Billy Warden
Billy Warden

The sweet sound of a successful music festival is irresistible to cities and towns across the country. And with good reason. A successful music festival can galvanize a community as its signature event, bringing visitors and amplifying a city’s reputation as a worthwhile destination. And it can play matchmaker to lifelong attachments between acts and fans. 

To that end, Raleigh, NC has turned up the volume on a template that might guide others. In the great tradition of mix tapes, call it the Infinite Mix model. The massive success of Raleigh’s festival suggests that key considerations should be not only the music, but the levels of involvement and intimacy a festival offers its audience.

Every fall for the past six years, Raleigh’s World of Bluegrass hosts a series of events tied to the annual gathering of the International Bluegrass Music Association. While bluegrass is enduring and entertaining, it’s not the world’s best-selling music genre. And Raleigh, a prosperous mid-sized city in the midst of a growth boom, has, in some quarters, leaned into branding itself as a tech hub, which may cue the sounds of club bangers more than banjos.

O'Dwyer's Oct. '18 Sports & Entertainment MagazineO'Dwyer's Dec. '18 Sports & Entertainment PR Magazine

Yet, the bluegrass festival has flourished in North Carolina’s capital since it moved in 2013 from Nashville, where it maintained a lower profile. This year, the event drew a record 223,000 people and scored a direct economic impact of $12.7 million. Raleigh’s News & Observer summed it up by noting the festival “has become a signature event for the area and the largest event of the year.”

So, what’s the secret? How did the bluegrass festival jump out of the gates to make such an impact? And what does that mean for other cities coveting their own version of a SXSW?

In his 2016 book, Music/City, Jonathan R. Wynn proposed three categories for urban music festivals. The Citadel model concentrates its events in one major venue; a coliseum, for example. The Core model mixes large and small venues; from arenas to clubs hosting both free and paid events. And the Confetti model spreads happenings throughout a city, including spaces like galleries and parks.

A Citadel festival can feel impersonal but produce a massive media bang. A dispersed Confetti model is potentially more personally engaging, but, as Wynn noted, “might lack the large media impression of a more focused event.”

Raleigh’s bluegrass festival is a “Confettied” happening that also manages to make a huge media and community impression. And that’s where the Infinite Mix comes into play. The festival is an extravaganza of experiences, the sum total of which is positively explosive.

Contained within a six-block footprint, the festival includes a vast array of opportunities to engage:

Out of town and local bluegrass fans can buy tickets to star-studded events such as IBMA’s annual awards show.

Fans can attend seminars and take in industry exhibits at the convention center.

A series of showcase gigs plays out over several days at downtown clubs.

A barbecue cook-off invites festival-goers to sample the talents of the region’s best pit masters.

And a bustling two-day street festival — known as Wide Open Bluegrass — on downtown’s main street hosts stages programmed with free live performances and a parade of vendors, from craft beer to craft jewelry.

This variety is stunning in its quantity. But just as important is the quality of engagement opportunities. The Infinite Mix isn’t just about the wealth of events, but about the rich emotional connections that further fuel the festival’s success.

World of Bluegrass Festival in Raleigh, NC
The World of Bluegrass, a one-of-a-kind urban bluegrass festival held annually in downtown Raleigh, NC. 

In a Forbes column on the new rules of the “experience economy,” Daniel Newman wrote: “What (people) want, it turns out, is an experience — something memorable, something they can connect with, something that makes them feel like less of a checkbook and more of a participant.”

And boy, does Raleigh’s World of Bluegrass offer a wide variety of ways to participate. At the awards ceremony, fans can relish in the pageantry of an industry gathering and the excitement of witnessing performers accepting career-making prizes. Later, at the street festival, they can casually mingle with many of those same musicians.

The fans rave to the musicians about their songs and shows. And the musicians — delighted by the community welcome — rave to the fans about the vibrancy of their city. As Martin Coppo of the veteran bluegrass band Red Wine put it: “Great street atmosphere, wonderful crowd, excellent organization, nice venues, lots of great jamming and a warm welcoming feel from the whole city and the community.”

And there it is! Whether you listen to bluegrass or Top Forty, everyone loves to hear they live in a special place. And very near everyone wants to be part of making it even better. That’s participation!

This phenomenon — the engagement of both audience and performers in a virtuous circle of mutual reinforcement — is best illustrated in the jaw-dropping scene at a hotel situated smack in the middle of the festival. Here, the halls fill with musicians, both famous and obscure, as well as fans. No red ropes or security guards separate them. Here, everyone rubs shoulders and trades quips. A local, amateur banjo player can jam with Grammy nominees.

It’s no wonder that festival-goers flood social media platforms with photos of the hotel shenanigans. And in a way, the expectations of social media — which have come to define our age — are a handy way to summarize the power of the Infinite Mix. On social, you can choose the platform you like best, the raw rat-a-tat-tat of Twitter, for example, or Instagram’s smooth parade of images. You can choose to be completely passive, or you can participate in every conversation.

Raleigh’s bluegrass festival offers a similar array of options. Whatever your preference for participation, it provides an entry point. And that’s the hook. The optimal music festival doesn’t just invite the community to buy a ticket. Rather, the event — from the stars to the fans, from the bars to the hotels — is a community, all wrapped in an Infinite Mix of participation possibilities.

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Billy Warden is a founder of GBW Strategies in Raleigh.