For the past 10 years I’ve attended a summer music festival annually, replacing the great many rock shows I used to know with a single weekend in the sun. I’ve been all over including Las Vegas, New Orleans, upstate New York, and Tennessee for the mighty Bonnaroo. Increasingly the US is embracing the European festival concert model, with divergent genres from heavy metal to bluegrass mixing together on a lawn near you. These festivals are great fun, sustainable, and robust drivers of economic activity and cultural tourism. I was in Louisville for the dynamic Forecastle Festival recently where I spent cash like I was on vacation, and where there was not a hotel room to be found downtown. But the Symphony wasn’t around.
What can our traditional performing arts groups (orchestras, operas, theatre companies, ballets) learn from the growing music festival movement in the United States?
The first and most important thing is to get involved. If there is a fringe, art, music or performance festival in your city, get your organization involved in some meaningful and programmatic way. It is insufficient to simply have a booth promoting your season at the annual visual arts show. Today’s consumer seeks authentic and unique experiences. They don’t care about your brochure.
In my Indianapolis many patrons receive their first exposure to a professional dance performance from the expansive outreach of Dance Kaleidoscope, whose artistic leadership embraces every opportunity to perform for new audiences. Dance can be limited to the darkened theatre, as Great Art, or can be bold in seeking out places to perform and people to engage. An opera company I know holds an annual fundraiser where there is no singing because this risks the Purity of the Artist. Hogwash. Art wants to live where the People are. Risk it and go find them like Mill City Summer Opera. Be those guys.
- Festivals create focused energy and enthusiasm for every sort of programming. During the summer people want to be outside, with each other, and performance events are ideal for this. Unlike the static and repetitive season of programming, a festival elevates a performance to a something special, a place to be seen and Check In. Kids are free to run around and adults are able to socialize and imbibe.
- Outdoor festival activities will grow your audience and allow you to serve more patrons. For a great many organizations the annual outdoor performance represents the single largest programming opportunity. And why not? Embrace this reality and grow your large-scale outreach. Better yet partner with some other producing organizations and create something special in your community.
- Large events can support your sponsorship program like nothing else. In the performing arts we struggle to achieve the broad activation and recognition that sports can offer corporate supporters. Large-scale festival activity can offer your sponsors wider exposure and the chance to interact creatively and actively with your audience. This is particularly true for your consumer facing sponsors like food and beverage partners. Festivals elevate the patron experience and attendees are more likely to spend money for truly special activities.
- Young audiences embrace the festival model. Millennials enjoy each other’s company, being seen, and checking in on social media and the festival experience is an effective way to reach this key constituency. They may spend the entire show taking selfies and comparing outfits but they are physically with you, engaged on some level, and will come back.
- Your staff, board, volunteers and community can rally around a key activity. Arts organizations should consider a festival as an alternative to traditional programming. In many cities this is perhaps the only viable model for opera to be successful. A festival focuses energy, enthusiasm, fundrasing and audience interest into a short, heightened time frame. Audiences embrace the notion to see a few shows during a Festival as an elevated experience and avoid a season long commitment to a subscription. Many communities take great civic pride in their festivals and this can increase patronage from prospects who aren’t interested in your work otherwise.
- Creative partnerships will be embraced. The opportunity for risk taking and collaboration during a festival should be irresistible. Audiences are more forgiving (and interested) in new approaches during a festival. Don’t believe me? Check out the wild happenings of your city (or come see us in Indianapolis) of the annual Fringe Festival where all sort of creative and extraordinary things unfold upon the stage.
- Festivals are Fun. Art should be entertaining before all else. We have a mandate to educate and inspire but before we can do this we have to entertain. Give me a couple of stages, a full weekend of music and Creative Happening, and I am yours.
Enjoy the summer!