Festivals 2013: bread, butter and demographic pie

Chris JonesAre bluegrass festivals successful? The answer, in 2013 (I prefer to work in the present because it’s so now-ish), is an unequivocal “yes” and “no.” It all depends on who you talk to and how you define “success.” For some, success is achieved when you lose 25% of your audience, because it means you have fewer security headaches and are no longer short of volunteers. Others define success as having reached the point at which you’re no longer losing money, and people you consider to be stars feel an obligation to buy you presents for no reason.

While some events are growing substantially, others are shrinking faster than a Bonnaroo T-shirt in an extra-hot dryer. Festivals are naturally doing their best to deal with the tough economic times we’ve all been facing since the stock market crash of 1929. And, in this economic environment, we all have to be a little more innovative and diligent in order to grow our business.

Though I come to this issue from the point of view of a band “owner” (at least I own the P.A. system, though I’m not sure where it is at the moment), I also have run legitimate businesses in the past, and I’m involved in a new and growing “green” company that’s making instrument straps out of recycled backstage garbage, like styrofoam coffee cups, broken D-strings, forgotten digital tuners and discarded set lists. In other words, though I’m a business owner, I have no real qualifications to offer advice on the subject of event producing, but I plan to do it anyway.

Many festivals, when faced with a dwindling audience, make the mistake of trying to reach out to a new segment of the population, hoping for a larger slice of the demographic pie (I’m sorry, I’ve just been waiting years to say “demographic pie”; I promise it won’t happen again).

Many bluegrass events look out at their crowd, see a median age of 92, and start making moves to lure in a younger audience. This is an understandable impulse, but it can be very dangerous to try and bring a different kind of crowd to your event.

Likewise, some festivals that have a younger audience would at least like to bring in enough older people so there’s someone around to steer everybody to the right tents at the end of the night. This too is risky, because studies show that once your event reaches the level of three old people to every ten young ones, the young ones get scared and never come back (some are never heard from again).

I would suggest instead that festivals need to embrace the audience they have, and then take steps—even bold ones—to expand that audience.

For example, if you have an older crowd, don’t bring in jamgrass bands that will only lead to guys with no shirts and Hasidic-looking beards dancing in front of elderly people in lawn chairs, blocking their view (not that they want to see the band anyway). This will only accelerate the shrinkage of your audience and confuse people.

Instead, encourage even more older people to attend: book the same bands back every year, and insist that each band sound the same as last year (preferably working off the same set list). Keep prices the same but offer additional age-based discounts so that the older you are, the lower your admission cost is. Build shuffleboard courts, have a well-stocked game room for cards and bingo, with satellite TV that shows only the Game Show Network and the Weather Channel.

You’ll have the last laugh on everyone trying to court the same 25-40 age group that advertisers seem to believe are in possession of all the world’s disposable income. The truth is, those young whippersnappers had all the disposable income, but they spent it all on high-end beer, electronic gadgets and pedicures. They’re all in debt.

Sure, your older audience may complain a little as they leave the festival grounds to go home, but you can just smile back at them, knowing you’re successfully capturing the business of the only responsible people left in our society.

What if you have a festival that’s bringing in a younger crowd, but you’d like to expand on that success to broaden your base a little, maybe providing some long term stability for your audience? Plus, you know that older people can help provide temporary loans, so the younger ones can continue to patronize the vendors selling guitar cases made of hemp.

But, as mentioned above, you can quickly reach a critical mass of older people and the effects on your younger attendance the very next year could be chilling.

A better plan is to encourage more young people to attend. Keep your bands jammy and experimental. If you do have any bands in the more traditional mold, insist that they perform barefoot and discourage any songs under 15 minutes long. Purchase some incense that smells like marijuana and have some burning right at the front gate. Have all security people disguised as ancient Deadheads.

What if you’re the presenter of a rowdy kind of festival that’s drawing in more of a redneck/biker crowd, and you’re thinking you’d like to try to expand your audience and maybe have fewer arrests in the bargain by bringing in a more yuppy-ish element.

Here again, you’re wasting your time. The yuppies aren’t going to set foot at your festival until you’ve cleared the event entirely of people with large knives attached to their belts (and those are just the women), and Rebel flags tattooed on parts of their body no one wanted to see in the first place. This will remain true no matter how many smoothie stands you have, and whether or not you book the Seldom Scene.

What you need to do is further attract the element that has become your event’s bread and butter (and forced the state to beef up highway patrols in the area days in advance): Sprinkle the festival grounds with spent shells and empty Jim Beam bottles before anyone arrives. Book some rowdier bluegrass bands, and make sure you have one with a drummer that can do a two-hour set at midnight. Get a couple of volunteers to stage a fake knife fight right in front of the stage at 3:00 in the afternoon. Hire some semi-attractive girls and guys, cover them in mud (even if the grounds are dry that year) and have them dance near (or on) the stage. Have one or more of them pretend to pass out.

Whatever kind of audience you have at your festival, when people ask you what your long term business strategy is, you can just confidently reply, “more of the same.”

  • I just read your “supposed to be funny” but arrogant and insulting article about bluegrass festivals. You have just insulted every genre of bluegrass fan, including the promoter. I am all of those people you insulted, I am elderly, I am young, I am a hippie, I am a yuppie, I am a redneck, I am a bluegrass fan. I like smoothies, I like Jim Beam, I sit in a lawn chair, I have flags on my Prevost, beer in my tent, wine in my plastic wine glass. I attend no less than 6 festivals per year, and have attended up to 16 in one year. I know quite a few promoters and don’t believe most of them would appreciate your view of how “separatist” a festival should be. When I am at a festival I am one of all of these types you cast, and we all enjoy the festival together. You indicate a promoter should design his festival around one type of fan. You have categorized all of us, but each in his own box. I’m surprised you didn’t go so far as to include race in your defining of a festival-attendee. I have always thought your articles were arrogant and self-serving, written from your lofty perch in your “Northern Studio”. I wonder which type of fan listens to your music? Hope they enjoy your “funny” article. By the way, I am printing copies of your article to hand to the promoters I know.

    • Chris Jones

      Hi Shirley,

      I’m very sorry you took offense at my column. I don’t know how many of them you’ve read in the past, but they have covered numerous topics, sometimes offering “advice” about various aspects of the bluegrass world. At no time is this meant to be taken as literal advice. In fact, it would often be a big mistake to do so. It’s intended as a humor column only. Since that was my intent, I’m sorry that you didn’t find it funny.

      Of course I don’t think festivals should zero in on one type of fan. Quite the opposite. Diversity is best for everybody, and I applaud any promoters effort to expand and diversify the audience. I would in fact be a little worried about a promoter who would take this column at face value. My hope instead was to get a chuckle out of some promoters who deal with the challenges of bringing in new people. One of the first positive comments I got about this column was from the producer of the Graves Mountain festival, Mark Newton, who understands these challenges well.

      Again, I’m sorry to have offended you personally. It was not my intent to do that nor to offend any other type of festival attendee.

      Chris

    • Mike Dillon

      I’m sure the promoters you know will thank you for giving them a copy of this article. I’m sure they will appreciate the humor intended.

    • Shirley I thought the exact same as you until I read the comment section! Unlike most of the readers here I have never read anything by Chris Jones. I recieved a link that lead directly to this article and this one alone. And there was nothing telling me “Hey this is a big joke don’t take it seriously”. I thought I sensed some tongue in cheek through out the column but it is impossible to read humor/sarcasm when you don’t know that is what you are reading. I would love to see “satire” as a label or something informing me of how the article was written!

  • Lisa Jacobi

    Christopher Jones-

    We here at the Department of Ink Credibility Slingers are pleased to notify you that after decades of writing proficiency you are now an “overnight success.” You have reached the level of a solid (if not singular)readership who:
    1. *thinks* your columns are based on misstatements, thus…
    2. believe every word you write is what you intend, and…
    3. that you have no idea what their world is like, meaning to them that…
    4. you don’t like their world, and finally…
    4. they missed that important English class in 8th grade called “Irony, or did I forget that using creative writing can shed an inverse light on an issue in order to make a difference.”

    You may pick up your award at your convenience. Please do not arrive at our office bearing sharp objects, unless you are arriving by way of air-travel.*

    Finally, thank you for knowing how to spell Bonnaroo. As Droids and Google, have not smoked enough herbs to perceive that it is not Bon Jovi, though in a way it is… dude.

    Sincerely,

    *We here at DICS realize you must protect yourself at all costs with implements issued to the dwarf Swiss army business class travelers. A fight between the short and the tall is a fair fight if 2-inch steel is involved.

  • Chris Jones

    Yeah, what she said.

  • fdwil111

    “..Guitar cases made of hemp”. Now I know how to get that high lonesome sound.

  • Ron Block

    Shirley,

    I’m sorry you took offense at Chris’s article. But a big part of the job of a humor writer is to poke fun at everything.

    I am (mostly) a raw-food vegan. I drink green smoothies every day. Sometimes twice. I like shooting guns, and my bow, though I’m out of practice on that. My sword and knife collection is growing. I play banjo. I have had long hair. I have had short hair. I have had much less hair. I have had wine from plastic cups, and from engraved glass. I wear weird hats. I have a motorhome. I have been to countless festivals in my lifetime. I read Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien. I am a Baptacostalyterianodistipalian, and I laugh at a good Baptist or Presby joke. I find many banjo jokes funny, especially when they are partly true, or stereotypical.

    I have been young, and I have been middle aged. Fifty is fast approaching. Yet this article made me laugh. It is the job of a humorist to find the incongruity in any situation, and then show us the humor he sees.

    Chris writes in the tradition of people like Robert Benchley and other humor writers of the past. It involves a lot of tongue-in-cheek, observational poking, irony, flipping things upside down, sometimes saying the opposite of what is really meant.

    Regarding two things you mentioned and may have mistaken views on:

    1. The “Northern” studio is not some sort of slam on the South. Chris, my brother-in-law since the late 1980s, lives near our in-laws, in Alberta, Canada. He does many of his Sirius radio broadcasts from there. Therefore it is dubbed The Northern Studio.

    2. Chris Jones is one of the least arrogant people I know. I’ve known him, as I mentioned, for over 25 years. I can’t say I know as many people as well-spoken and humble, and definitively not self-serving.

    Best,
    Ron

    • Lisa Jacobi

      So a Presbyterian, a Methodist and a Moravian arrive at the gates of heaven and St. Peter escorts them to the Heavenly Convention Center for their debriefing. When they all enter, St. Peter points to room #7 at the end of the hall and instructs them to go in there and wait, adding “be realllll quiet when walking past door #3.”

      The Moravian asks “why?”

      St Peter: “because that’s where the Baptists are waiting and they think they are the only ones here.”

      ###

  • Dear Shirley Honeycutt,

    Read Ron’s comment, because it underscores pretty much everything I wanted to say. I do want to add a little bit more though. There’s a saying, I think originally by Frank Arduini, that goes something like this: “Don’t take life so seriously no one makes it out alive anyway.” That’s good advice. We have to be able to laugh at ourselves and at life, because A. Life is very short, so it would be stupid not to and B. Let’s face it, there is an overflowing amount of humor in the world around us. It would be a pity to be incapable of finding and appreciating all the rich and abundant humor that life brings. If those aren’t good enough reasons for you, here’s another good reason to laugh at life and not take it so seriously….humor counteracts all the stress that life, unfortunately, also brings. Why do you think people spent $0.27 to see a movie during the Great Depression? Because they had extra money to throw around? No. Twenty seven cents seems like nothing to us now a days, but it was considered frivolous spending back then; and yet people still went to the movie theaters in droves, spending their hard earned nickels and dimes. Why? Because they wanted to smile and laugh…escape the realities of life. That is essentially the goal of every humorist or fiction writer…to take their reader to a surreal world and make them forget about their everyday, real life problems. Often times the best way to do this is to play off real life, in order to make it really hit home. A good humorist will take actual people and events, only embellish it in a very satirical, yet light hearted (and obviously meant to be funny) manner. That formula has been used since the beginning of comedy. Don’t you ever watch SNL? They make fun of everybody, including–no especially–important people, like the presidents. If the president of the United States doesn’t take offense at this type of not-meant-to-be-taken-literally/tongue-in-cheek comedy…well, ordinary people like you and I, certainly should not, either.

    My point is, if we look at a humorist author’s work, through their lens, it will be clear that there is ultimately just one goal behind their writing…and that is to bring smiles to their readers’ faces. Simple as that. It’s not “self serving” at all, quite the opposite, actually, especially in this particular case. You may not realize this, but Chris has to knock out a column every week. That would be hard enough to do, if he had nothing else in the world going on; but in addition to this, he hosts a daily radio program, leads a band and tours with them, and is a parent to a 9 year old. He does all this, while hopping back and forth between Canada and TN. I’m sorry, Shirley, you need to understand that if he were truly “self serving” he would tell Bluegrass Today he simply did not have time to submit weekly articles. A self serving person would surely choose sleep over staying up late to finish writing these columns we get to enjoy every week. Most people in his shoes would not add the extra burden to their already full plate. He does it for you and me, and every other reader who needs a break from the stress of real life. Every time I read one of his articles, I smile and laugh, which is why I always try to share them on my facebook page…to keep generating the smiles. If you read his work regularly, you’ll notice he makes fun of himself and his band-mates, too. Often times he will share real life events, and/or embellish upon them, because that is the purest, most fundamental (and effective) kind of comedy there is. We want to be able to relate to real life…yes, he described you…because you are part of his target audience. Be flattered, not offended by that! Gleaning material from his friends (usually peers) and circumstances (usually bluegrass related stuff) he is familiar with is what makes his columns so funny. Please don’t take it so literally, you’re only depriving yourself of laughter, which really is the best medicine in the world, for whatever ails you. Chris is a really good friend, and one of the most non arrogant people I know. He is also one of the most positive people I know, which is so refreshing, since there is so much negativity in the world. I can assure you that the primary goal of his articles is to enforce a positive vibe in the lives of his readers. I’m sorry you took it negatively, but hopefully some of the things I have said will help you to shift your perspective. We should all just smile more and analyze less…that’s a good motto 😉 I’m from MO, so I’m going to leave you with a couple quotes from one of my favorite MO authors and humorists, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain. He had a pretty well balanced, open minded, and diverse sense of humor, and if he were alive today, I’m pretty sure he’d be a fan of Chris Jones’ articles…and probably his music and radio show too 😉

    “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”

    “The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.”

    I hope I didn’t offend you, Shirley, I just wanted to help you understand my friend’s writing technique, so you may see it in a new light, and perhaps, the second go around, get a good laugh out of it, which was, of course, the intent. God Bless! ~Emily Jane Dowden Estes 🙂

  • Chris Jones

    Ron and Emily, thanks for taking the time to write those kind and insightful replies.
    Lisa, thanks for working Moravians into the discussion!

  • You bet, that’s what we’re here for 🙂

  • Lisa Jacobi

    Yeah, what she said.

  • Dennis Jones

    Chris is a great guy. I’ve known him and his wife for years. I love his voice and his bands are always first class. But sometimes I find some of his columns a bit demeaning instead of funny…especially if it’s being read by someone new to the Bluegrass Community or a casual surfer across the internet pages…outside the inside joke if you will. He has a wonderful way with making important points through the inside joke to us grey beards, my concern is the image presented to Shirley and others. I think I smell another column cooking from this one and the replies.

    Chris makes a few very important points here through the laughs to me. You can’t mix two cultures of rowdy youth and a more settled middle aged audience I feel, in fact I’ve seen it many times. Not just in in the Bluegrass Community, but other types of music also. Too far out of the comfort zone of any group and you will lose ticket sales. Can you make them up over the next year, two or three? Maybe, but with so many venues and festivals competing for only so many dollars you had better be right or you are sunk. I see the success of Del Fest, R.O.M.P. etc. catering to the 25 year old crowd and wonder what will happen when those folks get married and have children. Will they still take them to a festival known as a party rather than a music event? I know grandparents, 45-50 year olds, who would never take their grandchildren to an event where photos of audience members openly displaying alcoholic beverages and dancing wildly in front of the stage with ear damaging sound pressure levels are posted on FaceBook. I’ve seen people show up to a music/listening festival/show and leave because “The Man” was hassling them…yes, I show my age. The trick is targeting your audience and hitting that target. One thing is for sure, the old codgers at a real Bluegrass festival will let you know if a band is working or not really fast. They leave their seats and go back to their air conditioned motorcoach for steaks and bonded scotch while at a NearGrass festival the soundman just turns up “The Out of Tune Screechy Mountain String Band”, the lighting director hits the rotating laser beams and the crowd all goes “WHOOOOOOOO” and waves their PBR’s. God Bless America.

    I look forward to seeing you Chris in Morganton this year, I promise not to slug you. Bring Sally if you can.

  • Chris Jones

    Thanks for your input, Dennis. What you say about festivals is true, of course. There are types of fans that aren’t going to rub shoulders very easily.

    The point is, though, that this column was never intended to make a serious point at all about festivals or their audience. I travel around the country and I see festivals that face an older and declining audience, and promoters do have a challenge they have to face in finding ways to attract a younger crowd, without taking their older audience out of their comfort zone. This is the subject of a serious discussion, and my column is absolutely not the format for it.

    I’m sorry if you find anything I’ve written demeaning to anyone. I hope you know me well enough to know that would never be my intent. Yes, there are always going to be in jokes, because it’s a humor column in Bluegrass Today. That’s a given. There are also going to be some self-deprecating references to musicians, because I’m a firm believer in laughing at yourself occasionally. It’s my hope that there are enough tidbits that people outside our little world can relate to or find amusing, while they scratch their heads about a reference to Larry Sparks’ pick guard or something else only we would understand.

    I recognize that for whatever reason, we as a community have a tendency to take ourselves too seriously, argue too much, and are generally a little over-sensitive. I have no idea why, but maybe it’s just that we care about the music a lot. This means that I’m bound to rub someone the wrong way here and there.

    I have serious views about the music myself, but I also like to remember that it’s music, we were meant to enjoy it, and it’s okay to look at the lighter side from time to time.

    If you smelled another column growing out of this one, you’re very perceptive, my friend. Now you know how little long range planning actually goes into these. I tend to work without a set list. I do know that I’m planning to work some reference to Cheerwine in next week as a tribute to Red White & Bluegrass, and just because I’m craving one right now.

    See you in Morganton!

  • Dennis Jones

    It’s just like me for some reason we’ve been given a platform that for better or worse a good many people hear or see. I’m always very careful these days to not make the too far inside jokes that can be mis-understood. I get your column and like it. You are so right, we need to laugh at ourselves as the community. I haven’t had a soda pop in over a year, but now you have me craving one of those giant Arnold Palmer Iced Teas The Men’s Club sells…please ladies me nor Chris named The Men’s Club 🙂

  • CJ, I think you’re missing the humor in Shirley’s post.

    When she writes, “I am printing copies of your article to hand to the promoters I know,” it clearly shows a highly developed sense of humor. Really. Milk came out my nose I had in there since fifth grade. She’s implying, of course, that promoters don’t own computers. Brilliant!

    And she showed a high degree of restraint in not going with “I am engraving my thoughts on stone tablets which I will bring down from the top of bluegrass mountain,” for the much subtler “I am the Walrus.” Wait, that’s not in there, but that doesn’t matter because I *think* it’s in there and I am highly offended that she would imply a Beatles message without adding that Paul is, in fact, still clearly alive.

    PS – I’m betting that Chris Jones’ festival gigs double next year.