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A sound vision
A conversation with the Savannah Music Festival's Rob Gibson
Savannah Music Festival executive director Rob Gibson

Looking out the window of his sixth–floor office overlooking Reynolds Square, Rob Gibson points out that he’s within walking distance of the Lucas Theatre, the Trustees Theater and the Charles H. Morris Center.

This is important to Gibson, who spent the last seven years executive–directing the Savannah Music Festival from cramped quarters in City Market — so far from the action that he needed a bicycle to get himself from one show to the next.

The 2010 festival begins March 18, and Gibson is ready. With nearly 100 events — concerts, recitals, jams, workshops and competitions — jammed into 17 days, he’ll have Savannah humming to bluegrass, jazz, classical, country and even African music, at a half–dozen venues, most of them just a rolling stone’s throw away from Gibson’s office.

He came to Savannah eight years ago, after leaving New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, which he co–founded. Well–versed in the arts of fundraising, booking, plotting and planning, Gibson also the added advantage of being a music nut. His thirst for new and exciting sounds — and performances — was (and is) unquenchable.

Savannah needed Rob Gibson, and he arrived at the right time, just as the existing festival was wobbling, both artistically and financially.

His new and improved event has, naturally, been a tourist–friendly moneymaker for the city (last year, for example, nearly 50 percent of ticket sales came from out of town). Praise from the Times of London and other notable publications and Web outlets has bolstered the international reputation of what the Atlanta Journal–Constitution calls “a festival aimed at an eclectic, upscale audience.”

Gibson is proud of the school outreach his organization does, and the Swing Central high school jazz–band competition, and the weekly radio show he produces for Georgia Public Radio.

First and foremost, he’s an enthusiast — and a promoter. In a perfect world, he says, he’d bring music to Savannah for a lot more than these three concentrated weeks. The first hurdle — not a small one — would be finding the perfect venue.

“I’ve had my eyes on some spaces for years,” Gibson says. “But those things take big dollars. I’d burn up a year–round space, absolutely. But it would have to be the right size space. Five hundred seats would be nice; I’d personally like about 350.”

But that’s on the back burner.

“I believe that if things are supposed to happen, sometimes they’ll happen,” he chuckles. “And I’m not rushing to do it. Right now, we’re trying to do the best job we can do with the Savannah Music Festival.”

Did the festival lose money last year?

Rob Gibson: No, ticket sales were better than they’ve ever been. Contributions were a little down last year. And on an annual operating level, toward the end of the year we had to make an extra push within the community to raise some money to make our budget balance. On a close to $3 million budget, we were coming up about $20,000 short. Which is not enormous, but it’s not what you want to do. Especially as a not–for–profit.

But we rebounded pretty well this year and are having a solid year. We have until June 30 to know how we turn out, but if ticket sales continue, and contributions have been good, we’ll have our best year. But we won’t know until April or May.

You certainly had a couple of quick sellouts this time around.

Rob Gibson: We’ve sold a lot of shows out. Wilco, She & Him, and Patty Loveless/Kathy Mattea went very, very quick. I can’t tell you why things sell out. Sometimes it feels like the longer I get into doing what I do, from a sales perspective the less I understand about it.

Was booking Wilco a deliberate grab at a younger audience?

Rob Gibson: I’ve been trying to book Wilco for five years, and their tour never routed during our festival. Our festival’s trying to appeal to all audiences, and I think that Wilco has obviously a global following now.

Wilco is an audience development tool for the Savannah Music Festival. The number one way people find out about the Savannah Music Festival website, right now, is through a search engine like Google. The number two way is through the Savannah Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. The number three way is through

That means we’re bringing a lot of people who aren’t interested in Renaud Garcia–Fons, or Wynton Marsalis, or Daniel Hope, to our website. And my hope has always been for any audience member of the Savannah Music Festival to cross–pollinate with other musics. Because I don’t believe one music is better than another music. I believe musics have separate functions, and that people can come dance to music, or they can go pray to music, or they can come be entertained by music.

The function of Wilco is different from the function of zydeco music, which is different from the function of The Tatnall River Shapenote Singers. My hope is that some of the people that attend the Wilco concert will pick up the program book and say “Hey, man, that looks pretty good.” Or maybe they’ll just say “I didn’t know Derek Trucks was playing next week... Let’s go to that one, too.”

But certainly Wilco appeals mostly to younger music fans...

Rob Gibson: I don’t know how old (Wilco frontman) Jeff Tweedy is, but I’m going to guess mid-30s, and he could even be 40. My guess is he’s twice as old as some of the most extraordinary musicians that are playing in our festival this year. Like Sarah Jarosz, or Alex Hargreaves, they’re 18.

That’s what gets me excited about the future of music. Sarah is one of the most extraordinary artists I’ve heard in a long time. I saw her last week in Seattle at the Wintergrass Festival. She’s a phenomenon. She’s doing Tom Waits songs, she’s doing songs by the Decemberists, but most of the songs she’s doing are by Sarah Jarosz.

You’ve got to keep the next generation coming, because music’s always evolving. It evolves, and it continues.

I’ve always felt that you enjoy that ... exposing people to music, and performers, they aren’t familiar with.

Rob Gibson: Yeah, but at the same time we’ve got 82–year–old Dick Hyman playing our festival, and I think he might be playing the best piano he’s ever played in his entire life! So I wouldn’t want to diminish the skills of an 82–year–old man who has learned so much about the history of America – and Cole Porter and George Gershwin and Fats Waller. He’s extraordinary, so there’s no way a 17 or 18–year–old mind could ever even compete with what Dick Hyman has absorbed about American music.

That has always got to be kept in balance. And that’s what the Savannah Music Festival’s trying to do.

You could do shows all year round. What is the benefit, for a community, of having all this stuff together, in a tight little three–week period?

Rob Gibson: I like the concept of festivals. They’ve always interested me. Particularly music festivals. I probably attend 10 or 12 music festivals around the globe each year.

I feel like the concentration of first–class artistry in a short period of time is important because it allows people the opportunity to have a different experience that opens their mind, in many ways, to quality.

When you get nonstop music from one in the afternoon to midnight, and you do that four days in a row, it allows you the opportunity to find out what you really like, what you’re really drawn to, as opposed to what just sort of moves you.

I always tell this to people. If you can afford it — and our festival’s fairly affordable — just treat it like sushi at a restaurant. Order a little of this, and a little of that, and figure out what you like.

Because very few people go into a sushi restaurant and say “I’ll have eight pieces of salmon.” They usually want a little yellowtail, a little salmon, a little eel ...