How do music festivals adapt to a pandemic? They Fest in Place, of course
Might beat car camping at Bonnaroo —
WWOZ—one of the best US community radio stations—charts a temp path for festivals.
Like so many current realities, no one could’ve seen “musicians as the new Twitch stars” coming back in January. Yet in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the music industry relied heavily on livestreams—typically just one artist in a room with webcam doing an acoustic performance.
In our ever-connected present day, it was the adjustment of least resistance. At first, there was some novelty to seeing artists like Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard interacting with fans in the chat and taking an occasional request. But this summer, longtime New York Times music critic Jon Pareles succinctly summed up the audience experience for this impromptu livestream era: “So many good intentions, so little joy.”
When the bedrock of the music industry—concerts and music festivals—becomes impossible, though, what can anyone do? Drive-in shows have recently become a thing, but those can’t replicate the sheer scale (number of artists, stages, or fans) of even the smallest US music festivals. Most events simply embraced the livestream, like the annual counter-SXSW programming of Willie Nelson’s annual Luck Reunion festival transforming into a coordinated set of at-home performances.
Like it has throughout history, however, the music community in New Orleans had a different idea that would eventually spread all over. This time, it dealt with adapting the city’s beloved Jazz Fest for 2020.
Leverage the archives
Festing in Place—and the idea of an archival, online music festival—was born out of some combo of necessity and preparedness. SXSW became the first major US music festival to cancel due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March; Jazz Fest typically takes place each April into May. So while SXSW seemed to hold out hope of an in-person experience until it became too late to pivot, community radio station WWOZ had already been updating its daily operations for the possible arrival of this novel coronavirus when the news broke in Austin. Even more pertinent, WWOZ Director of Content Dave Ankers had already been considering the possibility that Jazz Fest would be following in SXSW footsteps. And since WWOZ would typically broadcast full days from the fairgrounds, the station was going to have to do something.
Unknowingly, Ankers had been preparing for this. Two years earlier, he spent quality time with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation Archive’s collections as part of a team that produced a five-disc set for Jazz Fest compilation with Smithsonian Folkways. So Ankers knew the kind of unique sets and the wide array of recordings available down the street at the physical archive, and he started to envision putting together a schedule filled with Jazz Fest greatest hits.
I had spent a lot of time at the Archive, pulling stuff out and figuring out what was in the collection. I was in a unique position to say, “I want this, this, and this for a broadcast,” and I knew what would require extra work to get the rights… So I thought, “I’m going to have this idea in my back pocket, I’m going to start scheduling it out.” I even remember bridging the conversation at the station: “I don’t know what’s going to happen and I don’t want to alarm anyone, but if Jazz Fest doesn’t happen, we can do a thing—I’m the station liaison to the Jazz & Heritage Foundation, and we can put together a special broadcast.”
The concept was simple: if a genuine Jazz Fest couldn’t happen, Ankers wanted to broadcast a multi-day event built entirely out of notable archival performances from the festival. This theoretical event would be structured in a way to mimic the experience of being at Jazz Fest. It would span genres from Zydeco and Jazz to Gospel and Pop. It’d maintain Jazz Fest traditions like midday Second Line parades or local legends like the Neville Brothers or Trombone Shorty occupying weekend closing spots. It’d highlight some of the biggest names to ever play the festival—Ella Fitzgerald at one of the first events, Bruce Springsteen at the first fest post-Katrina. And, crucially, this would be an event: performances would be scheduled for a specific day and a specific time slot, giving listeners something to look forward to and giving the whole thing a slight bit of ephemera to make it feel special (versus any kind of live performance you could queue up on Spotify or revisit on Facebook Live whenever).
Soon, WWOZ formally partnered up with their neighbors at the Jazz & Heritage Foundation Archive (Archivist Rachel Lyons became an event co-producer). The plan moved forward, as Ankers recalls:
I said, “We’re going to recreate the festival in a manner of speaking. It’s going to feel like you’re there for the same hours every day.” But Beth [Arroyo Utterback, WWOZ’s general manager] came up with the name—it’s a term her parents used. They didn’t go every year as they got older, but they’d listen on WWOZ. “We’re not going, we’re festin’ in place!” And it kinda took.
Listeners interest turned out to be significant. Ankers says typically WWOZ’s busiest day happens on Mardi Gras, when streaming numbers tend to be four times larger than daily averages. But within minutes of the 11am start on day one of Festing in Place back in late April, things had already surpassed Mardi Gras levels.
“In 10 minutes, we were at four times our Mardi Gras listenership—and that meant we reached capacity with our streaming service. We all started looking at each other, ‘We’ve created a monster,'” Ankers says. “With the FM feed, of course, no one in New Orleans had any trouble. But our streaming service had trouble right during the highlight of the day—a performance by Ella Fitzgerald and Stevie Wonder. So people outside of New Orleans didn’t hear that at first.” (Don’t fret: Ankers graciously replayed that historic set to close day one after the initial technical difficulties.)
Like many community radio stations nationwide, WWOZ relies on a content delivery network (CDN) company called StreamGuys to power online listening. After WWOZ staff got them on the phone in a panic, StreamGuys came through—the radio station quickly had its capacity upped to handle 50,000 concurrent streamers, which proved to be enough to sustain the Festing in Place swells. “By the end of Festing in Place, we had an audience that was 32 times our daily audience on the stream,” Ankers says. “We felt like we had taken over the city.”