Finding the Silver Lining
by Trey Copeland and Amy Grossmann.
The damage inflicted by the COVID-19 Pandemic on the North Carolina Folk Festival (NCFF) was swift and immediate, forcing our young nonprofit organization (established in 2017) to cancel our inaugural “Folk in the Park” event: a one-day spring concert event scheduled for the first weekend of March Madness (the Greensboro Coliseum was slated to host the 2020 regional first/second-round games). Disappointing as it was to cancel “Folk in the Park,” our signature 3-day, free-admission, festival celebration of cultural roots and heritage held every September was still six months away. Surely, we concluded, plenty of time to brainstorm and prepare.
So our team, having increased its full- time staff from 1 to 4 on February 1 of this year, remained cautiously optimistic as we sheltered-in-place with the rest of the country. A recipient of the PPP, we spent the following months learning vicariously from other festivals, attending IFEA webinars, conducting 1:1 meetings with various IFEA members around the country, and exploring partnerships, new and old.
One such partnership emerged with the Carolina Blues Festival – a 34-year-old event that has been presented each Spring in our community by the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society. As they considered their options for postponing their May festival to the Fall, our teams jumped at an opportunity to present our events as a joint venture on our original dates in September. What made this concept to join forces even remotely possible was a mutual respect for each event’s mission and artistic aesthetic, and a commitment to transparent communication about our respective goals and objectives that would inform and empower the shape of our joint festival planning in the months to come.
Come June, we had vetted a myriad of scenarios: from all-virtual to a drive-in concept, to a modified version of the original. In the end, none of the in-person events were deemed viable options, no matter how modified or creative. Prior to the pandemic, adhering to the guidelines recommended by the Event Safety Alliance (ESA) was tantamount to our goals for an in-person festival. As such, ensuring the well-being of any artist, crew member, volunteer or guest associated with our event was a priority we feared impossible to uphold during the pandemic.
Look no farther than our culture of being a free-admission, non-ticketed event with no gates or fences around the site to understand the monumental challenge involved with producing just a small, modified event, from both operations and budgetary perspectives. Adding to our uncertainty was the projected rise of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in North Carolina over the summer months. Even if we developed an operational plan to meet both ESA and CDC guidelines and produce an event on a budget, in the end, chances were high that we would end up being forced to cancel the in-person event altogether due to stricter ordinances from the state limiting the numbers allowed for mass gatherings of people.
With in-person, live performances off the table, producing some form of a virtual festival, or canceling the event altogether, were our only options left. The idea of canceling the NCFF was a reality none of us were willing to entertain at that juncture. Conversely, we were cautiously optimistic about a few virtual ideas discussed and researched over the previous months. Our main concern with all our virtual ideas always came back to our aggregate lack of experience in producing a virtual event.
We committed ourselves to be nimble, flexible, and motivated to see the silver lining of our situation as a means to showcase our community to the world while creating new, valuable content and sponsorship assets. At a crucial crossroads, Amy Grossmann, President & CEO of the North Carolina Folk Festival, and several of our board members suggested we solicit advice from 7 Cinematics: Emmy Award-winning, international video and streaming production company based in Greensboro, NC.
Adam Paul, CEO of 7 Cinematics and a native of Greensboro, was a fan of the festival and had approached Grossmann in 2017 to explore how his company could help the festival and give back to the community. At the time, while growing NCFF’s digital and video platforms were important, Grossmann was a one-woman show managing hundreds of seasonal contractors and volunteers. Until she could find more bandwidth, the compelling ideas discussed over a friendly lunch had to be placed on the back-burner.
Fast-forward three years and one pandemic later, and our need for a partner with applicable virtual production experience was at a premium. To our delight, 7 Cinematics, having just produced a record-setting virtual concert for the Red Hot Chili Peppers in front of Egypt’s Pyramids of Giza, was excited to finally explore working with the NCFF. Out the gate, 7 Cinematic pitched a unique virtual concert concept that was a winner with all of us. A few deep-dive brainstorming sessions later, and the NCFF “Virtual Concert Series” was born.
Absent a national pandemic, the North Carolina Folk Festival is a 3-day, free-ad- mission, outdoor event that presents music, dance, crafts, and other folk arts from across the globe. We typically fill our stages with performances by national and international touring artists and host educational work- shops, crafts demonstrations, and family games and activities. When we committed to the Virtual Concert Series, we rescheduled all previously booked participants to 2021, and quickly honed in on three objectives for our new virtual format in 2020:
1. At the suggestion of 7 Cinematics, and based on their experience producing virtual concert streams, we chose to focus on retaining the aesthetic of a live concert experience each of our three nights that could be viewed in a format around the length of a motion picture. Our goal was to maximize online viewing time by promoting a rich, 2-hour experience in which everyone got a front-row seat.
2. To distinguish the look of our virtual programming, we filmed at locations with historical and cultural significance around our home community of Greensboro, NC. Representatives of each location introduced audiences to profound stories of the people, places, and movements that contribute to our local cultural identity. We truly hope that people will visit these amazing places to learn more when they feel safe to travel again.
3. We embraced the opportunity to focus our virtual program on North Carolina artists. For reasons both practical and socially relevant to the time in which we find ourselves as a nation, we chose to showcase a taste of the diverse tapestry of cultural traditions from our home state – bluegrass and Appalachian old-time tunes, Blues, R&B and Soul, Hip-Hop, Native American, Country, and West African – and invest our dollars in the people (crew included) who make us who we are year-round as North Carolinians.
Having reached all of these objectives, the 2020 North Carolina Folk Festival Virtual Concert Series (VCS) premiered in 3 segments of approximately two hours each over the evenings of Friday, September 11, Saturday, September 12, and Sunday, September 13. It was available on several media outlets including Greensboro Television Network (GTN), YouTube, Nugs. net, and simulcasted via various artist and partner social media (Facebook) pages. 10 performing artists and 9 film locations around Greensboro appeared in the VCS.
Overall, the VCS was a success on all fronts. Some highlights were:
1. The budget for the event was cash flow positive while enabling us to gainfully employ performers and supporting crew; direct support an industry hit hard by the pandemic and critical to our future success.
2. Reach, frequency and engagement exceeded industry averages with over 80,000 viewers (and counting).
3. Sponsors of all levels welcomed the opportunity to support the NCFF while receiving valuable, stand-alone, measurable marketing assets. A prime example of this was with the Greensboro Convention and Visitors Bureau, who had a direct influence on the choice of performance locations.
4. Utilizing a new fundraising technology called Kindful, we shattered previous figures for individual giving by 90%, raising over $41,000 from over 340 individual supporters.
A month after the VCS and we are still learning from and assessing the positives gained from the experience, both short and long term. Specific to 2020, we accomplished our goal of staying relevant to our constituency: the City of Greensboro and state of North Carolina; our corporate sponsors and foundation supporters; regional performing artists; the hundreds of thousands of fans who attend the event each year. In addition, our social media audience increased by 15% and our YouTube channel now has evergreen content to promote for years to come. The VCS experience has also provided valuable insight into realizing our goal of producing year-round, meaningful content and events, as we find ourselves poised to implement several new ideas and concepts come spring 2021.
Overall, the VCS has placed the NCFF in a better position to emerge stronger post-COVID19. There is no perfect substitute for live, in-person music and we hope for its return as soon as possible. That prefaced, we recognize life may not be back to normal in 2021 and if the past six months have taught us anything, the willingness and ability to adapt and change is tantamount to both our future survival and success.