Nevada County’s music festivals look to virtual events to build community, recoup finances
By the numbers
As of May 27
Number of COVID-19 cases: 41
Number tested: 2,857
Number in western county: 12
Number in eastern county: 29
Number of active cases: zero
Number of recoveries: 40
Number of deaths: 1
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For many music lovers, heading to one or more of the many music festivals set at the Nevada County Fairgrounds is a tradition that kicks off their summer. Dedicated visitors come back year after year from across the state and beyond for the Strawberry Music Festival, which kicks off the season on Memorial Day weekend, then look forward to the Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival and Music in the Mountains’ SummerFest in June, WorldFest in July, and Celtic Festival in September.
So the postponement of all such gatherings until next year has hit the music community hard.
“The fests are our biggest source of entertainment, they go on the calendar first,” said Sue Haislet, adding, “I feel awful for bands and vendors.”
Haislet has amassed memories galore over the years, it’s clear.
“Each event is a bit different, but we always enjoy ourselves,” she said in an email. “Sun, music, (beer), food and happy people are a recipe for fun. The little kids running around joyfully, especially at the Celtic Fest, make me smile. … Dancing to bands like Achilles Wheel, discovering new musicians, sitting under the trees and watching the stars at night — what is not to love?”
Judith Hill-Weld met her husband at Music in the Mountains when he was on the board and she was on staff — and she considers the entire organization part of her extended family.
“The part that’s the hardest is that we’re so aware of the impact on the musicians,” she said of the concert cancellations. “This is a big part of their annual income … It’s heartbreaking to think of them having to cope without that.”
Hill-Weld said she is also dedicated to WorldFest, and has gone every year for three full days since her son was a toddler.
“It’s important to us musically and socially,” she said. “It’s been a great place to have family time together, with other families we see there every year.”
Festival organizers also cite that community feel as the biggest loss.
“It’s kind of our annual gathering,” said KVMR’s Peter Wilson of the Celtic Festival. “I think of it as the gathering of the tribes. I think we’re all going to miss that.”
KVMR General Manager Ali Lightfoot agreed, calling the postponement of the “beloved community event” a big blow.
“We’ve been doing it for 25 years,” Lightfoot said. “It’s a part of our yearly ritual.”
The monetary impact to the county of losing these festivals is almost incalculable.
To date, more than 70 events have been canceled or postponed at the Nevada County Fairgrounds, including the Strawberry Music Festival, Father’s Day California Bluegrass Festival, California WorldFest, and Celtic Fest, said fairgrounds Deputy Manager Wendy Oaks.
Oaks said the cancellations have amounted to almost $400,000 in lost revenue overall, with approximately $175,000 of that due to music festival postponements.
“Beyond the negative impacts to the fairgrounds, there is a direct financial loss to the community, including a financial loss to restaurants, lodging, RV Parks, supplies and services,” Oaks said in an email. “Based on the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s economic impact study, events at the Nevada County Fairgrounds, including music festivals, created a total annual spending impact of approximately $28 million on the local economy.”
“Certainly there is a trickle-down effect,” said John Taber, who is contracted to produce both the Celtic Festival and WorldFest. “The fairgrounds loses the rental income, all the various contractors for sound and light, the sanitary people, all the vendors that come out — their whole seasons are gone, because they go from event to event to sell food and merchandise. …This is really unfortunate that it’s impacting so many people, including the artists who perform — just everybody. It really is a large snowball effect.”
KVMR’s Celtic Festival is a major fundraiser for the nonprofit community radio station. The three-day festival hopes to return next September, Taber said.
“We feel pretty confident that should be able to happen,” he said, adding, “A lot of people have held their tickets rather than request refunds.”
Both Wilson and Taber acknowledged the loss of the festival is a huge economic hit.
KVMR does three membership drives every year, and the festival revenue equals or exceeds any one of those, Taber said.
“Outside of the revenue from listener supporters and underwriters, this is a pretty big piece of the pie,” he said.
Lightfoot estimated the Celtic Festival alone brings in about $50,000 to $80,000. But KVMR is also losing revenue due to other festivals canceling this year, because it typically has a booth at every live event in a 100-mile radius and planned to sell raffle tickets at those events, she said.
Losing the Celtic Fest and its annual birthday bash, as well as the raffle sales, means KVMR is about $200,000 short of its budget projections, Lightfoot said.
The Center for the Arts also will take a serious economic hit. The Center’s disaster economic injury has estimated a projected a loss of $342,500 from the cancellation of WorldFest.
Finding the ‘silver lining’
This would have been the 45th year of the Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival, with headliners including Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands, and the Tim O’Brien Band. Having to postpone the three-day festival, along with a music camp and youth academy, was a “tough decision” for the California Bluegrass Association, said board chairman Geoff Sargent.
“I think every festival, every organization that does something like this, was waiting until the absolute last minute to make that decision,” he said. “But it would take only a few people shedding the virus and be asymptomatic, and you can be a headline.”
The festival is the biggest fundraiser of the year for the nonprofit, Sargent said.
“This is the event that pays most of the bills, that lets us put on educational programs,” he said. “That’s the bad news, that’s what we have to mitigate as best as possible. … For nonprofits, it’s really, really hard. We’re fortunate in that virtually everything we do is volunteer driven. It helps to have a very frugal bottom line.”
Many music festivals are going “virtual” in different ways. Strawberry, for example, created special online content to run during what would have been the spring festival. WorldFest has been posting on Facebook and Instagram to highlight past performances, connect its audience with artists and showcase vendors.
Music in the Mountains, which had a series of shows scheduled for June, has taken SummerFest virtual, with live concerts, curated recordings, and interactive educational programs.
Some of the volunteers for the bluegrass association have created a livestream performance webcast series, Turn Your Radio Online, at http://www.turnyourradio.online. The first show is Saturday and will feature The Kody Norris Show, The Gillygirls, and Plaid Strangers.
“This will be a series of weekend shows that will lead up to a bigger event happening about the time of the festival,” Sargent said. “We’ll be able to serve the bluegrass community (this) way, both getting the entertainment and helping to pay some of the musicians. If there is any silver lining, that’s what we have.”
Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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