March-April 2013

Traditional Music Festivals Alive and Relevant?

By Roland Sturm

TBFCThe Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest and Folk Festival (TBFC) started in 1961, making it one of the oldest continuously held traditional music events in the US. TBFC will have its 53rd event this May, whereas Clifftop, West Virginia (officially known as the Appalachian String Band Music Festival) is in its 23rd year; Winfield, Kansas (Walnut Valley Festival) is in its 41st year; and the National Old Time Fiddlers Contest in Weiser in Idaho started in its current form in 1963. Only the Old Fiddlers Convention in Galax, VA, marking its 78th event in 2013, has an unambiguously longer tradition.

What makes a festival relevant and gives it longevity? Most traditional music festivals or contests tend to be ephemeral events and are quickly forgotten, although some historic names get commercially revived. The Newport Folk Festival, for example, only lasted for about 10 festivals before its demise, but after was restarted in 1985 as a for-profit enterprise

The Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest is doing well these days. It added another contest stage last year and set a new attendance record the year before. Yet the present is never an indicator of the future. Without questioning what does and doesn’t work and trying to anticipate the future, it is easy for an event to become irrelevant and fade away. As one of the organizers of TBFC, this is something that concerns me. As David Bragger described in his recent column, the Old-Time Fiddler’s Convention and Festival in Goleta, appears to be struggling – and it is a very similar event to TBFC.

Goleta was a spin-off of TBFC. In 1970, Los Angeles County prohibited outdoor festivals and TBFC moved to Santa Barbara for a year. After TBFC returned to LA, Peter Feldmann, who was a local organizer in Santa Barbara, founded the Goleta Old-Time Fiddler’s. He provides a fuller history in his blog.

While the format of TBFC and Goleta was identical for possibly 20 years, the two events have since developed very differently.

Here is my personal view of what I think is important to keep a relatively low budget festival alive.

First, it is important for a festival to have a unique identity, but it also needs to remain relevant over time. These are not contradictory aims. Relevance means keeping it interesting for future generations of musicians, something that teens would go to on their own, something that families with young children can enjoy, but it also is attractive to musicians (an important part of the atmosphere) and older people. Ticket price is important, to introduce people to new music, the entry barrier needs to be as low as possible and I think $20 is much too high.

For a festival like TBFC or Goleta, there are three key ingredients:

- Scheduled performers/entertainment

- Contest

- General atmosphere, including jamming, exhibits, demonstrations, even vendors (as much as I hate to admit it, vendors seem important to a lot of people).

All three are important, lose any of the 3 and the event will shrink. Some big budget events (think Newport or Philadelphia Folk Festival) may get away by just focusing on scheduled performers, but it results in a completely different and, in my opinion, much less attractive approach: expensive concerts for passive audiences rather than participation; day ticket prices of $70-100 rather than $10-20; and big name performers even when that is closer to main stream charts than traditional folk music. I doubt Newport is introducing audiences to new music, but rather following trends.

Scheduled Performers/Entertainment

TBFC_4I strongly believe that a festival needs a coherent theme to give the event a unique feel. A generic world music mash, including bands with electric instruments, is, well, generic. There are lots of those already and it sounds like any street fair organized by the Chamber of Commerce. Since TBFC has "banjo” and “fiddle" in the name, I look for some banjo and/or fiddle content among main stage bands. Doesn't mean every band has to have it, but the large majority should and the remainder should be in a compatible style (e.g. folksinging; bluegrass bands that don't have banjo or fiddle, etc.). The side stages move a bit further away and there a separate themes for “folk singing” or “cowboy music.”

At TBFC, main stage bands play the same types of music that contestants play or that jammers play. And there are the same "no"s as well, which is absolutely no electric instruments and we don't want any in the jam areas as well. That is less of “purity” than a practical issue because there used to be a serious problem with people bringing car batteries and amplifiers to start jam wars. That interfered with the contest and performances, so no electric instruments and scheduled performers have to set a good example. But everybody is treated the same way and even Bob Dylan would have to leave his electric guitar at home. We wouldn’t pay him that much either: Every slot on the side stage is $100, whether dance barn, a workshop, or a performance.

I get a lot of complaints from bands about being too narrow-minded and too rigid – by every band with an electric guitar or bass, for example. But without keeping a theme to the event, it just becomes to generic. At the same time, there are regular complaints about having too much “odd stuff” and not enough bluegrass. So maybe it is the optimal middle.


TBFC_3TBFC splits stage times roughly equal between contest and performances, although there is a bit more time for the contest on the main stage. The contest is very important, but by itself has limited attractiveness to a general audience. Adding more scheduled performances has been a major shift over the last decades. However, this wasn’t at the expense of overall contest time, which actually has grown. But instead of having all contestants on the main stage (which in fact was a serious limitation because it restricted bands and beginners), we added playoffs that eliminated participation limits for bands, fiddles, and beginners on other stages. Having a dedicated beginner stage works well because that's where beginners meet similar people and it is a much less threatening setting than the main stage. Just better for everybody, beginning contestants and paying audiences! And now there is enough room and time for 40 beginners rather than having to cap them. It creates headaches for the registrar, but it makes a better event.

How to get participants is still a difficult story and I tried for years to get TBFC on the radar of school music teachers, probably gave away hundreds of free tickets to them, early flyers, send suggestions for tunes, although it had limited impact. Still, a few fiddlers here and there who come with their school arrangement of Boil the Cabbage or Mexican Hat Dance. So organizers will always be challenged to grow a contest on their own, it is out of their control if it doesn’t happen on its own. However, organizers can certainly stifle participation with complicated rules. Here is something that I think went wrong at Goleta because judges go up to kids to disqualify them for playing a jig or a tune that is not in the judges’ book of approved tunes (which was a truly bizarre idea about old-time music at Goleta).

My take is that we want more people to participate. Let beginners play whatever they can play and when they are more experienced, anything that has some traditional roots is great. We want them to come back; soon they are going to be key participants in jams or even performers. It wasn't that long that Chris Thile was a chubby faced little kid competing at Topanga whereas today's teens look at him as an elder statesman (appropriately, of course, given that he is the recipient of a MacArthur grant and won several Grammy awards, including best folk album this year).

General Atmosphere

TBFC_1Finally, the atmosphere. Well, I have to say that at least until a few years ago, I preferred Goleta over Topanga because of better weather and less dust. In the last few years, I think TBFC worked better because despite less attractive weather and excessive crowds, it had energy.

At TBFC, there are many things that create the general atmosphere, the town itself being an important part. There are folk art demonstrations to go with it, people being dressed up in Western garb (does help that we have a Cowboy Music and Poetry slot), participatory activities, including kids arts&crafts, dancing. But jamming is of central importance. I really don't know how to keep that going, it just self-sustains itself and having a big attendance helps. Although if we were lacking it, I'd try to build it up by leading a jam and getting some of the kids I know to participate or start others. But no need for that, if anything there isn't enough shady space these days and I personally think it would be good to move more vendors out of the town center (but I think the National Park Service actually doesn’t want too many jammers under the oak tree). Lots of variety, the songmakers of course always carve out their little area, but there are good other circles for bluegrass, Irish, old-time, and the occasional classic-rock blues guys. And a few bands play their own stuff, but look like jams to people walking around. The composition does change over time and reflects changes in what is fashionable. Old-time used to be very small 10 years ago, but now seems to have grown to rival the bluegrass jams.

An event like TBFC or Goleta is not going to happen with a group of dedicated volunteers. And that group needs to stay relevant itself. It is unavoidable that enthusiasm fades over time and ideas get stale. New people are needed to join and bring fresh enthusiasm and energy. The organization of TBFC these days is a well oiled machine and we all know our tasks. But eventually, that engine will start creaking and finally fail without maintenance and replacement parts. By next year, key tasks to be filled include coordinating prizes for the contest and publicity. Get in touch via the TBFC website if you want to become part of the TBFC team.

Roland Sturm is Professor of Policy Analysis at the RAND Graduate School and usually writes on health policy, not music. He is the talent coordinator of the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest. These days he mainly plays upright bass and mandolin.


All Columns by Roland Sturm