It was reported today on the harp-L internet mailing list that the Buckeye State harmonica festival–one of the world’s longest-standing, and a venue that I headlined in 1999–was cancelled for 2011 due to “lack of interest”, meaning a dearth of paid attendees. It’s always tempting to read a lot into events like this–to see the cancellation of Buckeye as a canary in a coal mine. I’m certainly tempted to do so, especially given that the VA Harmonicafest, where I headlined this year, was almost cancelled for the same reason.
Demographics is the key issue in my opinion. Anyone who’s attended more than two of these events knows that the average attendee is getting older and older. I think it’s great that this audience gets so much enjoyment from these events. But unless some way is found to draw a younger population to these festivals, the odds increase dramatically over time that more festivals will be cancelled for the same reason. If the average age of an attendee now is well over 50, how many of those will be attending festivals 10 or 15 years from now?
SPAH had a handful of attendees in their teens and twenties last year. The level of playing in that crew was amazing, far beyond the general level of player when I was in my 20s, but there was only a handful. A handful of players is not enough to make a difference in the longer term. Granted that it has to start somewhere; it’s going to take a lot more than that to sustain harmonica festivals, and by implication the art of playing the harmonica.
I suggest that getting plenty of kids–dozens or hundreds–into SPAH and other harmonica festivals ought to be THE top priority for festival promoters. How that can be done, I don’t know offhand. I’m not even sure I’m qualified to answer the question–I’m certainly not an expert on teenage life and interests in 2011.
I am now several months into my part-time commitment to SPAH, and working on a project for the 2011 Festival. I’ll make a point of raising this issue next time I talk to the leadership team. Like I said, I think it’s the most important issue for festivals, not to mention the harmonica in general, going forward.