I went to the SPAH (Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the harmonica) convention in Sacramento CA last week. Below are a number of observations.

The great thing about SPAH is and always has been the opportunity for players in all styles, at all levels, to mingle freely and learn from each other. Whatever else happens, SPAH has to maintain that extraordinary, inspiring experience for all involved.

The worst thing about SPAH is and always has been slipshod communication and organization in and around the event. If SPAH is to grow — and I believe that it’s either grow or die — then it has to stop looking and acting like something 3 guys threw together an hour before the show.

Let’s start with the basics. The good news about these is that most of them are not expensive to fix, and any of them will have a substantial impact on the quality of the event.

1) Nowhere on the spah.org website, even now, can one find a comprehensive listing of the performances and seminars provided by SPAH. To put it bluntly, this is absolutely incredible for an event that most people end up paying well over $1,000 to attend when travel, hotel, meals, and convention fees are added up.
(I spent well over $1,000 myself, and by the way, how about that refund for the Saturday night dinner I wasn’t able to attend?.) To put it another way, how is anyone who hasn’t been to SPAH before supposed to know what they’re going to see and do there? You’re asking a large potential audience to take it on faith that they’re going to get their money’s worth, and the price is substantial. Why should they believe it? The short answer is: they won’t.

2) Once onsite, the attendee has to practically hire a local guide to find the sessions and stores. There is NO excuse for the absence of large, clear signs
pointing to stores, workshops, and concert sessions. I repeat: there is NO excuse for the absence of large, clear signs pointing to all of the marvelous stuff going on. At this show, it was like SPAH was trying to hide the seminars and stores. I couldn’t find the Suzuki room until I was about to leave, by which time it was closed. Professional-quality signs are not terrifically expensive, and they do a lot to convey the impression that one is attending a professionally managed event. Absence of good signs indicates the exact opposite — that one is attending a poorly organized show. Neiher SPAH nor the paying public benefits in that case.

3) The guide to sessions is poorly printed, and carries practically zero information about the sessions. Each session listing in the guide shoud be accompanied by a blurb describing the session, plus background information on the presenters. Again, it is not expensive to produce an attractive program guide that contains useful and essential information.

4) On the back end of each session, attendees should be handed a simple printed sheet to fill out asking for their opinion on the value of the session, the effectiveness of the presenter, the quality of the room, and any other factors that can be used to improve the quality and effectiveness of sessions. I don’t care how much effort it takes on the back end to evaluate the survey results — if you don’t do this, you have no way to know which sessions work and which don’t, and why, meaning that you have no way to systematically improve the event. Events that don’t improve eventually fail.

5) With the exception of the jazz jams run by Randy Singer, which looked and sounded professional, the jam sessions are now officially out of control — too many players, too little time, and little or no interaction between the musicians, which is what a jam is all about. They are a depressing experience for all concerned, both for the top players and the novices. (I heard one currently popular pro complaining out loud at the bluesgrass jam about what an ego-centric mess the blues jam was.) I suggest a conversation with Jon Gindick, who manages to run great jams at his Jam Camps with 40+ participants. In fact, give the blues jams to Jon to organize, and in return allow him to make it a branded event. Allow attendees to sign up for jams BEFORE they arrive at the convention — in fact, encourage them to do so.

6) It is criminally negligent — not to mention a tremendous lost opportunity for additional revenues — that no one was officially assigned to make audio
and video recordings of every session and performance. I repeat: IT IS CRIMINALLY NEGLIGENT THAT NO ONE WAS OFFICIALLY ASSIGNED TO MAKE AUDIO AND VIDEO RECORDINGS OF EVERY SESSION AND PERFORMANCE. Those recordings could be sold after the event in a multitude of ways, starting with downloadable files. I could add that it is also negligent in the extreme to have no one assigned onsite to do blogging and tweeting from the show. Once again, it’s as if the show is intended to be kept secret from a large potential audience. In an era that offers zero-cost, instantaneous worldwide communications, this is nothing short of insane. No one who was not onsite in person will ever know what went on at SPAH 2009. How could that be good for anyone?

I heard several people connected with organizing this event say that there’s no money or time to do most of the stuff above. Well, you know what? If you run the show better, there are plenty of revenue opportunities. Right now SPAH is just leaving the money on the table.

That’s the basics. On the advanced side, with foresight and planning, I can foresee a day when SPAH is widely recognized not only among harmonica players but among the general public as an an absolutely unique event in the world of music — a place where novice players and professionals from all over the world meet and mingle freely and learn from each other; a kind of Davos for harmonica. in order to make this happen, a few things have to occur:

1) SPAH needs to get the basics down, as per my comments above.
2) SPAH needs to spend some time crafting and delivering professional messages for the press, so that the press takes SPAH seriously and understands what it represents. Did I mention that SPAH needs to get the basics down first? The last thing you want is for the press to show up and expose to the entire world what a mess the biggest event in the world for harmonica players is.
3) SPAH needs to work harder to make sure that it brings in a boatload of professionals who understand the message and are prepared to deliver it.
4) SPAH needs to recognize that we are on the verge of a new era, and act accordingly. Asia is going to be a powerhouse in the 21st century, and the harmonica is one of the leading instruments in Asia. If SPAH wants to lead the harmonica world in this century, it needs to act like a leader and put on an event that looks professional. The performances at SPAH are world class, but the execution of the event itself is strictly amateur.

I’ll summarize very briefly. SPAH has succeeded to the extent it has because it is a unique event that delivers high value to the very select audience that attends it. It can deliver much more value, and appeal to a wider audience, with a relatively small investment of time and money. To do so, SPAH has to stop thinking of the event as something that a few midwesterners run for their friends, and start thinking of it as a world-class event that is unique in the world of music. The window of opportunity is probably something like 5 years. After that, somebody in Asia will start running a real world-class event for harmonica players, and SPAH will wither.