Author: Cornish, Rick

When's a crowd a crowd?
Friday afternoon this past Fathers Day weekend I sat down at a picnic table on vendor’s row to indulge in a little mid-day snack….chicken on a stick from our long-time Thai friends and a cold beer from Vern’s. One delicious bite into the stick a woman, who looked to be in her mid forties wearing a brightly colored floral sundress and a huge straw hat, sat down next to me and asked if she could share a concern. Her expression was severe. “Sure”, I said after gulping politely, “I’m all ears.” And I really was; the chicken stick and ice-cold beer could wait.

“Well,” she began tentatively, “first of all, I want you to know that my husband and daughter and I are having a lovely time, just lovely. Our family hadn’t ever heard bluegrass, or even heard of it, until just recently. And now all three of us are hooked on it. But…..” The woman paused hiding beneath her enormous straw hat.

“But what,” I asked with an encouraging smile, refusing myself even a peak at the frothy, still cold Sierra dark ale.

“Well, it’s just so awfully crowded. There are just so many people. Frankly, we didn’t think a bluegrass festival would attract this kind of a crowd. There are lines in the restrooms, at meal-time there are more lines and we’ve had to put our lawn chairs way, way back from the stage. Is this typical? Is your festival always so crowded? Is there something you could, ah, do or change, to make it a little more, you know, manageable in the future? You know, homier.”

This was not what I expected to hear. I took a big gulp of ale.

“Actually, ma’am, this year’s attendance, at least so far, is just a little lighter than most years. We hope for a larger crowed than this.”

“Oh my,” said the woman in the floral dress.

I spent the next few minutes explaining the CBA’s festival business model, summarizing, obviously very broadly, our ever-increasing expenses and the kind of ticket sales needed to cover the costs with something left over to fund our year long activities. I stopped when her eyes started to glaze over, she thanked me for my time and I got back to my chicken on a stick.

That conversation with the big-hatted lady mid way through our 2008 Fathers Day Festival has stuck with me these many weeks. Stuck with me probably because there was such a huge disconnect….such a vast chasm you could say…..between the lady’s perspective and mine. What I didn’t share with the woman was the months of careful planning and strategizing and thinking and re-thinking we’d done to try to ensure a decent turn out despite high gas prices. And I certainly didn’t tell her how I’d laid in bed the night before worrying about what Friday’s gate was going to look like.

I recall several times over the years that Message Board threads have included heated discussions about Fathers Day Festival attendance, the size of the crowd, ticket sales, etc. Invariably someone will ask, either rhetorically or otherwise, what the CBA’s goal is in all this: does the Association (that is, it’s elected officials) want to become the largest festival in the country? In the west? In California? Is that what all the marketing and hoopla’s all about? No, not really. It’s like I told the lady that Friday afternoon. We want to cover the event’s costs and end up with enough money to scrape by till the next festival, producing the Breakdown, hosting our web site, running our children’s programs, providing seed money for concerts, etc., etc., etc.

And you’d think that wouldn’t take a board of eleven rocket scientists or brain surgeons. (Speaking of which, are there any rockets scientists or brain surgeons out there interested in running for the board of directors?) But the fact of the matter is, bluegrass festivals, even more than most other types of music festivals, operate on a very slim margin. And judging from national trends, that margin is going to get even slimmer before it gets fatter.

We told you soon after FDF ’08 that we’d made our nut with enough left over for operations. We did this despite fewer than normal four-day festival attendees; strong single day ticket sales and, most importantly, some significant cost cutting got us pretty much where we wanted to be. And we’re going to continue to watch expenses now that we’re getting heavy into planning for 2009. Oh, and we’re going to continue to ask you, our members, to help promote the annual Fathers Day Festival….to help ‘sell’ bluegrass to people who only have to hear it to love it.
Posted:  7/31/2008

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