George McMillan walked out onto the Legacy Credit Union Stage on Saturday evening just before Dr. John was ready to take the stage. McMillan incidentally decided that he would be at this stage for most of the festival; while he did move, he was rarely ventured that far away.
He did not introduce himself (though most in the crowd knew who he was) but went on to say something that many did not expect and some began to talk about immediately. He said that he had not taken the mic at this stage since it had been moved a few years ago during the revamp of the festival site. He went on to thank the crowd personally saying "we know that without you, the supporters of the singer-songwriter stage, there would be no City Stages." That comment was met with applause, but also some questions. The guy standing next to me asked if McMillan believed it so much then why wasn’t he buying everyone at the stage a drink.
That statement is one that is interesting. I’ve never seen crowds on a Sunday afternoon at the festival like the ones I saw at the Legacy and Coke Classic stages. The first thought was that "they may have finally figured it out". The festival has been more about the ability to see emerging acts than it’s been about big name top tier acts taking the stage for the masses.
That’s perhaps the best piece of advice that I can offer this festival. I figured I’d throw my two cents worth in since everyone else has or plans to do so. Despite the apparent success that City Stages enjoyed this year, there’s always room for improvement. The day that this festival tries to become Bonnaroo then it will be DOA and those that predicted its demise will still be somewhat upset, since many of them truly do not want to see it go.
There are some things that can be done to create the positive buzz that Chuck Geiss eluded to in his Naked Birmingham submission last month. Among them:
Find new ways to make people aware of the music available. They have blatantly said that they are not trying to serve only one group (though some groups will be easier to serve than others), but times have changed. The first year I attended, as I drove into town, there were three different stations doing live remotes from the CS site. While that would in fact be the ideal situation, the current terrestrial radio landscape makes it a little different. Stations still plug the festival, but maybe in this modern age of iPods and Myspace profiles, the music should be brought to the masses. Provide links to artists’ Myspace pages, provide downloadable podcasts of musical acts on a weekly basis through other sites than just the official site. It’s also fairly cheap to burn CDs nowadays. One sponsorship of a CD that could be mass-produced and distributed for free all over town. The logistics are probably the one holdup but there should be enough acts that would agree to it that it could work.
One of the reasons that people thought there were more headliners was because there were more opportunities to be familiar with the music before the gates opened on Friday night. Find ways to get that feeling back.
Investigate breaking the festival out of the box. I will begin this one by saying that I have never been able to attend SXSW. It’s on that list of things that I need to do soon, before the opportunity escapes. I am familiar with the energy of those types of festivals though, and finding ways to expand the sphere of activity would be an incredible asset to City Stages.
Mary Carluso eluded to this idea in her list of opinions last week, but the idea of including venues and bars in the festival may just provide the additional buzz that’s needed. It may even be possible to create a secondary festival that allows CS to feed off of it. There would be a lot of things that would have to go right in order to do it, including improving transportation options for at
the very least during the event as well as a partnership among area bars and clubs. But imagine seeing bands at Bottletree, Westside Lounge, Speakeasy and Metro Bistro, not to mention countless other venues. You could even get some of the larger venues in the downtown area in on the act like the Alabama & Carver Theatres & the Boutwell Auditorium. The possibilities are endless. Allow for people who buy one ticket to get the other one for a discount or offer a joint ticket. For those that see it as a citywide cultural event, this is one way to truly involve the entire city.
Move the date to the end of summer. I am aware of the fact that moving the event from Father’s Day weekend has been ruled out by McMillan. The ability to become the official end of summer concert event just may enough to meet City Stages’ tagline as a world class music festival. The guys who head up Bonnaroo are never going to move theirs (and they did put that 150-mile radius/60 day clause in there for a reason. The next best thing to do is to move it and make it a destination event, if that’s truly what you want it to be.
Run it like a for profit. Even if you don’t want to become a for-profit, the idea of running it like one is a principle that many non-profits embrace. I was lucky enough to work for two people that embraced that philosophy and it benefited those organizations tremendously to date. It’s something to consider.
Those are my ideas. I’m hopeful that they’ll listen and consider, even with the obstacles that present themselves with each one. They seem to be starting to dig out though, so they may just keep doing what they’re doing. Hopefully though, the dialogue will continue for some time to come.
What are your thoughts? Post them down below.
André Natta is the publisher of The Terminal. You can reach him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.