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Interviews & Reviews - Event Review - 2012 Festival Cubano
Event Review - 3rd Annual Festival Cubano
Riis Park, Chicago Illinois 4-5 August 2012
Photos and Review by Bill Tilford, All Rights Reserved
All new festivals have learning curves, and Chicago's privately-operated Festival Cubano has been learning well. We don't know the final attendance numbers, and even the organizers probably don't know the financial results yet, but artistically, this third time out for the festival was very successful. We are a music website, but fairs and festivals of this type have been faced with challenges all over the United States, so we think that it may be useful to talk just a little about Chicago's situation and share any lessons that might be applicable to other cities.
(BUT, IF YOU'RE JUST HERE FOR THE BANDS, AND THAT'S ALL, YOU CAN GO STRAIGHT TO THE PHOTO GALLERY BY CLICKING HERE...)
Chicago is one of many cities in which the local government has dramatically reduced its support for even its established cultural events due to budgetary problems. Some festivals such as Viva Chicago have been eliminated completely, and others such as Fiestas Puertorriqueñas have seen significant reductions in size and length. Events like Festival Cubano that are private initiatives have needed to raise their own operating funds, and the corporate underwriting environment has also changed. In past decades, alcohol (especially beer) and tobacco companies were huge supporters of numerous neighborhood and ethnic festivals, but it is now considered politically unacceptable in cities like Chicago for these companies to be seen as underwriting these types of events. Getting direct financial support from other types of corporations is also more challenging today than it was years ago because of increased competition for funds from solicitors for numerous other causes (cancer research for example) and government guidelines that in some cases have actually complicated the process for obtaining corporate funds (try asking your neighborhood bank to help underwrite your neighborhood festival, and you'll learn what we mean very quickly). Consequently, most newer festivals and many older, smaller ones have no alternative now but to charge admission, a practice which meets with some resistance from a portion of the public that has been conditioned to expect "free" events from the City in the past and doesn't understand today's realities. Earlier this year, we therefore publicly endorsed Festival Cubano's implementation of a formal admission fee. The amounts were reasonable (and less than what many other ethnic festivals in Chicago charge), and there were exceptions for children and seniors. The one word of advice that we have for the Festival about pricing in future years, and we are saying it here publicly because events in other cities are wrestling with the same issue, is that we think it might help generate more advance sales next year if the promotional materials were a little more explicit about what the term "Pre Sale" actually means for ticket buyers. ( $X dollars Pre Sale, $Y dollars at the gate.) We aren't sure whether the fact that there was a discount for advance purchases clearly registered with some people this year. This is an important point because even regular concerts are facing the same question of whether and how to implement advance purchase discounts. We support the concept, but these are most effective when marketed clearly and aggressively. (Events in other cities, take note.)
Another challenge for Chicago specifically is that its Cuban community is relatively small compared to Miami's or New York's, and therefore, in order for a large outdoor Cuban festival to attract thousands of people AND succeed financially, it needs to invite everyone else to come join the fun. Festival Cubano's organizers clearly understood this and did an excellent job this year of reaching out to the larger community with press conferences, media appearances in several radio and television outlets and press items in independent papers like the Chicago Reader. We wish that more events in more cities would invest this amount of time and resources doing this kind of public relations and marketing to both the Latino community at large and the rest of the general public, and we will be writing more about that very topic in other places in the future. Unfortunately for Festival Cubano, the terrible weather on the first day and competition for the youth audience from other local events like Lollapalooza may have limited some of the attendance gains that it would have otherwise enjoyed then, but there will be dividends for that effort in 2013 as well. Saturday's storm delayed the Festival for a few hours and termporarily drove most of the crowd from the park during the afternoon, but many came back that evening to hear the bands that came on later, and Sunday's weather was perfect. As best as we could tell from near the stage, Sunday evening's attendance was probably very good.
Festival Cubano's organizers also did an excellent job with the entertainment lineup this year. It brought the needed balance between traditional music (which is needed for festivals of this type) to today's Timba as well as balancing rising local talent with traveling stars. All of those ingredients are important. Whenever there is this much variety in one event, there will be a few complaints from both the traditional and modern ends of the audience, but this diversity really is what is needed to make an event of this scope successful. If the Festival ever grows to a point where two stages become practical (we doubt that it's there yet but could be in a few years), it will become easier to run traditional and modern programming simultaneously. One specific point that we want to address is the question of non-Cuban performers since we heard some comments about this from a few festival attendees. Although we understand the point of view of those who had an issue with this, in our opinion, the Festival made some good judgment calls here, and it is important to explain why. First of all, this was a limited thing; most of the entertainment roster remained Cuban. Second, acts like Tito Puente Jr. and Jose Alberto do expand the audience base and help draw new listeners to the artists who are Cuban; last but not least, these "other" artists had a legitimate connection to Cuban music. For example, Jose Alberto, while not Cuban himself, has a resume that includes work with Tipica 73, one of New York's most important bands in the 1970s. Tito Puente Jr. acknowledged from the stage that the music that he and his father played was Cuban music, and Tito Jr. also brought Jose Fajardo Jr. into his show. As long as the Festival observes these nuances (most of the roster remains genuinely Cuban, and the non-Cuban performers have a genuine connection with Cuban music), our advice to festivalgoers is to try to be understanding about this. If it ever becomes clear that the original mission has been lost, we will be among the first to point that out, but so far, we don't see that happening.
As the Festival grows and becomes better known beyond Chicago, it will begin to attract an increasing number of visitors from other cities. It would be worth adding some information about public transportation, the parking situation, perhaps even a link to a good guide about area lodging to the festival's website next year.
What are the lessons for other cities then?
A. If you are going to do a multi-day (or even a multi-band) event, diversify your lineup musically, but keep within the general concept of what you are trying to do.
B. Reach out well beyond your original core audience, and use every reasonable means at your disposal to do it. Publicity makes things happen. Yes, you need a Facebook page and a website, but that's just the beginning Radio, TV and press are key to success.
C. If you haven't already done this in your city, reasonable admission fees are a viable option for outdoor festivals; so are advance purchase discounts if clearly explained. There will be some pushback from some people at first, but today's budgetary environment is what it is, and for better or worse, it's here to stay.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, Festival Cubano appears well on its way to becoming an established cultural fixture in the Midwest. We look forward to the fourth outing in a year.
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