Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Promoters: Why IBMA Is For You

The essay below is a lightly edited version of my monthly column carried yesterday at the web site of the California Bluegrass Association. I look forward to whatever discussion might follow.

The other day I was talking to a promoter of a small festival in the midwest. His event is reputed to be a good one that people enjoy attending and artists like working for. He commented that he needed to do something to strengthen his lineup and reach out more effectively to build his audience. He said that these days, when he sends out email blasts to his extensive mailing list, he increasingly gets returns with “deceased” written on them. I talked briefly with him about more effective use of social media, using his web site better, Facebook, and Twitter. His eyes sort of clouded over, although he does have a web site and a Facebook page. This promoter still relies primarily on the distribution of fliers at nearby locations and at other festivals to promote and develop his festival, thus assuring that he will continue to cater to the same, sadly, diminishing audience. Like so many people in music today, facing a changing media environment, developing musical tastes, an aging audience, and associated other problems, this promoter needs help from others facing the same kinds of problems who have sought and found ways to address them. The International Bluegrass Music Association, through its annual trade show (such a bad name) to be held in Raleigh, NC (September 24 -28, 2013, registration now open) has help, but promoters need not only to join, but to attend.

Perhaps the biggest mistake a promoter can make attending IBMA is to see the week primarily as a time to jam and socialize. Sure, there is plenty of both at every IBMA meeting, and both are important, however staying up until three or four every morning makes it difficult to be awake and alert for what the event has to offer during the very long working hours at the meetings. The seminars, presentations, and networking sessions give each person attending an opportunity to get together with other people who every day encounter the same problems they do, but who are coming up with different ideas and alternatives to address and solve them.

What sort of considerations does a promoter need to explore in seeking to broaden the audience, focus the outreach, and increase sales? The bluegrass festival, in much its present form, has continued for nearly fifty years. During that time the world has changed vastly. The young people who flocked to these events in the sixties and seventies are now in their seventies and eighties. They have grown older and festivals have grown into more quiet and staid events in order to keep the same people coming a few more years. I'm currently reading a biography of Henry Ford and find myself astounded at what Ford had to create to fulfill his imagination of a new automobile. Every element had to be imagined, engineered, built, and adapted to come together as the culminating vehicle of his great success, the model T Ford. It took both vision and great courage for him, with the help of many others, to accomplish what became the revolutionary event of the twentieth century. The bluegrass music festival may be facing crises of similar dimensions.

What elements should a promoter consider, among many, to help him develop and grow the festival? How much variety can be incorporated within the format for it to remain a bluegrass music festival? What is the appropriate balance between national, regional, and local bands necessary to both draw an audience and meet a budget? Can the envelope be pushed, or at least expanded to make the event more attractive to a wider audience? What is the brand the promoter wishes to emphasize for the festival? What kind of designs are there to explore? During the past several years, since we began attending IBMA, all these questions have been explored in sessions where discussion has been active and people attending them have come away filled with ideas about how to tweak or make major changes to grow their audience and develop a festival more fully. The only problem has been that too few people attend sessions which can aid them the most.

ROMP (The River of Music Party) is the annual festival held by the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, KY. Museum Executive Director Gabrielle Gray faced the problem of a festival that was small and very tradtional, but not providing the museum with the sort of return necessary to justify continuing the event. Over a two year period, they have increased the size, changed their demographic, and made a profit through facing their problem. She says, ROMP shared the same dilemma as so many bluegrass festivals: how to be strictly bluegrass and yet be supportive and inclusive of all the terrific progressive bluegrass and roots-and-branches-of-bluegrass bands. Because the museum had to make considerable money with ROMP or stop hosting it altogether (because it is such a labor drain), it was decided that ROMP would be a bluegrass roots-and-branches festival that was not strictly bluegrass but that was strictly in support of the bluegrass museum.” The problems encountered and overcome in taking these steps, which led to retaining fine bluegrass bands but expanding the scope and tone of the event, is a longer story than space permits here, but it represents the kind of thinking that can be encountered and nurtured at IBMA as promoters seek to focus their efforts, identify bands they want, and extend their relationships within the bluegrass music world.

Attendance at IBMA offers promoters with the chance to network and develop ideas with bluegrass promoters and bookers from other kinds of events in an open forum of ideas. Only you know precisely what your situation is and what your problems are, but many others face similar ones, and you can only gain from their experience if you are open to hear and explore it with them. At IBMA you can see and evaluate both emerging and established bands as well as other promoters meeting with them to discover where their solutions might fit in your plans. You can meet with others to discuss problems you encounter that seem unique, but may not be. Their solutions can only help you. For instance, if you reach out for a younger, more varied audience, how will you deal with the problems and opportunities associated with young people wanting to dance or to drink beer? We've attended festivals that manage to successfully integrate diverse audiences without problem, and they're at IBMA and willing to share their solutions. You can build and develop new skills in event design, negotiating with bands and vendors, and publicizing your event. You can examine trends in the music, publishing, recording, and more, learning to incorporate them into how you can build your festival. After IBMA is over, you can continue to build your skill set by attending on line seminars (called Webinars) throughout the year.

Attendance at and membership in IBMA stands as an investment in your future as a promoter more than as a big expense. The essence of a professional organization is the mutuality of interest found in joining together with your peers to learn and develop. I've watched, mostly from the edges, as the new leadership at IBMA has grappled with the problems of a changing environment, working to adapt to new conditions while continuing to attract and build its base. It's an exciting time to be or get involved. The city of Raleigh is eager to provide a setting conducive to such growth. You should come there to increase the chances of your having greater success and building the music you love and an audience for it.