Anyone contemplating starting a music festival needs to understand one key point before the opening night artist plays the first chord: it generally takes five years to get an annual event up, running and hauling in the cash.
With that understanding, Rams Head Group kicked off the initial Annapolis Songwriters Festival last fall and was generally pleased with the results. The second affair is set for Sept. 14-17 and with an expanded lineup.
“There was great enthusiasm during our first last year,” said Laura Price, Rams Head Presents director of marketing. “There were some challenges in bringing a new concept to Annapolis, but we knew that it would be the case. However, we got off to a good start.”
For the upcoming festival, RHG is spending what Price, though declining to explain the financial specifics, called “close to what we invested last year, if not slightly more. We’ve also booked some bigger names and will have more ticketed national shows, as well as more free shows,” she said, “because we expect bigger crowds.”
For instance, after featuring two City Dock shows in 2022, the ASF will feature three this year, including Blondie and Thomas Dolby (Friday), and LeAnn Rimes and Elizabeth Cook (Sunday). It’s the same at Maryland Hall, with Michelle Branch on opening night (Thursday) and Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives (Saturday). There are also at least five concerts at Rams Head On Stage.
Concerning the festival’s target market, Price said RHG is casting its net within “a 60-mile radius from Annapolis, with greater concentration toward the Eastern Shore, because we may have missed some country fans last year. However, if we’re focusing on anything, it’s diversity.”
So all told, RHG considers the event’s progress on track after it purchased the Key West Songwriters Festival, which occurred with the intention of “expanding the concept into the Annapolis market. It’s a growth opportunity and we support songwriting as an art.”
One veteran of the festival scene who has kept tabs on the ASF is Brad Selko, the former owner of the Hot August Blues Festival. He now books singer-songwriters at Manor Mill, an 80-capacity venue in northern Baltimore County, after selling the festival to longtime collaborator Ryan Glaeser.
Like Price, Selko feels that the ASF will gain traction. “I’m booking singer-songwriters,” he said, “and for me, that market has gone way up. I work with other types of acts, too, but when I book a singer-songwriter, the show often sells out. There are lots of them out there and they seem to attract a new crowd every night.”
Having presented his first Hot August Blues event, which featured Little Feat on Aug. 19, Glaeser pointed out how inflation has affected all aspects of presenting a show, including food, transportation, security, etc. “Those costs are all double what they used to be. That goes for the artists, too,” he said, noting the event costs about $500,000 to produce.
“I think the industry is in a very strange position. It’s tough to see where things are headed. The first year out of COVID-19 everyone wanted to get back on the road so in general, we’re still seeing many more events,” he said. They can include “experience” and destination packages for big names like Phish, Jack Johnson, and the duo of Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds.
He thinks the 2024 market will reveal which promoters sold enough tickets to expect a larger financial gain.
“Before the pandemic, we could presell enough tickets to cover our expenses,” said Glaeser. “However, today more people are waiting to buy at the last minute, which fortunately they did for our event. But that changes how promoters operate.”
Those who make it through this muddled market “will be those who are able to adapt, perhaps by offering incentives to get fans to commit to buying tickets earlier. That changes the model,” he said.
Such moves can help to reach to success. While the Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival recently ceased operations, the Annapolis Baygrass Festival will debut on Sept. 30 to Oct. 1 at CBBF’s former location, Sandy Point State Park, in Annapolis. The Ramble Festival, in Harford County, has its second event scheduled for Oct. 6 to 8. Glaeser has announced that there will be another Hot August Blues Festival next summer.
Let’s Go! back
Adam Moore can relate to the complexities of staging multiday events. Despite the economy’s recent moods, he has an optimistic tale to tell after the third Let’s Go! Festival wrapped at the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds in late spring with a record attendance of 10,000 for the three-day weekend.
That’s solid considering what Moore, the event’s spokesperson, termed the “more than $1 million investment” of the promoters. While Rams Head has the infrastructure in place, Let’s Go! works with The Bowery Presents, a talent buyer that works under the umbrella of industry giant AEG.
“If a band is already on tour and in the region that helps. Booking the acts is a dance of who we like and who’s available. You find headliners first, then add the supporting acts,” he said, adding that social media and streaming services are key to figuring out which artists will draw.
Like Glaeser, Moore said Let’s Go! 2024 is a go, again for the first weekend in June. “We’re hoping to attract 15,000 and hope to boost the local angle with a battle of the bands,” he said. “We’ve got a got a core of six people” that also includes Owners Chris Hartman and Liz Rawlings, who work year-round on the festival.
“We’ve built our event based on positive word-of-mouth in the industry, as well as in the region,” Moore said. “Now that we have a few years under our belt, people know we present a professional show.”
Caption: Country artist Jake Owen drew an impressive Saturday night crowd to the City Dock during last year’s Annapolis Songwriter’s Festival. (TBM / Mark R. Smith)
Caption: The stage at Annapolis City Dock during last year’s Annapolis Songwriter’s Festival. (TBM / Mark R. Smith)