The Savannah Music Festival: watching the audience

I’m going to be making a number of posts over the next couple of weeks about the Savannah Music Festival, which begins today. I’ve got tickets for tonight’s performance of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings — I’ll be disappointed if that show is anything short of amazing.

I’ve been a big cheerleader for the Savannah Music Festival ever since Rob Gibson came to town with his sights set high. He transformed the nice but relatively minor festival Savannah Onstage into something truly special. Obviously, he had partners in that effort, including board members and other supporters. I’ve written about the SMF innumerable times, and as time has passed, I’ve even moved away from relying on press access to get into shows. This year I bought a total of 16 seats — all really good ones — to seven different shows. The SMF is a cause I want to support, and I’m sharing my extra tickets with a variety of friends.

I’m just doing what I would hope lots of financially stable music lovers in Savannah would do: enriching my own life and at the same time supporting a great festival that has become one of the city’s signature events.

I know not everyone can afford SMF tickets, but I know any number of people who rarely if ever attend SMF events who will routinely spend $50/person or even more for a night of eating and drinking. Savannah is notorious for apathy generally, and notorious for not supporting things in our backyard. It’s like that old joke: I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as a member. If it’s happening in Savannah, then it surely can’t be all that good. And I think there are other demographic factors that have kept some from supporting the festival. The SMF has been embraced by certain sectors of the local population, but others have been MIA at the festival.

In a column in early April 2008, just after the close of the SMF, I mentioned some of the groups that seemed underrepresented at the shows:

I can’t be everywhere all the time, but I didn’t see many other local government leaders besides [Mayor] Johnson at this year’s festival.

And that’s OK. Although it would be nice if more local leaders were witnessing the festival’s growth and quality firsthand.

Of course, there are other groups that one could reasonably expect to be more visible supporters of the SMF’s shows.

Before I offend anyone, I want to emphasize that I am not in a position to criticize any individual’s cultural and financial choices.

Still, given Savannah’s diversity, there are segments of the population one would expect to be more prominent during the 17 days of eclectic programming, including SCAD students and professors, young professionals, teenagers who are interested in the arts, visual artists and designers, African-Americans and members of the local gay and lesbian community.

It’s certainly my impression that the 2009 and 2010 festivals attracted slightly more diverse audiences. The SMF has made some inroads among gay Savannahians — a wealthier than average group that one might have expected to get on board eventually. (I’m expecting a big gay turnout for Sharon Jones, btw.) But for the most part I think my observations from 2008 are still pretty valid. The SMF has broadened its program to include more “new” music, like with the additions this year of the Avett Brothers, Citizen Cope, and Band of Horses. But it remains to be seen if fans of those acts will take the chance and buy tickets to something unexpected and eclectic. In the SMF’s recent history, it seems like the older audience members are the ones who are far more likely to take risks on unfamiliar artists and genres than younger attendees are.

While not surprising in a city where cultural events still seem largely segregated, the dearth of black audience members is troublesome — all the more so given the number and caliber of black performers who turn up at the SMF each year.

I’ll be very curious to see the crowds this year.