The Little Blues Festival that Could

It’s the little festival that could. And it has for 17 years.  

The Cincy Blues Fest is perhaps the most unique of the area’s music festivals in that it is the largest event of its kind run totally by volunteers—with little corporate backing—produced by the nonprofit Cincy Blues Society.

Its history is a story of what a 450-person volunteer effort can pull off when there is an event supporters believe in—in this case spreading and preserving a love for the blues, America’s indigenous music form.

This year’s Blues Fest is Friday, Aug. 7 and Saturday, Aug. 8 at Sawyer Point Park with three stages and over 30 performers.

Expecting to draw close to 20,000 fans over the two days-- with a budget that can top $300,000-- its amazing that the event always feels professionally run, even though not one Blues Society member or volunteer gets a dime in stipend or salary. The only people who make money are the artists, food vendors and security. Any profits are used by the Blues Society as seed money for next year’s festival and to help fund its Blues in the Schools program, which sends local artist to schools for blues lectures and performances.

“It is an incredible volunteer effort. We sell the tickets, pour the beer, sell the t-shirts, do the gates. We run the stages, we book the bands, we hang the lights and the signage. We do the clean up,”
says Joy Dziech, Cincy Blues Fest director, who herself started as a volunteer several years ago pouring beer at the event.

Why do people sign up for four days of what can be hard, sweaty work in the dead of a Cincinnati summer? Reasons vary.

“Of course, most are blues fans who have a chance to get close to the artists,” says Dziech. “They can get in free, get a t-shirt and some free beer. I just always tell them, ‘Don’t drink the profits.”
But others are not necessarily blues fans. They come from the city’s incredible volunteer army. In fact, the tri-state has an impressive “professional volunteer” culture-- people who turn out because they like to feel a part of the fabric of the community and enjoy the spirit of being part of a major event. Such events as Midpoint Music Festival, Flying Pig Marathon, Appalachian Festival and the Fringe Festival are staffed primarily by volunteers that organizers rely on. Or, these events simply wouldn’t happen.
“It’s about helping the community and giving something back. And I love the blues,” says Bruce Downs, who has volunteered for several years. “Sure you get in free. But $15 for a ticket is still a great bargain. If this was put on by some for-profit promoter, I’m sure they’d be charging $40 or so.”  
And these volunteers reciprocate. Dziech says, “Many Blues Society volunteers work events like Fringe Festival, and the Fringe folks have been known to turn out for the Blues Fest. There is a strong volunteer spirit throughout the arts community in this town.”

“Cincinnati is still a good town for its altruistic community service mentality,” says Jeff Craven, an emergency room doctor at Deaconess Hospital and one of the original Blues Society members in the early 90’s. For a dozen years he ran the festival before handing it over to “younger blood.”

“I’m pleased the festival has remained true to its original communal sprit,” Craven says.
The Blues Society was formed by a small core of blues lovers with the purpose of throwing a festival. Why not put on your own show instead of hitting the road every year to Chicago and other cities with festivals.

“We wanted to proselytize the art form and introduce it to people who didn’t understand it, enticing them with a free festival,” says Craven. “It grew out of a populist sentiment.”

The first festival was held at Music Hall Ballroom in 1992 headlined by James Cotton. Organizers realized it needed to be an outdoor event and The Cincinnati Rec Commission offered the central Riverfront. Funding has always been precarious. At first the city and arts councils helped out with grants. That money soon dried up in budget crunches. As a free event the Society relied almost solely on people drinking beer to pay for it. It never had a corporate sugar daddy. Many sponsors over the years do step up with in-kind donations, including, this year, Budweiser, Little Kings, Christian Moerlein, Kroger and Time Warner.

It became impossible to keep it a free event given increasing city security costs, weather insurance and always escalating artist fees. Organizers now charge $10, Friday; $15 Saturday.

But organizers admit this festival will never have the money to bring in the blues superstars, like a B.B. King or Buddy Guy, unless a major sponsor is found.

“We are still hoping for an angel,” Craven says. “Someone with money who can see this is a great little festival and say, ‘I’m going to pay for your headliner this year.’ Then we could get a Buddy or B.B.”

The search for that angel goes on, but again, without a full-time fundraiser or executive director- it’s hard for an all-volunteer group to have the know-how and contacts to get into some of the corporate promotional coffers.
There are, of course, a plethora of summer blues festivals around the country. Local organizers say they compete. They have gotten on the map as a well-run event, if not the largest around. Bookers take their calls in February and know they will be good for the money.

Artists like to play here. That may be because they are treated like superstars. After all, people who simply do it for the love of the music bend over backwards to make sure the artists’ creature comforts are taken care of. Volunteers even churn out home-cooked dishes in the hospitality tent for the talent—no bland deli trays at this backstage.

As Dziech puts it: “We have a national reputation for taking good care of the artists. They know they aren’t going to get stale bagels and warm bottled water. We know artists have recommended playing here to others.”

More on Cincy Blues Fest here.

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