Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Education and the Risk of All-Star Festivals - Essay

A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with a banjo player who has played with a good many touring bands and is a respected utility player in still others. He mentioned that instrumental workshops seemed to him to be more the custom of northeastern festivals than in other parts of the country. While this is not entirely my experience, it seems to me they're more firmly established in this part of the country than elsewhere. A few days later, I was chatting with a friend who's putting a festival together in the southeast. He mentioned having booked a bluegrass band for his event. I suggested that the band might not prove to be a huge draw for him, to which he responded that he saw the booking as designed to educate his audience. These two conversations have led me to think about the educational function of bluegrass festivals in seeking to enlarge and teach the bluegrass fan base.

Jennings Chestnut, the late promoter, mandolin builder and music shop owner from Conway, SC, once told me he sought, in designing his day-long free festival, to have two top tier national bands, a couple of lesser but high quality national bands, and two or three local and regional bands in his lineup. He hoped to provide balance, draw from local people seeking to hear local favorites, and attract attendees as well as entertain them with national recording bands. The economics of festivals have been, however, changing for many years.

Today, in order to make a living, touring bands must appear at two or even three events in a weekend while assuring the festivals are far enough apart the band doesn't compete with itself. This often means driving well over a thousand miles during a four day festival weekend. It might also mean a church appearance for a “love offering” on the way home and a road-house appearance along the way. Relatively few bands come to stay for a couple of days, have time to jam in the field, or stay long beyond the end of their second set. Several seek to ease rigors of travel and increase their impact through playing one ninety minute set.

Meanwhile, some promoters try to insure “butts in the seats” by scheduling high profile bands on Friday and Saturday to insure large day crowds, offering local bands for local people on Thursday and Sunday only. Other promoters have gone to an all-star format, vastly reducing opportunities for local and regional bands to gain experience performing at festivals allowing word of their excellence to gain traction. The comprehensive, broad-based bluegrass festival seems to be receding into the mists as the all-star, high visibility performance event brings in crowds wishing to see as many high profile touring bands in order to maximize the value of their entertainment dollar. Meanwhile, workshops, organized jams, and other side-events become less visible.

Another concern of the bluegrass world continues to be the aging of our community and the need to bring new people into bluegrass as fans. One friend of mine suggests this isn't a real problem. He argues that as people move toward retirement, their interests change and they want a more thoughtful, quieter, less active way to enjoy their music. Bluegrass, he says, fills the bill, and we should just be happy to see people age themselves into bluegrass. I'm inclined to disagree, believing new people seeking new ways to enjoy music will still want to hear echoes of the music they heard as young people, so people rising towards retirement will respond to music that reflects, in some way, the music they heard during their teen and young adult lives, for instance. We know such influences exist in bluegrass, but are strongly resisted by people who's musical experiences were nurtured in earlier years, some by the founders of bluegrass music.

One of Carleton Haney's favorite ways to conclude early bluegrass festivals he promoted was to present an on-stage extravaganza featuring Bill Monroe called “The Story of Bluegrass Music.” In this show, former members of The Bluegrass Boys and other performers from the festival would take the stage to help illustrate the important moments in the history of bluegrass. The times and economics of bluegrass make such a presentation pretty much impossible today. This sad occurrence, however, does not negate the need to educate the bluegrass audience, existing and future, to the conventions, sounds, instrumentation, and ways of making bluegrass music. Herein lies the hugely important educational function of the bluegrass festival.

Several years ago Ron Thomason said to me that when Dry Branch Fire Squad performs at a festival, he considers himself to have been hired for the day, not just for two performances. To him, this means he's available for workshops, which he enjoys doing. Many performers enjoy teaching. They get to interact with fans in a constructive way, explain something about their technique, influences, and musical background. Fans have the opportunity to interact with big name performers in a more informal way as well as to learn more about their instrument or some other musical skill. Some festivals provide beginner and intermediate workshops focused on jamming, which helps to inculcate newcomers to the traditions of the music and learn the etiquette of the jam in non-threatening situations. Workshops in song writing, harmony, band skills, and advanced professional topics are offered at some of the more creative events. All these efforts provide musical and cultural information in an entertaining format while not costing the promoter more than the rental of an additional small sound system and a tent. The returns, while not necessarily as measurable as “butts in the seats” are real and important.

Children's activities are important for several reasons. Perhaps the most obvious and least crucial is to provide an opportunity for parents to have a few hours to themselves at a festival while their offspring are involved in learning to play and preparing to perform in some variation of what has come to be known as The Kids Academy. Some of these academies are staffed by experienced teachers hired for the event, while others rely on volunteers. Some charge a nominal fee while others are free to the children of people purchasing tickets. Regardless, they serve to give young people a chance to get to know others of their own age, learn something about playing a bluegrass instrument, and have a really enjoyable experience.

While adding the kinds of activities described above, and still others creative promoters invent, may add marginally to the cost of producing a festival, it can achieve several worthwhile goals. The workshops serve to inform and educate new audiences to the world of bluegrass while providing instruction for fans new and old. Young people's activities can attract younger adults with families while inducting a new generation into bluegrass when they are most inclined to learn easily. All-star festivals may attract large crowds, but they risk narrowing the audience. Building new audiences and strengthening older ones while attracting a younger crowd to festivals can only benefit bluegrass music as well as serving to make festivals more interesting and comprehensive experiences.