A few people have written recently to Harp-L to complain that they’re not getting enough information about the programs for harmonica festivals. Festival organizers generally write back to say, in effect, that the customer should chill out. I don’t think that’s a good way to deal with the problem. When the customer tells you you’re not doing a very good job, the customer is almost always right. Pretending it’s not so simply means that you never solve the problem.

These customers have a point or two. The first point is this: the level of advance communication (and on-site communication) about every harmonica festival I’ve ever attended is pretty low, and that’s not to the credit of the organizers. Anyone who claims otherwise is in denial. Excuses are not alibis.

The second point is this: a first time buyer is absolutely justified in doubting the value of an event about which little information is available. Among other things, if an organization can’t manage to communicate about what it’s doing, the odds are good that the event itself won’t be very well organized either. And in fact, most of the harmonica conventions I attend are not very well organized. If that’s the case, a first time buyer might very well decide that it’s not worth the time or money to attend.

There are basically two responses that organizers make to messages such as the one above. The first is to say “it’s not about the program, it’s about the people you meet there.” That’s largely true. It’s certainly inspiring to me to meet great musicians at conventions like SPAH and hear what they’re laying down. It’s the main reason I go. However, advance communications do little to make this point, and apparently the point doesn’t convince a lot of people anyway.

The second response is to say “if you don’t like it, pitch in and make it better.” With due respect, that’s a cavalier response at best. When I buy a theatre ticket, I expect the roof not to leak on me while I’m there. If it does, it’s the job of the theatre owner to fix it, not mine. If the basic message is “we suck, and we’re counting on you, the buyer, to fix everything that’s wrong,” that ought to be printed in 40 point boldfaced type on every piece of promotional material, so the buyer knows that what he or she is really buying is an opportunity to fix someone else’s mess.

The typical US-based harmonica convention attracts 400 attendees or less. That number has been stable for the 12 years or so that I’ve been attending these shows, and the population at the shows consists of mostly the same people, getting older every year. We could say the same about most of the performers. I was gratified to see a half-dozen people in their teens and 20s at SPAH this year, but that’s scant cause for celebration for a festival that pulls 400+.

What is missing? For a start, better organization. Programming for the shows at SPAH typically mixes a wide range of styles in a single set, presumably in the hope that something on the program will appeal to almost anyone in the crowd. (And ignoring the fact that most of the people in the crowd won’t like most of what they hear.) So at the opening night blow-off at SPAH 2010, for example, we had Joe Filisko’s country blues duo, a blues-rock set by Mike Fugazzi’s band, Winslow Yerxa’s pieces for harmonicas and sax, a set of one-chord funk jams headed by Chris Michalek, with 5 harmonica players taking turns blowing over the same riffs, and Randy Singer playing blues. And that was just until 11 PM, at which time I departed. The next night’s show featured an even more eclectic mix–classical solos and duets with looped beatboxing. How about designating particular days at SPAH for particular styles? How about keeping track of how many people are attending a given seminar or performance, so next year’s programming can be informed by successes and failures?

It’s worth asking whether the business model that brought harmonica festivals to this point is the right model to go forward. That business model is generally about keeping costs down to the lowest possible level, not about increasing the quality of the shows or the execution of basic logistics at the festivals in order to attract a larger audience. The apparent assumption is that better (meaning somewhat more costly) execution will not pay for itself. So far as I know, this assumption has not been tested, although Jon Gindick’s success in putting on multi-day harmonica events with high quality and higher prices is a clue that the assumption isn’t beyond question.

I repeat: when the customer tells you you’re not doing a very good job, the customer is almost always right. Pretending it’s not so simply means that you never solve the problem. And not solving the problem means that harmonica festivals will never be anything other than what they are now. That’s apparently fine for 400 people. It’s apparently not good enough for plenty of others–potentially thousands–who might otherwise be wildly enthusiastic paying customers.

One final comment: we will know for sure that harmonica festivals have gone to a new level when harmonica-playing pop stars and their fans, not just top session players and blues players, from all over the world feel obliged to attend. The fact that they don’t attend now means one simple thing: it’s not worth their time to show up. Why? What would SPAH look like if it was the kind of show that Stevie Wonder and James Taylor felt compelled to attend?