Monday, November 22, 2010

What About Festivals? - An Essay

I love bluegrass festivals. The excitement rises in me as we near the grounds of the coming weekend's festival, usually but not always somewhere in rural America. We round a corner and see a blue sign with an arrow saying “Bluegrass Festival.” A flag waves beside a narrow dirt road, and we turn in, bumping along an often dusty access road. A panorama of RV's spreads out before us with a large tent in the background. The mobile bluegrass community is assembling in a new location for a weekend of jamming, socializing, eating, and attending performances on the main stage. We're led to our camping site by a codger on a golf cart who helps us fit into the narrow site with just enough room to open our awning without trespassing on the next door neighbor's space. We grab our bag chairs and scurry down to the main stage to put them down in a favored space even before we set up camp, and then return to establish our home for the next four or five days. We're home, no matter where we are.

Is there anything wrong with this idyllic picture? Well...yes. Battered by a difficult economy, changed by the economics of earning a living on the bluegrass trail, plagued by an aging fan base, missing the young people who work during the week, and damaged by unreliable weather that makes any four day period spent outdoors at best risky, festivals face an uncertain future. The earliest festivals, built along the model provided by Carlton Haney in the first recorded multi-day bluegrass festival held over the three day Labor Day weekend in 1965 near Roanoke, VA, brought a group of now legendary bluegrass bands together with a mixed bag of mountain people, hippies, music lovers, and professional musicians to share a group experience. These weekend events were often highlighted by a Sunday afternoon recounting of the history of bluegrass narrated by Carlton Haney who would call various performers to the stage to re-create songs they had sung with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass boys during the years they were with the band. In later years, these Grand Finales took on different forms, according to Pete Wernick.  Performers would largely remain at the festival for its entire span, spending a good deal of their time in the field with the crowd as members of the many jams taking place in campsites where, not by happenstance, they were often fed by their friends in the audience. In all likelihood, there was only one bluegrass festival anywhere nearby. The music often featured a combination of bands that today would be categorized as classic country and folk as well as bluegrass. The specter of the dreaded rock and roll hung over the environment.

Today's economic environment has created quite a different scene. In order to be able to afford to stay on the road, a professional band must book two or three gigs over a four day weekend period. With luck and good management a band can begin its weekend a few hundred miles from its base, where it performs on Thursday night as the headliner. After a brief time taken to sell merchandise, the band will board its bus or van and rush through the night to another festival site at least two hundred miles away to be prepared for a 2:30 PM first set on Friday afternoon. Two hundred miles is often a designated safety zone to help assure that a band doesn't draw fans away from another nearby event. Often the distance is much greater. Saturday may find the band at still another venue. For instance, Graves Mountain in Virginia and Strawberry Park in Connecticut often share performers on a weekend in early June. They are 456 miles apart. Perhaps the band can also schedule a church appearance on Sunday morning along their route home. By the time the group arrives home on Sunday night or the wee hours of Monday morning, they are exhausted and many band members must be at their day jobs on Monday. There isn't time to hang out for the Sunday afternoon Grand Finale in which members of many bands joyfully jam together to celebrate the music they love to make.

For promoters, the calculation is also difficult. In order for a promoter to do better than break even or make a very small profit, Friday and Saturday's strong lineups must be supported by good enough weather to draw a substantial day crowd. Weekend RV'ers may guarantee a steady pre-sale, perhaps even enough to pay for the talent, but festivals have significant overhead that always make showing a profit risky. Maintaining low ticket prices for whole-festival attendees places further downward pressure on the gate. The surest way to guarantee a loss is cold or rainy weather which inevitably depresses attendance. Sponsorship can help, but not all promoters are skilled at developing local or regional sponsors to help take on some of the load. The portion of the outdoor festival season in which temperature and weather tend to work well enough to increase the chances of success is relatively short and uncertain. The joys of the outdoors are often outweighed by excessive heat or evening chill and rain.

A couple of recent experiences with indoor concerts have inclined me to favor them as an effective delivery system for bluegrass music for a number of reasons. First, let me examine, briefly, the negatives. Frequently, indoor events don't provide sufficient space or a welcoming environment for jamming and vendors. Since the jam is an essential element of bluegrass get-togethers, promoters should consider finding venues where space for jamming is included. Vendors, including gift, food, and music supplies should be included in the mix. Provision for these elements helps to insure that a festival-like atmosphere can be created in an indoor setting. The biggest problem with holding indoor festivals lies in creating a festive environment.

Holding bluegrass events indoors in concert halls, large auditoriums, or even arenas offers several advantages. First, and perhaps foremost for both artists and fans alike, indoor events eliminate the bluegrass “season” and turn the music into a year-round attraction. With a large number of bands vying for relatively few available festival slots, lengthening the season makes economic sense for everyone. One factor usually improved by indoor performance, at least in our experience, is sound. Temperature, humidity, and wind aren't the factor they are outdoors and sound technicians are used to working indoors. Ticket prices for a large one day event with multiple bands can approximate or slightly exceed day-ticket prices for outdoor events and not be responsive to weather. Spaces with large performance areas, rooms for jamming, and open spaces for vendors can be found. Large motel facilities with moderately sized convention spaces can work well. I would think that medium sized cities seeking to get fuller use from their newly constructed (and often underutilized) convention centers would leap at the chance to host a two or three day indoor bluegrass festival. The success of events like Joe Val, Wintergrass, and Bluegrass First Class attest to the hunger for bluegrass during the winter months and suggest that the shoulder seasons in many parts of the country would provide good times, also. While sound at Kissimmee was something of a problem, the combination of a flexible indoor venue with available on-site camping provided a good model. While RV'ers have provided major support to bluegrass, I suspect that, as travel tastes, the price of fuel, and budgets have changed, there may be a larger non-RV audience waiting eagerly for more indoor events.

We'll continue to attend outdoor festivals during warm weather periods in the northeast and during the winter in Florida. Nevertheless, I look forward to promoters' seeking out opportunities to offer indoor events in many parts of the country where festivals are not now available. Broadening the kinds of venues available for bluegrass performance can only be win-win situations for performers, fans, and promoters alike.