5.31.18. At the End of the Day -- An Antonym Autopsy
Why the East Coast Music Festival failed.
I just clawed my way out from a deep dark hole of a depression over how few people bothered to participate in local elections. 9.88% voter turnout makes me a little crazy. So perhaps it's understandable that a major music festival has come and gone in our fair city of the cannonball -- and I completely forgot that it was going on. Then again, it doesn't seem like anyone else I knew was aware of it either. It appears that the East Coast Music Conference actually had less turnout than the election, and I didn't think that was possible.
By every indication the conference was a disaster. A promoter nobody had heard of bringing bands no one knew to an event few attended. Hundred dollar passes with no real headliners? Industry talks with a bevy of publicists speaking on the art of self-promotion? A handful of recognizable names.. And at that, only recognizable to people who are already seriously plugged into the industry. This is every bit reminiscent of the worst aspects of the bad old days -- when the music industry was run by empty suits. And worst of all? It very well may have damaged our scene's ability to draw quality music in the future. Eighty plus bands spread out over three days, often playing to nearly empty rooms. What went wrong?
The event was vastly under-promoted.
Folks I know who are super plugged into Norfolk's music community were clueless about this thing. None of the concert photographers I regularly hang out with were aware of it. I myself only knew about it tangentially due to stopping in at the last minute to check out an info-seminar last year presented by the promoter -- Drew Little. To successfully pull off an event of this size? You need a massive campaign reaching every corner of the city. You need posters in every available window -- I never saw one. I'm not even sure they had posters. You need agents working on outreach to other promoters and local bands. Every one of your stages should have a specific promoter assigned to it working to make sure seats are filled.
You can't simply throw up a website and half-ass your social media game. Sure, from the promo material it's clear they were hanging quite a bit of hopes and dreams on the idea that folks would travel from far and wide to attend. But what was the ad buy in cities these likely attendees called home? From all reports, no one knew this thing was happening. There should have been ads with every music journalism outlet in the area. There should have been outreach to photographers in the local forums. Invitations to journalists. There was some minor coverage from the Pilot, and Jeff Maisey of VEER Magazine apparently tried to help him out shortly before the event started -- but every single other journalist I know personally, knew next to nothing about what was going on with it.
There was a failure to accurately read the market.
Those of us who moseyed in to that first power point presentation to hear what Little had to say about the ECMC's projected attendance knew he wasn't living in anything resembling reality from day one. His numbers were wildly out of sync with what anything other than Harborfest manages to pull in. And Harborfest has had close to two decades to build to what it is. He consistently referred to Norfolk as "The Music City." Which is a nice piece of marketing kit but not based in any sort of feet on the ground analysis of the scene. Richmond's music community far dwarfs ours. Major national bands that fill mid-sized venues with ease anywhere else in the country routinely struggle to draw here. All it takes to get a sense of what an audience size might look like for an event of this kind would be to take a look at past festivals like AFRAM, the first two major LAVAFests or Starfire. Little's number were a fantasy at best, and a total fabrication at worst.
As it stands currently their Facebook page is still boasting an attendance of ten-thousand. The reality is that less than a tenth of that showed up.
They tried to go too big too fast.
For an excellent example of how to pull something like this off, one need look no further than Virginia Beach native Mike Federali's epic success with Tidewater Comicon -- which is really more of a model for what the ECMC wants to be than any run of the mill concert series. More on that later. The blueprint TWCC followed was one of incremental build up over a space of years. With intense promotion, visits to similar festivals throughout neighboring states. Networking over time. And most importantly, Federali was part of the local comicbook scene, a foundation that he built atop to grow his audience. He had relationships with vendors, creators, and fans that he developed over the space of a decade. He didn't just hang out a shingle and hope for the best. And he certainly didn't start out trying to sell hundred dollar passes to the thing.
They weren't plugged into the local scene.
It's hard not to look at this whole thing and come away with the opinion that the group running the show really didn't understand how the music audience in this town moves. If they did, they never would have made the projections they made. And they certainly wouldn't have tried to bring in 80 plus bands that no one has heard of -- that's not to say that there weren't decent groups in the line-up. I previewed a few after the fact and was pleasantly surprised in many cases. But quality without adequate promotion or name recognition doesn't fill seats. If you want to showcase a band from out of town that hasn't broken into the big league yet? You've got to pair them with a local act that has a following. Every other promoter in town seems to understand this, but somehow ECMC thought they had the secret sauce to ignore it. Otherwise? You're asking a small band without a lot of resources to travel hundreds of miles to play in front of a dozen people for a couple of hundred bucks at best. Something I personally witnessed walking past the Plot in the NEON District on a gorgeous Saturday that weekend. Not only is that just a shitty thing to do? How likely are they to pull through here on their next tour? How will they remember us when they get bigger?
In the few places where they managed to pull in a local act, they fell short in the follow-through. Billy Mercury is a huge talent in our city. I honestly believe he's on an upward trajectory. But go to the ECMC website to look him up and his bio is empty. How many people knew he was playing a show? Frankly, there were quite a few empty bios on the site. It was just poor execution at every level.
They failed to communicate what they were trying to be.
It seemed like the ECMC couldn't decide if they wanted to be a concert destination for music fans or a convention for musicians. If they were aiming for the former, starting out with a smaller lineup might have made more sense. If they were trying to be a sort of Comic-Con for musical artists? They should have rented a conference room and started out with much smaller footprint. SXSW didn't become what it is on day one. These things either have to grow organically, or they need to be fueled with serious dollars. Neither was the case, here.
. . .
I almost didn't write this. I almost didn't have the heart to kick these people while they're feeling fresh pain. I'm sure they lost a boatload of money. I'm sure the experience was quite excruciating. But in talking with promoters I know around town I heard story after story of attempted outreach that was ignored or met with condescension. In talking with bands that performed, I heard quite a few cautionary tales in how poorly communication was handled by the promoters. And as someone who tries to honestly cover this scene, I decided that I can't not write about why this didn't work.
I'm a bit concerned that the city might have given over some resources to this debacle. I'm troubled that no one there spoke with folks who have been building the actual infrastructure for musical ventures in this town over a period of years. And as someone who would love to see the scene grow into something that might one day support something that on paper, at least, could be as cool as what ECMC wanted to do? I'm genuinely upset at the damage that may have been done here to that potential.
And it didn't have to go down like this.