One of the most significant genres of American music, the blues has woven its way throughout culture since the early 20th century. Its roots run deep with icons like Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, James Brown and the Rolling Stones drawing inspiration from the blues. In fact, the Rolling Stones formed after Keith Richards recognized his childhood friend Mick Jagger walking through a London train station carrying a Muddy Waters album. Even hip-hop draws ties to the blues, with complex storytelling and human struggle at the heart of both.
The blues’ origins trace back to the plight of slaves working on plantations in the South. For them, the music provided a form of spiritual refuge by means of transforming their unspeakable hardship into art. The genre gained momentum in the early 20th century, with blues pioneers such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainy’s recordings being widely released. Ever since, the blues’ themes of soulful rhythms and poignant lyrics have resonated throughout the evolution of American music.
Bridging the Blues: Keeping the Blues Alive and Thriving
Steeped in history, yet fading as a popular genre, the blues is being revitalized where it all began. Bridging the Blues is an initiative developed to encourage tourism to the home of the blues across Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi. The King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas and the Mighty Mississippi Music Festival in Greenville, Mississippi are the anchoring events of the pilgrimage, taking place annually from late September to October. Various other local organizations, including other festivals, juke joints and museums, participate in engaging visitors in the rich history, music and food of the region. “When people suffer, they create art and that’s sort of the beautiful flower that comes out of all this suffering. So, that’s where the blues began and it remains an important part of Southern culture,” says Wesley Smith, Executive Director of the Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau in Greenville and one of the ‘Founding Fathers’ of Bridging the Blues.
With a breadth of experience in tourism and blues-focused organizations, Smith formed a partnership with fellow blues-lovers Steve Azar and Jason Fratesi to jumpstart the initiative. “I went to King Biscuit and proposed we form a kind of loose partnership; you raise your money and do your own lineup, but we’ll say we are working together. From there, I’ll bring other organizations on board and raise another pot of money to promote all of this collectively,” says Smith. It was a partnership based on aligned goals and objectives for local organizations who sought to promote the culture of the region and attract a larger audience.
The idea relied on the larger festivals in the area, seemingly direct competitors, to collaborate for the greater good. “The big festivals act as anchors with lineups big enough to draw in the large audiences. But if we are trying to get people to stay for ten days in the region, we needed another way to keep people interested.” So, Smith began recruiting other local organizations who could add value to the immersive blues experience. “It’s created in such a way that you can plan your trip around the events and attractions. If you spend the night in Clarksdale, Mississippi and have five days to kill until the next festival, you can get the Bridging the Blues schedule and say, ‘All right, there’s a band in Vicksburg playing tonight and we have all day to get there, what else is going on along the way?’” Voila, everybody’s happy. Tourists have a pre-planned list of activities and events to make the most of their vacation, and local organizations involved benefit from the influx of foot traffic.
On the festival side of things, Jamie Murrell, Festival Director at Mighty Mississippi Music Festival, says joining Bridging the Blues was a “no brainer.” The support system bred from the initiative has been a welcomed delight. “[Smith] is always bringing new ideas of ways to make our festival better and to blend it not only with Bridging the Blues, but with how we can help the other local events and make them all successful,” says Murrell.
Friendly Competition Based on Shared Audiences
One of the main drivers in launching Bridging the Blues tapped into the consistent international audience the blues scene in the South has attracted for years. “Bridging the Blues is designed to pull in people from out of state and out of the country who are interested in staying an extended period of time. Internationals, mainly Europeans, will come for two weeks. So the idea was let’s pair these two big festivals together as bookends, on opposite weekends, and then we’ll get all the other towns and communities in the area to hold more live music, arts events and displays at museums,” says Smith. “By targeting bigger festivals’ already established fan bases, people may be encouraged to stick around and attend the other events. So, suddenly we have mutual fans for the whole event.”
With a captive audience eager to get the most of their visit, festivals, among other organizations, are able to leverage off of each other’s customer bases.“International tourists will call and say they’ll be in the delta for about three weeks, ‘What can we do?’ And I simply send them to the Bridging the Blues website,” says Murrell. “It’s really helping not only us, but our entire region, because with our smaller population, we’re always looking to attract more visitors.” This strategy of capturing audiences with a known interest in the area and the culture helps create a bigger impact, encouraging tourism and subsequently economic betterment in the region.
The all-in-one blues-centric tour of the South even sparked interest among national tour organizations. “Another piece of this is if we package it all together, it becomes possible for tour operators to sell it. We’ve done all the ground work of putting it together. All they have to do is book group rates at hotels and decide what route they are going to take. By the third year of Bridging the Blues, it was named one of the top 100 events to watch by the American Bus Association,” says Smith.
Enhancing Efficiency Through Cross-Promotion
In addition to banking off shared audiences, the cross-promotional aspect of Bridging the Blues helps organizations save on marketing spending. “Marketing-wise, it’s been a great benefit for us. Our name is out there more than if we were just doing this alone. I don’t think we would have the impact with the blues community without Bridging the Blues,” says Murrell. Many of the promotion tactics involve cross-promotion through digital channels, like social media and website traffic. However, radio is not dead and also plays an important part in Bridging the Blues’ promotional strategy.
Beale Street Caravan, a nonprofit radio show aimed at preserving blues culture and history, plays today’s blues-influenced music. “They travel to festivals and record bands and musicians, be it already-established blues artists or the up-and-comers,” says Smith. “They have a new show every week. It goes out on satellite and it’s played on hundreds of radio stations around the world for about 10 million listeners a week. They became our partner very early on, because we give them content and in return get free international promotion. If you have an interest in that show, you probably have an interest in the culture and the music and you’re more likely to travel here to see it.”
(Pssst, check out one of the Beale Street Caravan shows from Mighty Mississippi Music Festival here.)
Growth & What Lies Ahead
Another piece of the puzzle in conceiving Bridging the Blues was setting the expectation of sustainable growth. “To me, there are two ways you can build a festival. You can either have the biggest mountain of money and put it in such a populous region that you can’t fail. Or, like most festivals in the country, you have to be strategic about how you do it and know that you are going to have to build it over time. And that’s how we’ve positioned Bridging the Blues,” says Smith.
Strapped for funding, organic growth through word-of-mouth marketing is paramount to the organization. “If we can get you to come down here one time and you have a blast, you’re going to come the next year and bring friends and it’s going to become an annual thing.” And slow and steady wins the race. Starting with just three festivals and 37 events in 2011, Bridging the Blues now consists of 17 festivals and over 200 events.
Though growth is steady, challenges are inevitable when running an initiative without a full-time staff. “It’s always a challenge to raise money. Even if you’re super successful, you want to raise more money and the more money we raise, the bigger we can make the events. We always want growth so we can go back to our sponsors and say, “Hey the audience is growing. It will be worth your time, effort and dollars to get more exposure.” Ironically, struggle lies at the root of their cause. And if the blues has taught us anything, it’s to take that struggle and turn it into something meaningful.