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Savannah Music Fest beats financial predictions
2008 event their biggest year ever
Bluesman Adolphus Bell at 2008's Savannah Music Festival

WELL, THE NUMBERS ARE IN, AS THEY SAY, and it looks like the 2008 Savannah Music Festival was a resounding smash.

According to Executive and Artistic Director Rob Gibson, “Every year we judge our overall success on four criteria, each one of which was fulfilled in 2008: artistic quality, critical acclaim, audience and box office success, and financial results.”

He’s not kidding. Turns out that a full eighty-seven percent of the total number of tickets for the nearly three-week series of ambitious concerts by noteworthy —and in some cases, legendary— roots and traditional music performers from around the world were sold this past Spring, a rather astonishingly high figure for a festival of this sort.

There’s also much more to celebrate around the festival office, including upcoming radio, CD and internet projects that have the potential to bring the joy and wonder of the SMF to untold numbers of people around the world who’d otherwise never be able to attend in person.

I spoke at length with the SMF’s Communications Manager Ryan McMaken about the recent financial report, and excerpts from our chat are below.

This is your fourth straight year with a balanced budget. Is it hard for the SMF not to get cocky or start resting on its laurels?

Ryan McMaken: (Laughs) Well, looking at other music fests, I definitely believe people have struggled with ticket sales this year. There’s a little bit of fear out there that people will stop potentially buying concert tickets. Things like that are an added bonus in your life. They’re not essential. We always have to try and provide a good product and market it well. I don’t think it is possible to succeed in terms of live entertainment if you just sit back.

I would imagine a lot of this has to do with increased transportation costs. People just can’t pick up and go to a festival like they used to.

Ryan McMaken: That’s exactly what they’re saying. With Bonnaroo and fests like that, their VIP tickets still sell out early, because those for whom money is not really an object will still be able to do what they want. But for destination events like the SMF, it’s getting rough. Thirty-five percent of our audience in 2008 were visitors. I think starting with this next year, we’ll be tapping more into Atlanta, Jacksonville, Charlotte and Charleston. In other words, those can become much bigger markets for us. I don’t know that we’ll do a lot more advertising there per se, but we’ll definitely attempt more outreach and publicity. That could always segue into development work and even fund-raising in those cities.

You guys saw a ticket revenue of over $875,000, which was eighty-seven percent of possible ticket sales revenue, does that mean that essentially, you sold almost ninety percent all available tickets to the festival?

Ryan McMaken: Yes. It was eighty-seven percent of all available seats, so that was very good.

Did that outdo your projections for the 2008 SMF, or was it in line with what you imagined, based on past growth?

Ryan McMaken: It did outdo our projections slightly. I think in 2007 we were right around eighty percent in terms of revenue. We definitely went up more than we expected. Ticket sales were very strong early in the festival, and we thought we might exceed our goal by even more than we did. We wondered if we might even hit ninety percent!

It’s very impressive that American Public Media’s Performance Today radio show will again be airing select classical concerts from the SMF.

Ryan McMaken: That’s been happening for about four years now. It’s possible because of the quality of our programming, and the fact that Rich Mays, our classical recording engineer, does an incredible job with that stuff. The Telfair Rotunda —where so many of our classical events take place— has such great acoustics for capturing classical music. Plus, with the festival gaining more cachet each year in that world, it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. NPR just started a music site a little under a year ago, and a producer there puts up special pages through that site for various festivals and venues through each town’s individual public radio station. They stream three or four concerts from each of these events and do a little editorial write-up as well. All of it is archived, so folks can listen to it whenever they want for free. That’ll be up soon, and it’s great promotion for us. We try hard to get as many artists as we can to sign off on the use of these archival recordings for educational and promotional purposes. It’ a great way to get both their names and ours out to serious music lovers around the world.

This new radio series hosted by Rob Gibson sounds great as well. How many hours of stuff is there to possibly draw from for that project?

Ryan McMaken: I’m digitally archiving a lot of it now, and we have concerts dating back to 2003, which is when Rob took over the festival. Over time, the quality of our recordings has been greatly refined. The first year, we had the folks from public radio doing the recordings, but now locals Rich Mays and Kevin Rose handle all of that. So, we have about 20 Savannah Music Festival shows each year from 2004 to 2008.

That’s a tremendous stash of timeless music.

Ryan McMaken: It’s tons of material. This series looks like it will be a 13-show series pulled from our archives and then we’ll occasionally mix in specials designed to promote specific upcoming performances. We’ll have them streaming from our own website and Georgia Public Broadcasting will archive them too. We’ll see how all this goes. We’re also pitching the series to other radio stations and hope to market the show all over the country. Rob will be the host, and that’s kind of a return to radio for him. You may know that he used to be the host of the Jazz From Lincoln Center series that was heard on about 250 U.S. stations.

So, will it consist of complete gigs, or be more like a sampler of different tracks from many different artists?

Ryan McMaken: Yeah, it will be just like a radio show with an assortment of artists and tracks. We’re planning some shows that will be focused on a particular type of instrument —like the guitar or mandolin— or thematically based —such as a show on late period Beethoven or Schubert— drawn from all the different performances in our archive. For instance, if we do a show on the mandolin, we can have tracks that display all manner of mandolin styles from around the world. We’re also looking to spread out a bit more on shows featuring world music.

You’ll also be releasing a 3-CD set of live recordings on disc and digital download by the end of the year how did the first such release sell so far?

Ryan McMaken: Well, we only got it from the plant the day before the festival started and we didn’t sell a whole lot during the festival — maybe about 70 copies out of the initial 1,000 manufactured. That release will now be turned into a promotional release, because it’s really hard to put into words a lot of the time what the Savannah Music Fest is in terms of the wide range of styles we present. I think that CD does a good job of highlighting some of the more unique productions we have made happen and I’m sure it will help to get word out about the event. We’ll alter the release a little. We’ll probably add a few songs to it, then re-do the packaging and put it back out. This is all being propelled by the Ga. Dept. of Economic Development’s tourism department. The state issued a product development grant program just as we had begun this first CD process, and it really appealed to them. I think we’ll be able to sell quite a few, and do a lot of that through local retailers as well as at the Ga. Music Hall of Fame’s store and online. We’ll be producing these sets over the next four or five months.

What sorts of artists and highlights can people expect from that set when it is released?

Ryan McMaken: Well, the first disc is basically the same as the one we did for this year’s festival. The second one will be more of a roots and world music compilation, and most of that will be drawn from the 2008 festival, because there were so many great performances and we got amazing recordings of many of them. The Hamilton de Holanda show came out incredibly well, and the World of Slide Guitar concert with Jerry Douglas has some wonderful stuff as well. Plus, there was Pitingo! We’ll probably look back at the “Brazilian Duets” project featuring Mike Marshall and Hamilton de Holanda from a couple of years ago as well.

Can you ever see a time when the entire SMF sells out? I mean, I know every single year is completely different, but you only have to sell thirteen percent more tickets in the future!

Ryan McMaken: (Laughs) I don’t know how to respond to that. I think that eighty-seven percent is a phenomenal number. It’s a rare thing for a presenting organization to reach that. Obviously, we’re always trying to move beyond whatever we did in the last year. In 2009, hopefully we’ll get up there in the nineties!

Do you have anything you’d like to add?

Ryan McMaken: Only that we’re planning another big event for October 15 at the Charles H. Morris Center to announce our 2009 schedule. We’re looking at doing the same basic format as last year, where we had an invitation-only announcement, followed by a concert that was open to the public. Last year we had The Red Stick Ramblers play and it was fun, but I’m not sure how effective it was as a concert, because there was no way in the room we held it in for people who wanted to continue to mingle and visit to do so away from the music. At the Morris Center, those who want to pay attention to the band can do so, while those who want to continue discussing the festival can move to a separate area.

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