To those of you in other areas who read my blog, I hope you’ll bear with me as I discuss a local issue. There has been a lot of buzz this morning in local online media and in local social network circles about the fate of Huntsville’s Big Spring Jam. The Jam is a long running music festival held in Downtown Huntsville’s Big Spring Park. There’s a lot of talk about it this year due to the fact that there is far too much construction going on in this area, and that the park and surrounding streets simply may not have the capacity to handle the large crowds that the event usually draws.
My good friend Matt Cuthbert sent along a link about this in AL.com this morning, but the article also touches on a few other issues. There’s been talk among attendees and local residents in the past few years that the event isn’t really heading in a good direction. City management itself responded to this earlier today by going to Facebook to ask for suggestions about the event. And did they get it. A lot of people have had great ideas for what to do about the situation surrounding construction, but many have also voiced great displeasure in the quality of the event itself. Complaints are varied, but there’s a theme to them that lists a number of central issues.
The Jam does not feature modernly popular acts. Big names in the past few years have been those such as KC and the Sunshine Band, Hughey Lewis and the News and The Village People. Which may have been a great line up in the late 70’s or early 80’s, but is a bit pathetic looking in 2010. Additionally, there’s been an outcry over the lack of local bands. It’s also frustrating knowing that the Jam once featured current big acts such as The Foo Fighters and Destiny’s Child with Beyonce Knowles.
Ticket prices have gotten out of control. Weekend passes cost $45 for the Jam last year. Huntsville City and Jam organizers try to promote this as a value, which would be true if they actually had a line up that people wanted to see. However, $45 for a weekend full of has beens on reunion tours is a mighty steep price. If even one act a night were someone in the top ten of album sales on iTunes, that might be a good deal. But with the cowboy and indian singing YCMA as your top act on your opening night? That’s not even worth ten bucks.
There’s no consideration for weather. There are two short windows of time in Alabama where inclement weather is likely, and Big Spring Jam is held in one of them. In 2004 and 2005, the Jam suffered two straight years that had events cancelled due to severe weather. I can personally attest to the problem with this, my wife and her mom tried to attend in 2005. They paid sixty bucks at the gate only to be turned away within ten minutes due to weather. Sixty dollars paid with no entertainment value rendered in return.
Weather can’t be controlled, but backup plans can be put in to place. Organizers have a civic center with a concert hall and arena available to them, yet these have never been properly utilized at the Jam. The probability for weather and the lack of planning makes the Jam less of an entertainment option and far more of a gamble.
So how do you fix it? The commenters on the City of Huntsville’s Facebook account have had a number of great ideas. Most of them address the issues I’ve listed above. But they also range from holding the event in a number of different locations, to making the event smaller for a year or two, or perhaps changing the format of the Jam entirely. It’s clear that the city as well as Jam management need to step back and reconsider many things as they are trying to get around the construction dillema this year, but it may also present the opportunity to change things for the better and ensure the longevity of the Jam for years to come. Now that a similar competing event in Birmingham’s City Stages has demised, it’s the perfect time for them to do so and pick up fans of that event.
I’ve had some experience with event planning, however in no way at this scale. I’m likely in no position to give specific advice, but I can certainly give some from the perspective of someone who has at one time enjoyed this event and would like to do so again. And my advice is fairly simple. Rework the Big Spring Jam to be modeled after Austin’s South by Southwest. SXSW is much more than just a music festival, it’s also a film festival as well as an interactive / technology conference. Huntsville is surely a fantastic location for a tech conference, it seems as if every other resident of the town has some sort of job in the field. And the area is also perfectly capable of handling a great film festival, as evidenced by the success of Florence and UNA’s Lindsey Film Festival.
As for the music part of the event, planners should look no further than local venues. We have fantastic local music clubs such as Crossroads and Sammy T’s. There’s simply no reason that organizers shouldn’t be working with these places in order to have Jam events at these places. Not only are they capable of showcasing local talent, but it would also be a great showcase for these local venues. They should also consider hosting big name acts inside great venues just inside the Von Braun Center. We have a great concert hall and a high capacity arena that would be great for a select few modernly popular bands.
We also have great conference halls both in the VBC, as well as places such as local hotels, as well as in visually striking places such as the Space and Rocket Center’s Davidson Center. These locations would be great places to hold film festivals or tech conferences. Also, having them in our other venues across town would showcase the city itself. A re-worked event modeled after SXSW would make the event more of one targeted towards a national audience rather than just local attendees, this would be a fantastic way to promote the city and put it in the mind of national media.
As I mentioned above, this is likely the perfect time for this change to happen. Alabama no longer has a big event like City Stages anymore, and Big Spring Jam is at a crossroads this year due to the construction issue. While Huntsville City and Jam officials are reconsidering the event right now, it’s a perfect time for them to consider reworking it into being the event that both Huntsville and North Alabama really need at this time. Considering the national spotlight and revenue that such an event could bring in, we can’t afford not to consider this.