Monday, June 21, 2010

Selling Jazz Fests (Rhythm & Ribs, Listen Up)

As an organizer of the Kansas City Jazz Festival, staged in Volker Park through much of the 1980s, I learned early on that there are not enough jazz fans in KC to support a large outdoor jazz festival.

(In fact, Kansas City today is much more a blues town. When the jazz and blues festivals merged and moved to Penn Valley Park, after my involvement, the blues stage consistently drew larger crowds. At the least, KC has more blues fans willing to attend a large outdoor festival.)

Selling a festival isn't like the jazz marketing outlined in earlier posts. This isn't about drawing a targeted audience. This is about drawing everybody. This is about drawing tens of thousands of bodies to impress sponsors so they'll return and there will be a festival for those tens of thousands of bodies – including jazz fans – again next year.

So, despite the name Kansas City Jazz Fest, despite starring acts like the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Joe Williams, Bob James and Wynton Marsalis, to name a few, and despite booking every local jazz act the schedule could hold, we did not market the weekend as a jazz festival. We didn't hide it. But we sold the idea that this festival was the biggest thing happening in Kansas City its weekend, and you sure didn't want to miss what everyone would be talking about come Monday morn.

(I'm not pretending we were always successful in pulling that off. But it was always our marketing goal.)

We recruited the most popular radio outlet in town, a rock station, as a sponsor. They talked us up then broadcast live festival remotes where they threw free frisbees to their partying fans.

Our volunteers plastered Westport with posters in the window of every restaurant and bar that would have us. And our volunteers returned weekly to replace posters stolen (hint: the promotional value of posters far exceeds the dollar value of posters sold at the event, so we didn't care if they were stolen).

We covered any agreeable shopping area with posters and flyers then returned regularly to replenish. We even knew the one building on The Plaza which was then not owned by the Nichols Company, where shops would jump at the chance to display a festival poster in their window (maybe as much to tweak Nichols as to promote the event, but we didn't care).

We courted the media, learning who would invite us on their TV or radio shows to promote, and who would not (an appearance on Channel 5's noon news then was best facilitated by contacting the host sympathetic to your cause). And sometimes you just got lucky, like the year Bryan Busby, unscheduled, dropped by and broadcast the weather from the festival grounds (though I'd argue that with sufficient promotion, you create luck).

Stories in The Star were important, especially a Preview cover or Sunday feature, but so were mentions in The Pitch.

We wanted everyone to know that Kansas City had a (jazz) festival approaching, and you'd better be there or be left out of the Monday morning buzz.

That's how you promote a jazz festival in Kansas City.

(Though today a web site with embedded video and mp3s, and a Facebook page and a Twitter feed with regular updates, are mandatory additions to the marketing plan.)

I bring this up now because we've learned that the Rhythm and Ribs Festival will return to 18th and Vine on October 9th.

I've attended every Rhythm and Ribs. Let's say it clearly, from someone who spent years helping to organize jazz festivals: Rhythm and Ribs is a consistently outstanding event, a jazz festival of which Kansas City jazz fans, the American Jazz Museum and Kansas City at large can be supremely proud. 

Festivals rely on corporate largess for large chunks of funds. I'm neither surprised nor disappointed that, in this economy of corporations losing largess, it will have taken an extra year-and-a-third to identify the dollars to stage the next event. I'm disappointed but not surprised by the announced reduction of the fest to a single day.

But this festival cannot let disappointment become any part of its promotional discussion. On the contrary, the delay provides prime opportunity to reintroduce the event with the excitement and anticipation selling a (jazz) festival in KC demands.

Back in the '80s, we’d start our promotion with a well-attended press conference announcing the line-up, about a month before the fest. Given all involved with a need to know, it's tough keeping a secret headliner secret. And with today's abundance of social media, it's no doubt tougher now. But if info can remain clandestine, a press event to announce a big name or two starts promotion with a bang.

Next day, put posters in windows. And that takes a volunteer army. I don't know whether fest organizers have the troops for this mission, but if not, now's the time to recruit. Ask on Facebook. Ask on the web site. Ask from The Blue Room stage every night it’s open. Folks will sign up for festival duty who may not volunteer at the museum.

The Prairie Village Jazz Fest is staged about a month prior, headlined by Eldar Djangirov then The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, perhaps with Karrin Allyson. That lineup is strong and so is the marketing opportunity. I'd be talking to them now about cross-event affiliations. You want to be passing info to their guests in return for a presence (perhaps to sign next year volunteers?) at your festival.

I'm not privy to what is or is not happening now. I don't have any reason to suspect the fest is coming together any way but perfectly. But I know that this year's festival is an opportunity to reestablish excitement for an event which deserves this city's attention. And I know marketed right, the number of jazz fans in KC doesn't matter a bit.

I also know I can't wait.


  1. Great post. Why don't you volunteer your considerable experience to help Rhythm and Ribs this year?

  2. Anonymous - Excellent suggestion. In fact, I originally had a paragraph in this post offering to help, but I felt it came across as lecturing then trying to impose myself on them. So I'll say this: I'd enjoy helping on Rhythm and Ribs as a volunteer. If anyone involved with the event sees this and would care to talk, please email me at kcjazzlark(at)gmail(dot)com.

  3. Happy - That link does suggest that, as of today anyway, marketing is not off to a rousing start.

  4. September 11 - The Prairie Village Jazz Fest. It's free!

  5. The problem with Rhythm and Ribs is that they want to charge too much for vendors to have booths down there while "connected" people get booths for free. So, there's not much else to do but listen to the music. You simply need more to get entire families down there.

    I go to the Newport, Chicago, JVC Jazz festivals and I can tell that instead of trying to squeeze every dime out of vendors and patrons, they encourage commerce.

    Have the Jazz Festival downtown in Power and Light. The main stand can be in front of Sprint Center. Have a side venue at the Drum Room and and other side venue at the Phoenix. Line the streets with vendors and booths. Have traffic in the City Market and use shuttle buses to shuttle traffic. That would do it..plain and simple. Good music, good eats, good shopping, variety and fun.

    Whatever you do...don't mess with those 18th and Vine people...after 10 years they still don't have their stuff together...caught up in cronyism, patronism, and nepotism.

  6. You could even have jazz movies like documentaries and stuff playing at the Empire...all day long...

    Have some of the smaller, high school bands playing in Cosentino's food court area.

    Just give everyone a chance to shine...quit with the damn elitism.

  7. Boy - I really agree with moving the Rhythm & Ribs to another location. I am a jazz fan and have been to a couple of the R&R festivals. Great music - terrible location. I hate the HOT, DUSTY field near 18th & Vine where it has been held. It's a drag! Reynolds made some good suggestions for other locations.


Comments are welcome. If you prefer, you can reach me directly at kcjazzlark(at)gmail(dot)com.