Music festivals are about diversity and discovery

Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Fans dance as The Young Escape performs during the Jfest Christian music festival in its new location at the Tennessee Riverpark on Saturday, May 18, 2019, in Chattanooga. After outgrowing its Camp Jordan venue, the annual festival moved to the larger area along the Tennessee River.

The entertainment calendar in our area has always had its share of festivals featuring live music with events like Prater's Mill in North Georgia, the Strawberry Festival in Dayton and the Cornbread Festival in South Pittsburg.

Those typically feature a well-known headliner with hit songs, along with several local acts. It was a formula that worked for many years and one that was utilized for the first 38 years by the Riverbend Festival, which was the largest festival in the region until Bonnaroo and its 80,000 capacity came online in 2002 in Manchester, Tennessee.

That formula has changed over the years, and I think we are better for it. I've always maintained that our music scene will have arrived, so to speak, when acts that don't have a presence on big radio stations sell well here.

A healthy live music market is one that embraces discovery and diversity.

Music fans around here have long been known for not buying tickets to acts they've never heard of and for not buying tickets until the day of the show. The Nightfall Concert Series, which kicks off on May 26, helped change the former by bringing in acts and genres of music unfamiliar to most people.

Because it is free, and because Executive Director Carla Pritchard has a great ear for talent, Nightfall has earned the trust and respect of fans who attend every week knowing the music will be good.

Tom Russell, founder of Governors Ball in New York City and Sound On Sound in Connecticut, said last month on "The What Podcast," a show I co-host about live music festivals, that creating a unique experience and building that trust are the keys to a successful festival. Fans want to know they will be treated with respect from the initial ticket-buying experience to the last note.

He also said festivals have become popular in recent years because of the concepts of diversity and discovery.

"There is nothing quite like the energy of a festival crowd," he said. "There is nothing like it, period. To be able to see bands of all genres and people of all walks of life."

The big festivals in our area kick off this month and each feature a lineup worthy of national attention. They are well-curated and offer plenty of familiar acts, but also bands worth discovering.

Jfest is May 20 at the Tennessee Riverpark and features fan-favorites such as Crowder and Mac Powell.

Riverbend is June 2-3 and features big-name stars Maren Morris, Mavis Staples and Coin, as well as bands Goose, Nathanial Rateliff & The Night Sweats and Chattanooga's own Strung Like a Horse.

The sold-out Moon River Festival at Coolidge Park is Sept. 9-10 and has Caamp and Hozier as its headliners, but also features Nickle Creek, Judah & the Lion, Larkin Poe and First Aid Kit. The 3 Sisters Bluegrass Festival is Oct. 6 & 7 and will feature stars popular favorites Greensky Bluegrass and Rhonda Vincent, as well as Tim O'Brien and The Brothers Comatose.

These feature about two dozen bands and will attract between 10,000 and 15,000 people. Bonnaroo is not only the biggest regional festival but one of the biggest in the country with more than 100 acts performing.

What all these festivals share in common are lineups with plenty of known acts, but also ones still worthy of discovery. They have curated lineups designed to draw fans in with a favorite act, but also secondary acts organizers think you will also like. That is where that trust Russell mentioned becomes so important.