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…

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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.

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  1. Living in Memphis, everyone here is a picker but not many harp blowers. The Memphis Blues Society periodically visits schools to perform and talk about the blues. One thought is to find a harp player in the city that SPAH will be held in that has the time to visit a school to partner with in sending some kids to an instructional event in a beginning harp class/demo. I was at a blues fest in Buffalo, NY where I used to live, and Filisko held something like this for anyone who was there – $5 got you a Hohner Blues Band el-cheapo harp and a beginners lesson from Joe. A school, Scout troop etc may be willing to partner up for something like this. Just a thought.

    Bruce Brand

  2. Mike Fugazzi says:

    Feel free to reprint the following:
    I agree with your comments. This sorta parallels my experiences with the local blues scene. If you play harmonica and are under 50 you are not going to get much support from peers. This can be even hard to handle in trying to find success as a band under 40. Older musicians in the scene tend to want a younger crowd, but they take very little viable action to encourage young people to check them out.

    There is a wealth of players under 40 on the harmonica scene that are excellent players like you said. I don’t have any concrete answers for how to get them involved more with these events other than to say that promoters would need to seek them out. I am not saying I am worthy of much attention, but I’ve offered my services in a number or regards multiple times with little interest. I also think in what is now a flat world, the sheer number of even YouTube harmonica sensations is young and able to garnish a wealth of attention…point being, there are younger players out there…maybe more of them than the older guard…maybe more out there in stylings than the older guard…

    I guess what I am getting at is you literally have your kids that can really play, but maybe don’t have the ability to be a leader yet, nor do they have the insight as to how to carry the torch beyond the notes they play. It would be interesting to see someone in their 20’s or 30’s take a more active role in working with SPAH in a leadership capacity. Besides even myself, I know of others who, if they felt welcomed, would probably do the same. While difficult to maybe make it an event many young people can attend, as it is costly and often involves travel, and a niche market, promoting harmonica to younger generations always fascinates me.

    It would also be an interesting conversation to bring up harmonica outside of blues and jazz and how that could impact these events. Harmonica currently doesn’t have the universal appeal of guitar, but it is something many people have tried to play, much more than guitar. I think an effort can be made to make events like these more accessible to the mainstream by showcasing some players who appeal to people generally under 40.

    I know I am rambling, but the more these events often appear like a clique of middle aged men playing blues and jazz in isolation, and the less it is treated as something for some level of mass consumption regarding contemporary music and performance, the harder it will be to sustain. I am not saying every event has to be geared towards the masses, dumbed down, or drastically altered. I am saying with the mass segmentation of music in general, and the wealth of entertainment options beyond live music, there needs to be a shift in thinking.

    Harmonica events need more rockstars and over the top personalities…in short. Not all about that, but at least some…SPAH might be unique in that it is essentially a club of harmonica players hanging out with each other, but any efforts to take these events and make them accessible to people who generally love good music or who may be interested in taking up the harmonica, the better.
    Mike Fugazzi
    Quicksilver Custom Harmonicas

  3. Sorry to see the festival was cancelled. After playing for nearly 2 years I was hoping to meet some harp players. I would also like to say I was hesitant to fork over the dough to get into a festival which even though it had a pro looking website had no event listing. I watched a video of some of the performers that were scheduled to play but none really interested me. I am 44 years old and got interested in the harmonica after listening to some of the alt country & folk that is catching on. Both can’t be found on commercial radio but get good airplay on the college stations. Some of these acts are aging punk rockers playing to their old crowd who have mellowed out a bit just as they have. This would be a demographic worthy of attracting in my opinion.

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