Monday, August 30, 2010

Honey, They Shrunk the Festival (And That's Good)

Everyone else thinks they can do it better. But they can’t.

Among the lessons learned in my years of planning jazz festivals is that, when you announce your schedule, everyone else in the world who cares thinks they could have done a better job. They know who they would have booked that you did not.

But theirs are choices made in a world without the restraints of budgets, of artist touring schedules and availabilities on the date of the event, of even if you have enough electrical power in the park to accommodate an act (true: in the 1980s, we passed on Chick Corea’s Electrik Band because we could not bring enough power into Volker Park to meet their needs).

As I sat in The Blue Room, listening to the announcement of acts for the 2010 Rhythm and Ribs Festival (October 9, behind the American Jazz Museum), my first thought was, I could have done better than that.

No, I couldn’t.

Rhythm and Ribs skipped last year, a victim of the economy. Had it missed another year, the festival would have been over. Perhaps another event could someday have taken its place. But had two eventless years passed, so would any sense of continuity, leaving questionable hope of regaining support from key sponsors and fans, and this event would have been stick-a-fork-in-it done.

So it’s wonderful news that the festival is back. Never mind that it shrunk. That’s good. To the credit of American Jazz Museum CEO Greg Carroll and his planners, it’s scaled to meet a mandate that it be staged with financial responsibility.

I speak from experience: It’s amazingly easy when planning a festival to assume the best. God wouldn’t allow rain on our event. The talent we’ll book will draw everyone. We’ll jam that park with tens of thousands of people, who knows, maybe a hundred thousand. So figure out how much cash we’ll take in on that size crowd and spend it, now, on the event.

It’s dumbfoundingly easy to ride the wave of anticipation and excitement.

It’s dumbfoundingly easy to die in debt.

The 1984 Kansas City Jazz Festival lost $128,000. We paid off the last of that after the 1989 festival. In the intervening years, we set a rule that we would spend no more money on the event than we could raise in advance. Money taken in at the festival went to debt repayment and seed money for the next year’s festival.

That meant some years we had headliners I’d rather forget. That also meant that each year we staged a festival.

Sometime after I left, the don’t-spend-more-than-you’ve-raised-in-advance rule was abandoned. The Kansas City Blues and Jazz Festival, which succeeded the event I helped plan, eventually died. And it hurt when I heard it died deep in debt.

I don’t know the financial rules by which Rhythm and Ribs is playing. But what most encouraged me at the press conference was hearing that the festival has been sized to the budget. The grounds are smaller than past years. The projected crowd size is closer to the 1980s’ 18th and Vine Festivals. That’s fine. That’s what the dollars can accommodate. This year is a reset on which to build. When you try to stage a festival every year, that’s how some years play out. That’s also how you come out of the weekend able to stage a festival again next year.

Problem is, past Rhythm and Ribs established an enviable expectation for talent. They headlined jazz geniuses like Pat Metheny (with Christian McBride), blues legends like Koko Taylor, rising stars like Shemekia Copeland, and crossover superstars like George Benson, Al Jarreau and Al Green. This year’s lineup – let’s be honest – doesn’t match that calibre or appeal. When compared to the standards of past Rhythm and Ribs, the initial reaction to this year’s lineup is disappointment.

The initial reaction is, I could have done better.

No, I couldn’t. Not and remain responsible.

Disappointment is quelled through marketing. Sell the event. Sell excitement. This is a rebuilding year, yes, but that’s no more publicly popular to hear about festivals than it is with the perpetually-rebuilding Royals. So let’s keep that talk to ourselves. When comparisons arise, we’re looking forward. There’s going to be a great festival, Kansas City. We’re going to celebrate.

A difficult line has been laid to tread. The poster and site say jazz, while two thirds of the national talent says top 40 oldies. Yet that talent should broaden appeal and provide a base on which the marketing builds. Fans, you know their songs. You know this is going to be fun. No, better than that, this is going to be great. On October 9th, this is where Kansas City gathers. This, you do not want to miss. ‘Cause if you do, you sleep while Kansas City celebrates.

It’s a challenging year. But, if the weather cooperates, results can be good. No, better than that, results can be great. Start the push after Labor Day and build. Through the web site, through constant Facebook posts, through daily tweets, through posters blanketing the town, through talk show appearances and newspaper articles, sell it.

And the stage can be prepped for an even greater festival next year.

1 comment:

  1. Right you are, jazzlark. It's way, way too easy to criticize, and a lot tougher to do it and do it responsibly. The lineup looks good -- not great -- to me, too.


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