The running joke now is what will be the next thing to move to Mobile’s Fairgrounds — Mardi Gras, The MoonPie Drop, Art Walk?
As local jokes go it’s not on par with the Comic Cowboys’ jab at Lagniappe’s hideous pink boxes and the Baldwin County district attorney, but it’s worth a laugh or two. And after BayFest announced last week it would follow the Chili Cookoff and leave downtown for the fairgrounds — or The Grounds as it’s now known — humor seems the best way to handle the frustration of our 20-year-old music festival moving.
As they always do, people rushed to Facebook to issue dire predictions, make bold proclamations and insult one another’s favorite college football team. The common thought was that BayFest is doomed and downtown Mobile is ruined.
I must admit my own first thoughts when I heard the news was that the BayFest board had gone completely bananas. It’s bound to kill the festival, I thought, and would be a disaster for downtown Mobile — the very downtown BayFest was invented to help support.
But it never hurts to think about things for a few days while drinking beer, so as I let it simmer over the weekend, and talked with folks who make their livings downtown, I at least got past pure emotion and the feeling of personal loss from not being able to stand in a parking-garage-turned-VIP-lounge this coming October. (The BayFest VIP motto: “Our P’s aren’t very I.”)
So let’s start from the top. Yes, for many of us it sucks BayFest is moving to the newest acreage in the city of Mobile, annexed just in time for this announcement no less. Coincidink!
Mobile is one of the few that still had a downtown music festival where the streets were closed and people could wander among the buildings, pee in doorways and see their city in a totally different way.
Will the move hurt downtown businesses? Some downtown business owners say yes, others say no. There doesn’t yet seem to a call among the downtown bar, restaurant and hotel crowd to meet in Bienville Square to guzzle poison Kool Aid. We’ll see how they feel after next October, though.
The mayor, City Council and County Commission have all been strangely silent about the move. If I didn’t know better I’d think they know something we don’t.
The festival itself is really the biggest unknown here. They say the move was necessitated because a new hotel being constructed would take away the festival’s biggest stage. While that may be true it’s felt for some time like BayFest was in trouble and in need of a breath of fresh air or liver transplant.
City Councilman, author and world traveler Fred Richardson may have said it best and spelled it most creatively in a patented Facebook rant. He called the answers for what will come “allusive,” and said the festival lost $2 million last year. Ultimately Richardson sees good things ahead for The Grounds-bound BayFest if they book the right acts. Now that he mentioned an R&B star who was hot 25 years ago as someone who would draw could be a problem.
“Music lovers, and I’m one of them, will travel far beyond the Grounds to hear their favorite artest,” he wrote shortly after his spell checker exploded in frustration, sending shrapnel from his Dell Inspiration desktop computer ricocheting across his office. Fortunately Fred was saved from harm when he ducked behind the massive didgeridoo he brought back from a 2008 junket to Australia.
But Richardson is right. It’s going to be up to BayFest’s board to determine their own future. They’re in the pasture now so they’re going to have to pony up. (Thankfully they don’t have to mini horse up since the festival is almost in Wilmer now. Whew!)
BayFest is one of those non-profit organizations we love so much in Mobile, so we don’t really get a chance to see its finances. I’m not really sure if Fred’s contention they lost $2 million last year is him “conflating” the city cutbacks on performance contracts, or if he knows something we don’t. Either way the general feel over the past few years is the festival is struggling financially.
Given that many Mobilians have come to do nothing but complain about BayFest and its “lame” lineups each year, perhaps a change will do them good. But while I don’t run music festivals, I did sleep in a Holiday Inn Express last night and feel expert enough to offer my thoughts. It’s hard to imagine BayFest doing well at The Grounds if it continues booking the same acts. Motley Crüe and Stone Temple Pilots should be pepper sprayed if they ever attempt to enter The Grounds.
Will the predominantly older, black R&B crowd travel out to The Grounds to see acts that are well past their heydays as well? I have doubts. It seems to me BayFest’s best bet is to scale back the stages and maybe even the number of days and spend the money on a few top acts and build back from there. But that may be easier said than done as well, as music booking is a tricky thing.
Will traffic issues and a lack of nearby lodging be an issue? They aren’t at other music festivals with bands people are dying to see. Get some monster acts at the top of their game and we know people will walk through cow patties to see them. For BayFest to survive, though, will it need to drop things like gospel, R&B and classic rock, and if so how will the politics play out when some certain city councilman’s entire extended family doesn’t like the lineup?
Tons of people predicted the death of the Chili Cookoff when it headed to The Grounds, but by all accounts it had a five-alarm year last year. Maybe the open spaces might be the cure for BayFest’s heartburn too.
In downtown it seems some people are taking advantage of the opportunities. The inaugural Cajun Cookoff blew the doors off projections last weekend, drawing about 4,000 people. Chili Cookoff is officially replaced.
Replacing BayFest will be a much taller order. Large-scale music festivals aren’t easy to get going without lots and lots of money. The festival-turned-Titanic that was Aerofest last weekend is a perfect reminder it ain’t easy. Just putting music, fighting, job fairs and biking together in one place doesn’t guarantee success.
There are already rumblings downtown should come together and create a private festival along the lines of South-by-Southwest. We actually already have a local SXSW-like festival called SouthSounds and maybe this is a chance for that to blossom.
It would be great to look back on BayFest’s move in a few years as something that opened doors to creative thinking and new successes for the festival and downtown, and not just the dying gasps of BayFest and a kick in the ribs for downtown. But as Fred might say, the opportunities are there but the ultimate results are going to be “allusive” for a while.
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