September is festival month for downtown Raleigh, and the biggest one of all is about to start.
World of Bluegrass kicks off Tuesday with the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual convention, culminating with this weekend’s Wide Open Bluegrass free street festival.
This will be the fifth consecutive year IBMA’s bluegrass festival has been staged in Raleigh – after its move from Nashville – with one more year to go in the contract with the city.
Since 2013, it has grown into a huge public event that has been as good for the city as it has been for the organization, and leaders say keeping it in Raleigh is a priority. Based on the success of the IBMA events, they’re also exploring how to lure more music festivals to Raleigh.
“In terms of sheer numbers, size and volume, Wide Open Bluegrass is our largest event of the entire year, every year,” said Loren Gold, executive vice president of the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Nothing else we do approaches that level or magnitude.”
In 2016, World of Bluegrass events drew more than 208,000 people and generated $11.5 million in direct visitor spending, according to figures from the bureau.
Weather permitting, similar crowds are expected this year, with banjo-playing comedian Steve Martin, acclaimed singer/actress/keynote speaker Rhiannon Giddens and banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck among the marquee acts on the 2017 schedule.
Raleigh calls each fall’s festival slate of more than a dozen festival its “M.A.I.N. Events” (for “Music, Art, Innovation and NOISE”). Between Hopscotch Music Festival, SPARKcon, African American Cultural Festival and Ray Price Capital City Bikefest, projected total attendance for all of them is 650,000.
But the bluegrass festival remains the centerpiece. IBMA’s contract with Raleigh runs for six years, with 2018 the last year in the agreement. After this year’s event ends, leaders will look to extending that agreement to 2019 and beyond.
“We are still working on it,” said Paul J. Schiminger, IBMA executive director, of renewal talks. “It remains a work in progress, but we’re hoping we can pull things together later in the fall. Raleigh’s been a great partner for sure, and we would love to see a longer-term commitment.”
Attracting more music
If the city of Raleigh has its way, at least two more music festivals will eventually join IBMA here. Gold, with the visitors bureau, said the city has had exploratory discussions with management of two other festivals.
One is AmericanaFest, the Americana Music Association’s annual festival, which currently happens in Nashville each September centered around a splashy awards show at the historic Ryman Auditorium. The other is the Folk Alliance International Conference, currently scheduled for each February in Kansas City.
While nothing has been set, representatives of both festivals say they are open to relocating at some future date. They’re both also listening to Raleigh’s overtures.
Folk Alliance is already committed to Kansas City for 2018, followed by a one-year run in Montreal in 2019. Beyond that, the organization put out a proffer for a new city for 2020 that drew more than 20 proposals. That’s been narrowed down to a top three.
“I am not at liberty to disclose which ones,” said Erika Cecilia Noguera, communications manager for Folk Alliance. “I can’t say whether or not we’ll be in Raleigh in 2020. But I can say they’re interested and we keep that door open. If it doesn’t happen for 2020, that doesn’t mean it can’t work for future years.”
As for AMA, it’s committed to Nashville for one more year. Beyond 2018, AMA executive director Jed Hilly describes Raleigh in favorable terms.
“Certainly Raleigh is an enticing proposition for us,” Hilly said. “It’s a community-oriented town that I think would serve us well. What Raleigh has done for IBMA has been nothing short of fantastic. If another community could support us in the same way you guys support World of Bluegrass, that’s a conversation I want to have.”
AmericanaFest would be an impressive addition to Raleigh’s music-festival lineup, and not just for artistic reasons.
“Collectively, the bureau and city and convention center all feel that these music festivals are economic-development drivers,” Gold said. “There are benefits to residents and visitors alike, and companies looking to move like to see vitality in cities. So now, more so than ever, with year five of bluegrass coming up, at the front of everyone’s mind is: What other opportunities are out there?”
By the numbers
Here are attendance numbers and estimated visitor spending from the first four years of the event, according to data from IBMA and the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau. The totals represent five days of the festival and conference.
2013: 140,000; $9.28 million
2014: 180,000; $10.8 million
2015: 98,000; $5.6 million (This year, rain forced organizers to move the entire festival inside the Raleigh Convention Center.)
2016: 208,755; $11.5 million
Coming this week
We’ll have plenty of coverage and details to guide you through the week. Go to nando.com/bluegrass.