R.I.P. Jubilee Festival

We wrote a while back about the month of May, our plans, and how we hadn’t been to the Jubilee Fest. And now, we’ll never go. Because it was cancelled.

If Jubilee is to be mourned, it must be mourned for what it was at its peak. The shuffling zombie quasi-festival that it had become was a casino-sponsored money-losing albatross, bringing second-rate acts to town at absurd prices, eventually, in its death spasm, throwing in a beer festival to go along with the music and road race. It was originally an arts and crafts festival, founded in 1976, growing (as we have noted) into a quality event that drew people from all parts of the state (and from other states). Ultimately, it died as one of those “city services” that we just can’t afford anymore, like curbside recycling. Capital un-cool.

A few points:

Many cities have figured out that music festivals are winning economic development opportunities.

If music festivals didn’t make money, Atlanta wouldn’t still hold the Midtown Music Festival, which just drew tens of thousands of people to their downtown. People that attended that event got to hear Pearl Jam cover The Clash. Also, the Hang Out Fest has been a massive success and has exploded in recent years, drawing people from around the country to Alabama’s coast. If music festivals couldn’t work, they wouldn’t have just started one in Gulf Shores and pumped millions of dollars into their local economy. Finally, Bama Jam was also a big success, drawing people to the backwater wastelands of a cow pasture near Ozark. Although Bama Jam’s organizer is heading to jail, the festival may carry on and appears to be making money.

The death of Birmingham’s City Stages should have been a huge opportunity for Montgomery to solidify the dominance of Jubilee.

Birmingham blew it by letting City Stages die. Years of mismanagement contributed to the death of that world class gathering, with considerable grumbling about how the city had (for tax purposes) overstated the “cultural” significance of the event. If there was going to be a silver lining to the death of a once-great Alabama institution, we hoped that it would be that Montgomery could learn from the financial issues of our neighbor to the north. Evidently not.

Instead, we are taking the easy way out and saying that a music festival is just an expense we can’t afford. And when you’re doing something similar to what they’re doing in Birmingham and Jefferson County, odds are, you’re doing it wrong.

Music festivals provide something for everyone. They can help to grow a local music scene.

Festivals, when properly booked, draw diverse audiences. A little bit of country, a little bit of rock and roll, and some hip-hop – it ain’t rocket science. People get exposed to new bands because they pay admission to see their favorites. You have to be careful not to traffic too heavily into the washed up acts that frequent Mississippi casinos. You can get some nostalgia dollars, but don’t want to rely on them. You want the kids to come and have a place to hang out away from parental supervision. You want some food, some arts and crafts, some vendors, some shade and some benches, and you’re pretty much good. If you’re humane, you give away water because it’s hot and we live in the south and we’re not monsters.

Also, you make sure to book local acts, growing the music scene. It’s one thing to give tax breaks to downtown bars, hoping that they’ll book musicians. It’s another to get people to step up their game because they’re playing on the same stage as one of their heroes. Festivals let low-visibility bands play in high-visibility settings, with (in theory) good sound technicians and a chance to sell some merchandise. The digital era has impacted these facts without rendering them false. There’s not a single local band that we’d go out of our way to hear, but that might change if some hungry band spent the year practicing to get on stage before an A-List act on a downtown stage.

City budgets show priorities.

Evidently, dragon boat races are good, especially if you control the concessions contract. And road races good because you can charge people money to run on your public streets, while claiming that you promote fitness. But music festivals require dealing with musicians and booking talent and setting up stages and keeping streets closed for long periods of time. People will get drunk and might get into fights, and there’s tons of trash to clean up afterwards.

But the bottom line is that other cities have figured out how to make festivals work. Even lowly Birmingham replaced City Stages with the Crawfish Boil. What will we replace Jubilee with? A third-tier college football all-star game?

Jubilee was spun off into its own 501(c)3 in 1992 as a non-profit organization with a volunteer board of directors and a full time executive director. The city still put up money and any other number of kinds of support. Here’s a look at what the festival was like shortly after that time, when it cost $9 per day, or $12 for a weekend pass.

Musical highlights of that Memorial Day weekend in 1995 included Dr. John, Junior Walker (who died later that year), B.B. King, Drivin-N-Cryin, Maceo Parker, Peter Rowan, and Col. Bruce Hampton and the Fiji Mariners. Again, let me emphasize, these world class legendary acts were all present in Montgomery at the same time.

A map!

A sense of sponsorship and scheduling.

A welcome from the mayor

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3 responses to “R.I.P. Jubilee Festival

  1. FYI…we had about 5000 at our inaugural River and Blues Music and Arts Festival in Wetumpka this past July. Next year’s event will be July 21st. Totally free event. Let me know if you want more information about how the festival came to be and what our vision is for what we’d like for it to become.

  2. I know why Music Midtown makes money: because they don’t spend any of it on porta-potties. 50,000 people came, and there were probably 30 in the entire place.

    On another note, why is it that the southeast is rich in bluegrass / old timey music, yet such music rarely appears in Montgomery?

  3. It seems to me that there is an music event downtown a couple of times a month

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