The last weekend of July I usually find myself bound for Newport, RI. The Newport Folk Festival (NFF) is one of the longest running musical festivals in the world. Among other things it was the place where Bob Dylan plugged in and changed folk music and music in general, forever.
As festivals go, in my opinion there are none better. This marked the second straight year the festival sold out and only the second time in history that it has done so. The festival typically features one or two truly iconic artists and there 40 or so acts that make up the rest of the bill. The acts range from cutting edge and buzzworthy to established acts in the Alt Folk genre.
The highlights of this year’s festival were Alabama Shakes, Conor Oberst, Head and the Heart, Of Monsters and Men, Guthrie Family Reunion , Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Ben Sollee and though I didn’t see the set I have been told Gary Clark Jr. was great.
While none of the above acts are household names, they are very popular artists within the genre. This music is very popular, but is flying beneath the radar of radio programmers across the country. The demos are amazing for advertisers. The fans of these acts range from 18 to 70. Hipsters to Old Hippies, music junkies to casual listeners. I have had discussions with the folks at Sirius/XM. In my opinion this music would make for an awesome channel. NPR plays most of these artists at least a bit. However, the amount of airplay that any one NPR station can give any act is minimal. They have so much other programming. Occasionally this music shows up on Triple A radio and on The Loft, Coffee House and Spectrum on Sirius/XM. However most fans of this music don’t want to listen to Bob Seger , Seals and Crofts or other 70s rock artists to get to hear Amos Lee. These fans know music and are purists. I think a network or station that could play Amos Lee, Alabama Shakes or Brett Dennen 50 times a week would be very successful. I truly believe this music could be the “Nest big thing” in rock. Unfortunately as of yet no programmers is willing to go all in.
These artists are not without fault however. One thing I noticed this weekend is that these acts are falling into the trap that has plagued many Active Rock and Modern Rock bands. Too many of these acts are too similar. What exactly is the difference between Dawes and Hear and the Heart to the average listener. New artists have to continue to be innovative and to write great songs. Good songs don’t get you anywhere any longer. Either write great music or find something else to do for a living. That is the only way you will succeed.
I honestly don’t understand most rock festivals. Bonnaroo takes place early in the summer, just outside of Nashville. It is typically 95 degrees and people camp out all weekend. On about a dozen occasions people have died at the festival. Too much sun, drink, drugs, whatever, but to me spending all weekend outside in hot weather is no fun. I don’t care who is playing. The Warped Tour has made a fortune for Kevin Lyman and his partners. But is more of a floating village than a music festival. The kids don’t come for the music they come for the scene and to be seen. There seem to be hundreds of bands on the tour and quite frankly, very few that appeal to more than a niche audience.
Newport is refreshing because it is usually cooler because the show is literally at an old fort that overlooks the water. Alcohol sales are limited to one section a bit off the beaten path. You never see a drunk stumbling through the crowd to vomiting on someone. The show ends at 7:30 each night so it makes for a very social weekend. I have never understood it, but most acts at any festival want to close the event. Why? At NFF and most festivals it seems an awful lot of people leave before the last act is done. Usually 7 hours or so is enough for most people. This year Jackson Browne closed the festival. There was a light rain falling, but two thirds of the people had either left after Conor Oberst or went to one of the other stages to see another act. Jackson played a lackluster set to a sparse crowd. There was a long line of people stretching across the entire field. It took me a minute to figure out that they weren’t standing to see Jackson, but waiting on line to get the ferry back to town.
I really hope someone who programs a radio station or network reads this and follows up. I would love to share my thoughts with anyone who is interested. This music genre is for real. It just needs some exposure.
Next July, if you are looking for a great way to spend a weekend, find a cute Bed and Breakfast in Newport and make a reservation (do it early) and head up to NFF 2013. Tickets for the festival usually go onsale late January or early February. I am sure you will have a great time.