Have We Reached the Tipping Point of World Music?
World Music for Newcomers, One Web Writer Casts a Broad Net, by Megan Romer

A Festival Tribe: The Grassroots Case Study for Self-Market Growth, by Megan Romer

Spotlight When DubMC launched a conversation about entrepreneurial approaches to global music, Scott Southard of booking agency International Music Network, applied Seth Godin's notion of "tribes" to the world music field as well as calling for dissolving traditional roles and practices in the music industry. Now we turn to a two-part article by Megan Romer, who wears two hats (marketing director, Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance, and guide to world music, About.com). Here in part one, Romer explores the concept of "tribe" for her festival audience and challenges booking agents to walk the walk regarding booking fees and audience development.

I tend to look at the idea of "spreading the word" from two different directions, as my two main gigs leave me interacting with two fairly disparate market segments, neither of which are "die-hards" or part of the "tribe," necessarily. So I'll take this one by one.

At the GrassRoots Festival, we've managed to build a tribe around the festival itself. By creating a festival with a truly grassroots feel, eschewing corporate sponsorship and private-interest funding, as well as most grant moneys (we have partaken in some of the county tourism funding a few times, in bleak economic years), we have complete artistic and programming freedom. More importantly, though, our constituents feel as though THEY are the owners of the festival, not that it's owned by Budweiser or the Park Foundation or whoever else. This sense of ownership leads to an intimate sense of community, which translates to an absurdly high rate of repeat attendance (well over 90%).

Economic impact surveys and other market analysis reports we've done, alongside anecdotal evidence and other less-formal analysis, indicate that our crowd is largely middle-aged, middle-class, and middle-income folks, many of whom have some sort of positive association with, but who are not part of, the countercultural movement of the sixties. It would be remiss to avoid stating that the majority of our audience caught wind of the festival conversation due to our founders and perpetual host band, Donna the Buffalo, who tend to tour within both the bluegrass and jam-band circuits, though their sound is decidedly Americana-rock (with reggae and zydeco influences), and not necessarily "jam-band" or "jam-grass." Their own fan base is enormous, extraordinarily dedicated, and highly self-organized. The majority is middle-aged, middle-class, and middle-income, though they (known as "the herd") definitely represent people from all walks of life. Older and more discerning than fans of, say, Phish or Widespread Panic (though there is certainly some crossover), they are a solid, expandable (and expanding!) market. This is our core, and the "tribe" to whom we cater the most carefully.

Because we have these dedicated fans who would buy tickets to the festival even if we, say, programmed a lineup of 80 bands whose names started with the letter D, our programming choices become much easier. We have the freedom to book the best, not just the most famous, which is why we have, for example, Walter Mouton and the Scott Playboys perform each year. Never heard of 'em? Neither have most people. But ask any Cajun musician who the best accordion player in Southwest Louisiana is, and they'll tell you that Mr. Walter takes the cake. If we were a different festival, and one who had to make programming decisions based solely on draw, we'd probably be booking some very different musicians on a regular basis, but we are able to book less-famous musicians who are equally as talented, and "break" them to our audience on an annual basis.

I think that festivals and venues that have a solid, built-in crowd have a responsibility to make bolder and more important booking decisions. The crowd is there. They're clearly interested in music, and not the Top 40 kind. They're ready to be entertained. People like us don't need to, and therefore shouldn't, book acts like The Wailers - shadows of something that used to be great - when we could be exposing people to Tinariwen instead (something we did on their very first American tour). Substituting draw for quality tends to be a vicious cycle that too many festivals and venues fall into, and they are never entirely able to pull free.

One thing that makes it very difficult for small, non-profit festivals, is the refusal of certain agents and managers to look at us as a market expansion opportunity, and instead see us simply as yet another gig. We can't pay what highly-funded major institutions can, so we are often overlooked or simply turned down by some agents. We can offer a built-n crowd of nearly 15,000 people, the majority of whom are die-hard music fans who are actively seeking new things to listen to, the majority of whom say in surveys that they will buy a ticket for any band who they've seen at the festival - and yet we get quoted $25k for virtually-unknown-band-from-wherever. If agents want to truly help their artists, they need to start realizing that certain outlets will provide enormous market-expansion opportunities, even if they can only pay 2/3 of what a wealthier outlet may provide. As an agent (or band, manager, label, publicist), one should ask, "which is better - a guarantee of $5k for a wedding or an 80% door deal at the hottest, happeningist world music club in a cool neighborhood in a cool city?" or "which is better - $15k to play at University of X, where events are poorly promoted and attendance tends to be slim, but endowments allow for big fees, or $7.5k to play at Festival X, where there are 10,000 new people just waiting to absorb something new?" Do we want a fat paycheck now, or long-term success? I hear a lot of agents talk the talk, but most don't yet seem to be walking the walk.

Back to the market segment, these GrassRoots folks really take care of themselves, and they do the hardest work in bringing their friends into the fold. My struggle of recently is to figure out ways to really empower them, to let them keep their tribal mentality going all year 'round, and to figure out ways that they can do the marketing for me. Because I know that we'll probably sell enough tickets to squeak by no matter what, this gives me a fair amount of freedom as the marketing director (a similar freedom that the artistic director has), and I get to do a lot of creative brainstorming, which is great fun for me.

One of the initiatives that I've come up with recently and will be rolling out shortly is to create a Kiva.org lending group. Simple? Absolutely. Ridiculously, even. It costs nothing, takes virtually no time, but allows our constituents, who tend to be socially progressive and culturally-minded, a chance to connect with each other without input from me. Will it work? I have no idea. It could have zero benefit, for all I know. But it's the sort of non-marketing that I'm trying to move toward. Hopefully a few dozen people will sign on, and every time they get their monthly loan repayment, they'll remember that they're a member of the GrassRoots Kiva group, and it'll be in their mind when they see a similarly-minded friend at a concert that weekend. Facebook, MySpace, etc. - they're all great, especially for disseminating info, but they don't create the sort of fundamental empowerment that is really needed to spread the word. There are better outlets, and we just need to keep our eyes open for them.

Read Part 2 here.

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