headphones. Even these folks, whose brains seem not to be hard-wired to appreciate bluegrass music, may come to look forward to festivals where they find solace in the company of other “bluegrass widows” or “widowers”.

While not everyone will find himself or herself “hooked” after their first bluegrass festival, my hunch is that the majority of festival-goers become converts, once they have a taste of the great stage shows, incredible jamming, and overall congeniality to be found at these events. If you can make “the first one free” for a new recruit to bluegrass, chances are that you will be helping to create a lifelong devotee. And, unlike most other addictions, this one can only improve the quality of life for the new convert, with the great friends and good times they may enjoy for years to come. <

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