The changing landscape of Asheville’s free music festivals

GRATIS GATHERING: Shindig on the Green takes place on Saturday evenings from June to September. “For me, I feel like I’m at a family reunion. ... If I’ve never met you, I’m going to hug you like a cousin,” says Folk Heritage Committee Chairperson Loretta Freeman. Photo by Aaron Dahlstrom

Walking the streets of downtown Asheville can be a musical experience. Most evenings bring encounters with an assortment of buskers, drummers and dancers. The city also hosts a large, if ever-changing, calendar of free music events and festivals scattered throughout the year. Some have been around for decades, while others are preparing to launch.

What hasn’t changed is the enthusiasm for such offerings. “Just under 400,000 people attended events that used public space or city-owned property last year,” says Joey Robison, communications specialist with the city of Asheville’s Planning and Multimodal Transportation department. That’s approximately a 20 percent increase from five years ago. The majority of these activities, he adds, are free and open to the public.

Multitasking

Growth may be a hallmark of success, but with it comes increased expenses and logistical challenges. For Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Fest, “the amount of programming and performances, the number of art and food vendors and breweries participating and the crowds have grown dramatically,” says Aaron Johnstone, president and treasurer of umbrella organization Arts 2 People. LAAFF has evolved steadily since its inception in 2002 — Johnstone estimates 20,000-25,000 attendees per year during LAAFF’s 2008-2011 era.

Few festivalgoers understand all that goes into such an event. “As an independent festival downtown, we have to pay for police, barricades and traffic closure signs,” Johnstone says. “City, safety and permit requirements change and evolve over the years as well.” LAAFF’s one-day festival entails setup, tents, tables, stages, electrical, inspections, beer trailers, Porta-Johns, trash, recycling and compost, informational signage, performer and volunteer check-in, water, medical and merchandise.

LAAFF took a year off in 2013, but returned a year later. It’s not the only local endeavor to skip a year. All Go West festival dropped off the calendar this year, though it may make yet another comeback (the West Asheville-based celebration took a hiatus in 2012). UNC Asheville’s Concerts on the Quad was revived this summer after a 4-year absence.

Family affair

Despite struggles, mountain music and dance gathering Shindig on the Green is in its 49th year. Companion annual ticketed production, Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, enters its 89th year in August. It’s the nation’s longest running folk festival, according to Loretta Freeman, who serves as chair of the Folk Heritage Committee.

“Our events are unique,” Freeman says. “Compared to others, we are family-friendly and relaxed, but [also] energetic.” Shindig gatherings take place on Saturday evenings from June to September. “For me, I feel like I’m at a family reunion. I’ve got barbecue, ice cream, great music — and, if I’ve never met you, I’m going to hug you like a cousin,” says Freeman.

While Shindig’s success may be due to the sense of community Freeman describes, free music events also generate serious money for local businesses. Shindig carries an economic impact of $1-$1.7 million for downtown Asheville each year, according to a 2014 city study. Electronic music and technology event Moogfest, last held in 2014, combined ticketed and free music events. That production — which just announced its move to Durham — reported average attendee spending at $436 per person over five days, or an overall economic impact of $14 million, says Robison.

Size matters

But is bigger necessarily better? Some events struggle not to outgrow the personality that first brought on their success. This may be said about the largest of all Asheville free music festivals, Bele Chere, which ended its 35-year run in July 2013. By the end, an estimated 350,000 attendees flooded local streets. Those numbers were welcomed by some local businesses, while other merchants and residents grew to dread the crowds and noise.

“It started small, with hometown bands and followers,” says Freeman. “Then, small-town bands weren’t good enough. Bigger bands were brought in that charged [more] money. It became too big and there was a loss of family atmosphere.”

Sandra Travis, a program supervisor for the city of Asheville and a former Bele Chere organizer, cites budget strains, a change in city philosophy around special events and the development of other events in the area as reasons for Bele Chere’s demise. “There was a tremendous increase in the number of festivals for many years, but [that] seems to be entering a cycle of diminishing, both in the U.S. and internationally,” She says, “For-profit businesses can’t produce a festival and not charge for it.”

The shadow of Bele Chere looms large over successful local festival organizers. “We don’t have any intention of growing into the next Bele Chere,” says Jennifer Pickering, executive director of LEAF. The weekend of Friday and Saturday, Aug. 1-2, will see the launch of the newest addition to Asheville’s free music festival roster: LEAF Downtown AVL, at Pack Square Park. The event seeks to combine the elements of LEAF’s highly-successful 20-year run of ticketed festivals (held each spring and fall at Lake Eden in Black Mountain), with the access and inclusivity of a free festival held in the heart of the city.

Support network

“As a nonprofit, tickets for LEAF have been a main source of revenue,” Pickering says. “Since this is a free event … anyone can come, but it’s challenging in that we have to look at creative funding streams.” LEAF Downtown AVL incorporates a wide variety of for-profit satellite events, such as a kickoff party with the Ohio Players at New Mountain; a VIP experience; a “Bootsy Funk Dynasty Day” with funk icon Bootsy Collins; and a 5K run.

Generating revenue through events on the periphery of the festival helps to offset production costs. Selling vendor booth space and beer are other primary revenue sources.

“Corporate sponsorships are the biggest piece,” Pickering says. It’s interesting to see sponsors for whom LEAF in Black Mountain may not work, but for whom the downtown event really does, she says. “All of the sponsors we’ve talked to have really stepped up and embraced the possibility of this event. They’ve supported us in so many ways.”

Location, location

Another important form of support comes from volunteers. “Volunteers are different from employees,” says Dave Russell, volunteer coordinator for RiverLink. “There’s no penalty for them if they do not show up or work hard, though 95 percent of my volunteers do both. There’s also no time to train them, so detailed emailed instructions are a must, as is on-the-job training.” But it’s those dedicated workers who make concert series RiverMusic, now in its fourth year, possible. That, and the address.

The outdoor concert series is held at the RiverLink Sculpture and Performance Arts Plaza in the River Arts District. The French Broad River “adds a really nice ambiance to the evening,” says Russell. “Also, I think our musical mix is a draw. We don’t put cover bands on stage. Offering only local, craft beer and local food trucks is also a draw, as we have a different brewery lineup each night.”

Meanwhile, Asheville Downtown Association’s Downtown After 5 series has grown and changed locations over its 27 years. “The first years of the event saw significantly less in attendance numbers; hundreds of people rather than the thousands like today,” says Meghan Rogers, executive director of the ADA. Downtown After 5, she point out, began in the Walnut Street parking lot across from Scully’s.

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