Author: Lehmann, Ted

Bluegrass and the Internet
Back in the mid- to late-1990’s we were traveling around the country in a large fifth wheel trailer, this was before bluegrass for us, and we discovered we needed to keep in touch with the important people in our world via e-mail. The Internet was pretty new, and we needed to hook up to phone lines in campgrounds or get on line by attaching to our cell phone, when there was service, at about 14 kb/s. Life was pretty simple, and we were having a ball. Somewhere along the line life became more complex and our on-line life became increasingly busy. In 2003 we attended Merlefest for the first time, and our world changed forever. In December of 2006 I started my blog and discovered an outlet for a voice I knew I had, and bluegrass music turned into what now looks like a new career. Along the way, my dependence, and those of most people I know, on the Internet became increasingly clear.

Here we are, caught in a weakening economy with small and mid-sized festivals facing questions of survival. Dissemination of information about events – concerts, jams, pickin’ parties, festivals, bluegrass association meetings, and more – is insufficient. Promoters, organizations, musicians and fans are discovering new ways to communicate, to discover opportunities to grow in the music together, but very often their web presence provides inadequate or out of date information.

As we planned our fall and winter seasons, we relied heavily on Internet sources to help us schedule, book, and coordinate our attendance at a series of events. While we’ve been engaged in this effort, we’ve become increasingly aware of changes in the festival climate compared to even two or three years ago when we began seriously attending. Our schedule has us going to festivals mostly in North Carolina in the fall and in an arc sweeping through Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas in the winter and early spring. During the summer we concentrate on New England and New York. Festivals in Arcadia and Live Oak, FL as well as Ocilla, GA have closed up shop. At least two autumn festivals in North Carolina appear to be on the edge of going under. Gas is expensive, line-ups are uncertain, schedules are changeable, money is short, and people are scared. In times such as these, communication is even more important than usual. A marginal niche entertainment, like bluegrass music, must depend on all the elements coming together to allow for success and continuation.

Even for a rather small genre within the larger world of music, there are a whole lot of people depending on bluegrass music for their livelihood. Promoters, vendors, sound engineers, emcees, campground owners, and, of course, musicians all need the events to take place and the fans to attend, purchase CDs and other merchandise, eat, buy instruments…you name it. I have no idea what the dollar value of it all is, but it’s a lot. A crucial element in making it all fit together is using modern communication to get in touch with the audience, keep them informed, and increase the level of interest. A crucial element in doing this is developing and maintaining an active Internet presence.

Of the festivals we’ve been watching that have gone under or are in trouble, one thing they seem to have in common is poor or marginal communications. Not all successful festivals are that much better, but the marginal ones do a uniformly poor job of communicating. In these perilous days, an active and lively web presence is an essential component for attracting and maintaining an audience. Festival promoters, bands, and musicians must create and maintain web presences designed to inform and intrigue their potential audiences and expand that audience.

A strong, professionally maintained web site remains the best way to communicate with the public. Good sites provide all necessary information to keep those interested in upcoming events informed and interested. They are visually interesting without being so busy the blinking lights and flashy slide shows interfere with good communication. Sites provide information about dates, schedules, artists, accommodations, facilities, directions to the festival site, and so-on. They also give potential vendors and attendees a reliable way to contact the festival promoter. Often they make clear the relevant rules and regulations governing their event. Some festivals build in a forum to allow fans to discus last year’s event and anticipate the next one coming up. They offer galleries of photographs from former events and capsule biographies of upcoming performers. They offer a site map with particular emphasis on the camping facilities and their proximity to the performance area(s). It’s important to keep content on these web sites up to date and fresh. Once a site doesn’t change for several weeks people stop coming to visit it. Finding a web-site designer with good taste who’ll put a site together and keep it interesting and growing might seem like a big expense, but it’s probably not as costly as losing the attention of potential fans or going broke trying to present a festival to an empty space.

Many festivals, as well as bands, have settled for MySpace sites as an alternative to having actual web sites. While MySpace has become wildly popular among musicians, it isn’t a good venue for festivals to use for advertising. Its major advantage is that it is relatively easy to maintain and costs nothing. Its major disadvantage is that it’s relatively easy to maintain and costs nothing. Its other difficulty is that MySpace’s search function is unwieldy and it’s hard to navigate. Bands and musicians like it because they can post music and pictures easily and communicate with their “friends.” Many MySpace sites are heavily tricked out with too much silly imagery making them hard to read, so they don’t communicate well. I haven’t found a band site that can sell more than song downloads through MySpace, although web sites permit the full range of merchandise sales.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of having and maintaining an Internet presence for a festival. Too many festivals publish a preliminary flyer announcing performers who turn out not to be at the event. Maintaining an accurate an interesting web presence is an essential element of presenting a bluegrass festival in today’s fast paced world where too many competing events and interest areas compete for attention.
Posted:  10/13/2008

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