She was dressed in her finest when she courted admirers numbering six figures. She was the hottest thing going and everyone wanted her phone number. Sure she’s 37, and people got used to her, but how can a festival that one year makes hundreds of thousands of dollars as a fundraiser for the Historic Columbus Foundation find herself without a date in 2007?
Dusty Nix, in a September 27 editorial in the Ledger-Enquirer, asked the question “Is Riverfest worth saving?” I agree with Mr. Nix that it is – and that changes need to be made. As Will Rogers said “If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.”
In the festival biz, you’re playing a game of chance. You roll the dice on weather, location, music, food and the local political climate. Riverfest has been dealt some crappy hands, and still persevered. Till now.
I’m not sure what the HCF board is going to do, but I do know that outdoor street festivals are integral to a city’s health, and if they decide not to continue, then someone else should step up and keep this celebration going. And I don’t know about fundraising, the political wranglings, or any back-room, behind the scenes stuff. But I’ve been to one or two festivals, and I know what I like and don’t like, and what works and what doesn’t.
Food: Not another corndog stand, please. And step away from the cotton candy machines. We have an annual fair if you have to have fair food. Stick to the BBQ competition, encourage local restaurants to vend, and have a variety of portion sizes and prices. Offer regional beer choices instead of plastic cups of warm Budweiser. I wouldn’t mind sipping a cold Red Jacket Ale from the Cannon Brewpub while watching the Chattahoochee roll by on a spring afternoon.
Music: Rather than present the same tired acts that use festivals as a convenient overnight stop and painless paycheck between casino gigs, offer local and regional bands with a following and some press behind them. If you have the cash, bring in a bigger name one night, but not a ringer band whose one remaining original member secured the rights to the name in nasty court skirmish. Build a reputation of bringing in artists that go on to have number one records (all together now: Dixie Chicks). A lot of people are going to come anyway, regardless of the lineup, so why not give them some quality, and they can say “we saw them when.”
The same buzz works for bands, the more respected your lineup, the easier it will be to attract better bands. Athens is full of talented bands that would love the chance to play on a large outdoor stage. Work with someone who has the contacts to bring in these bands and partner with the clubs and coffee shops downtown to book musicians as part of the celebration.
Children: Festivals should be for all ages, so make it exciting and unique for the kids. Forget the inflatable slides and castles. Interactive activities like painting, pottery, making music, and storytelling can be fun and educational. Focus on things they can’t get at the Greater Columbus Fair.
Location, Location, Location: True enough. Between the fine Phenix City Amphitheatre, both Riverwalks and downtown Columbus streets, there’s plenty of room to stretch out. Work with the city governments on both sides of the river to ensure consistency.
Explore alternatives. Are there private-public partnerships that haven’t been taken advantage of? What can Columbus State bring to the table? What makes Riverfest unique, what can differentiate it from other festivals in the state?
It’s a fallacy that you can be all things to all people. That’s an impossible compromise, where you agree to have, as Lyle Lovett says, “an acceptable level of ecstasy.” This is somewhat unavoidable in a street festival because you can’t narrowly focus on one group, but what you can do is present everyone with quality choices on every level.
I hope Riverfest resurfaces and reinvents itself as an event that will not only excite locals but draw in people from the surrounding region. She may be unavailable next year, but I hope she and I can hook up in ’08.
With luck, Rattlesnake Confusion will be a monthly column about various aspects of music, the people who make it and those of us lucky enough to listen. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear ‘em. - C