Telluride's December Surprise: A Conversation with Brian Eyster of Planet Bluegrass
For four days around the time of the Summer Solstice each year, the Town of Telluride, Colorado, expands by 11,500 people who occupy Town Park each day to enjoy beautiful music from mid-morning to midnight. It's essentially a one-stage music festival based in a municipal park, focused on "Telluride Bluegrass," which does not mean traditional bluegrass or even bluegrass necessarily. As Brian Eyster, Director of Communications for Planet Bluegrass explains, "People who don’t know any better see the name bluegrass in the festival and often expect that it’s a traditional festival. When they see the lineup they think, well they must have warped the festival in the past few years in order to sell tickets. But the tradition of this festival goes back to the very beginning, as New Grass Revival pulled into town for the second festival, doing rock covers and reggae tunes. The tradition of Telluride Bluegrass is that it is its own genre of music. We refer to it as that: "Telluride Bluegrass" instead of bluegrass. Those are two separate things." Rather than traditional bluegrass, there are other consistent musical threads. "The adventuresome aspects of the music. The focus on virtuosity, breadth of influences, breadth of music, that all comes together to define the Telluride Bluegrass sound."
Planet Bluegrass, an organization based in Lyons, Colorado, produces the Telluride Bluegrass Fesitival (as well as RockyGrass and Folks Festival, both of which are in Lyons, rather than Telluride). The month of December was a bit strange for the Planet Bluegrass staff - so strange, in fact, that a December conversation I had scheduled some time ago with Brian was pushed to January. We talked on the phone last week about the December doings and the 2012 version of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, scheduled for June 21-24.
As great as the music at Telluride is, the festival transcends music in many ways. You're in a box canyon at 8700 feet just east of what used to be a small mining town. There is only one paved road in and out, so you have to be going there to get there. The people who attend Telluride Bluegrass are referred to as Festivarians. They're a pleasant, peaceful, partying lot who know their music but really don't get uptight about anything, at least not during those four days. So long as they are headed to Telluride each year.
Which brings us to this past December. December 7, to be exact. Brian explains: " The initial tickets go on sale by an online lottery – those are the tickets for the Town Park Campground [this campground is adjacent to the Festival itself and is Telluride Bluegrass for many Festivarians]. We received twice as many entries as last year, so that gave us the heads up that things were going to be different this year. So we took the tactic that we would be very low-key about reminding people about when the festival tickets went on sale. We didn’t do any advertising. As a way of rewarding regular Festivarians we advised them to put December 7 on their calendar - they generally know we start the holiday sales around then anyway. We didn’t announce a single artist for the lineup."
"At 9:00 when tickets went on sale we had four times as many people on our online ticketing site as we had ever had. Things were crazy. The web server barely kept up with that demand. In two hours, we had sold all of our holiday tickets, which typically go into January. By the end of the day we had sold four times as many tickets as the previous record opening day. So, we started to adjust our plans for what might be a crazy year. But in the back of our minds we kept thinking things will slow down, this is just the initial buzz. We’d sold out last year in mid-April, which was a record at the time. [In 2011, Robert Plant, Mumford & Sons and The Decemberists were headliners and were announced well before tickets sold out.] So, we were kind of hopeful – and I do say hopeful because it’s not really our goal to sell out this early – that things would slow down and that there would still be tickets around come March, April or May timeframe."
Planet Bluegrass sells about 8000 four-day passes to Telluride. Contrary to their hopes, the last of those sold on Christmas morning. Brian says this is "absolutely without precedent, totally shocking." In the past, it was reasonable to expect that you could get holiday-priced tickets into January, but even if those ran out, there would certainly be four-day passes available, no problem. "Typically, if the festival sold out, and there have been plenty of years when it hasn’t sold out or it sold out at the gate, it would be a May-June timeframe. Last year, when it happened in early April, that kind of sent everyone into a tailspin. People in Telluride and many Festivarians were caught off guard." So now, those Festivarians are going to the site in January and finding a "Sold Out" notice instead of a button to click to buy tickets. "It's shocking for a lot of Festivarians who maybe didn’t get the word and are now looking for tickets. This is heartbreaking for us and we’re doing everything we can."
As someone who has attended the festival 5 out of the last 6 years (which, of course, makes me a newbie to many), I can relate to the shock. I went online late morning on December 7th only to be greeted with the "Sold Out" notice for the holiday-priced tickets. I went ahead and bought the regular-priced tickets, but it never occurred to me that they'd sell out anytime soon. So what's up? Was last year's lineup so awesome that people rushed to get tickets without knowing who would play this year, expecting repeat appearances? Or is this something larger that just caught everyone by surprise? Was Planet Bluegrass attacked by cyber-scalpers?
"Something is having an effect." But Brian doesn't think it's last year's headliners. "We never expected Robert Plant to be back this year and he won’t be back this year. That’s just not how we book the festival. We try to rotate headliners." Plant might get an assist, just because of his general impact, which was to further "open people up to the whole Americana world. And open people up to coming to Telluride Bluegrass regardless of who’s playing." As we try to figure this out, Brian stresses that it's important to remember that most of this happened before a single act was announced. "7000 of those 8000 [four-day passes] were sold before we’d announced a single name on the lineup. This is a reflection of some combination of the music and the festival experience. Telluride is enough for people to want to plan their year around it without even knowing specifically who’s going to be there." Based on my personal experience, I have to agree with that. The lineup announcements are exciting, but they are not the driving force for most of us who know what Telluride is about.
Brian sees several things as combining to put us where we are today. "It’s hard to know. Certainly roots music is in a wonderful place right now." But there are some factors he can point to, in hindsight, that may have contributed to his wild December. "There was a very high profile article in The Rolling Stone about Mumford & Sons and their experience in Telluride. It was largely a bio piece, very nice article, set against the experience of Telluride, with the band going to some parties and playing the NightGrass show, too. It gave people a feel for what the Telluride Bluegrass experience is about, especially for musicians like Mumford & Sons. It really painted this amazing picture of the festival. There was a really nice piece on All Things Considered last year about Telluride Bluegrass and the Colorado bluegrass scene as well as Planet Bluegrass and our festivals here in Lyons and so that obviously reached a whole new audience." There's also the cumulative effect of the Telluride experience. "We like to think that most of the marketing we do is at the festival, giving people at the festival the greatest experience of their lives. Hopefully we’ve been somewhat successful doing that. So we’re seeing people coming back who were maybe new to the festival in the past couple of years." Add to that "a dedicated group of festivarians who’ve been coming for 10 and 20 years" and you've got a recipe for selling out. The icing on the cake may be what's going on in the wider festival world. "Look at Coachella and Sasquatch selling in a week. People are getting trained that if you want to go to a festival you might as well buy your tickets – there’s no reason to wait."
So is it bad to sell out? Sort of, if it's too early in the game. Telluride is the same size it's been since the early 90's because of a limit put on the festival by the Town of Telluride. Most who have attended would agree that the total of 11,500 who are allowed in the gates at any one time (that includes artists, staff and volunteers) is just about right. You rarely feel crowded. Everyone finds (and keeps) their place through a system centered around a daily tarp run. Because there's one stage, you get none of the angst you feel at multi-stage festivals "If we leave Steve Earle early, maybe we can get to the other stage in time to see Del McCoury." Or vice versa. You have your tarp, you're set, it's cool. Laid back. Telluride. But as good as that limitation is, it plays heavily into the dynamic we're experiencing this year. Brian explains: "In the last couple of years, tickets only sell quicker. We don’t sell any more of them. In the mid-90’s, I don’t remember the exact year, the Town of Telluride set this cap on how many can come and it hasn’t changed. When we talk about popularity of the festival the only difference we can refer to is how quickly these tickets sell. The biggest year ever for the festival was 1990 or 91 when James Taylor played. That was before the town capped attendance. What we’re talking about this year with everything being unprecedented, but it’s all relative I suppose."
The real reason it's bad to sell out too early is because this four-day community's existence is dependent on a mix of regulars and first time attendees to make the festival what it is supposed to be. Roughly two thirds of those at any given Telluride are veterans, with the balance being first-timers. Both constituencies are key to the magic of the festival, which really runs itself as a community even as it is started and helped along by Planet Bluegrass staff and a host of volunteers. I know this from personal experience. The place where we put our tarp each year is our neighborhood, and we know many of our neighbors while meeting new folks each year. One of the threats of an early sell out is that it might somehow change that mix. Which is why Planet Bluegrass is all over this, doing its best to deal with the situation now and look for some incremental changes in the way tickets are sold for future years.
For this year, the immediate goal of Planet Bluegrass is relieve some of the pressure through the 1500 single-day tickets (for each day) that have not yet gone on sale. "Our goal is to get single-day tickets on sale as quickly as we can just because we understand that some people are in limbo right now, don’t have four-day passes, and they really want to make plans for the summer." That's easier said than done, because single-day tickets usually don't go on sale until the daily lineups are set, much later in the process. "It remains to be seen exactly how it’s going to work this year but we want to give people at least some idea of who’s going to be playing on each day [before selling the single-day tickets]. We are really pushing to put out word as soon as we get it. We understand the new pressures this year." The bottom line: Planet Bluegrass will put the single-day tickets on sale much earlier than normal. "It will be in weeks rather than months. We realize that there are a lot of people who aren’t sure where they’re going to be on the Solstice this year, and they’d like to know."
From talking to Brian for almost an hour, it was clear to me that Planet Bluegrass is genuinely concerned about Festivarians being able to return to the festival and about keeping the festival's no-scalping tradition alive. Tickets are exchanged for face value, often through the Festivarian Forum (www.festivarian.com) and through face-to-face exchanges at the Festival. Festivarians are watching Craigslist and Ebay for scalpers and doing what they can to encourage face-value sales. Brian says that there hasn't been a lot of that yet, but concedes it is very early in the process.
"We do watch a lot of that stuff. It’s hard to compare this year because of the time of year and because of the amount of tickets sold. At this point last year we’d sold half this number of tickets. If you look on the Festivarian Forum there are a lot of folks on there who are super helpful watching Craigslist and other sites and when they see scalpers to do what they can to encourage them to sell the tickets at face value. As a result there aren’t many on Craigslist, there are a few on EBay, there are a few on Stubhub. It’s really early, it’s hard for us to know. There are going to be some [scalped tickets], but I think far fewer than most major events."
For future festivals, there will likely be some change in the way tickets are sold, but no other changes are planned. "Outside of the mechanics of how we sell tickets I don’t think it’s going to change a lot. The festival can’t get any bigger, hasn’t gotten any bigger in 20 years. So the core experience for people at the festival is going to be the same. We’re going to try to put on the greatest event we possibly can this year. In the future, we are certainly looking at new ways to sell tickets with an eye towards getting the tickets in the hands of dedicated festivarians and not in the hands of scalpers. So, we’re having a lot of discussions about that. I don’t think this scalper issue is going to be as bad as people feared, but it’s something that we lose sleep over at night. We want to know that every one of those tickets is being sold at face value to a Festivarian."
Before signing off, we had to talk a bit about the 2012 lineup, which is only partially released at this time. "Alison Krauss and John Prine are both going to be incredible. Prine’s last performance was 2006, so it’s been a while. We had him at Folks Festival -- he closed the 20th Anniversary show two years ago. It was incredible. He’s in top form right now. K.D. Lang – she’s been on our wish list for two decades. And the music she’s making now is the perfect fit for Telluride. It's wonderful. Former guitar player from Guster is in her new band. Very alt-country kinda group. It’s exactly what she should be doing right now." Here's a video of Ms. Lang:
More on the lineup from Brian: "Bruce Hornsby is back. He's one of our favorite musicians. He has connections to the festival that go way back and connections to so many of our regulars. He has toured with the Flecktones, played a lot with Jerry Douglas, and played a lot with Sam Bush so he’s just a really great guy to have around. That’s going to be fantastic. Last time he was in Telluride was with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. This time he’ll be back with his band, should be a great set. Might turn into one of these classic only in Telluride kind of all-star jam sets. Really thrilled to have Bruce back."
Sometimes we get caught up in the "guest artists" and forget about the regulars. Tim O'Brien is back, this time with the O'Brien Party Of Seven. "This is Tim and his two kids, his sister Mollie, her husband Rich and their two kids. It’s an O’Brien extended family band. They’re in the studio sometime this winter recording a record of Roger Miller tunes. They played at RockyGrass last year, really a diverse show, such talent in that family. They cover so many dimensions. It’s going to be a really fun, refreshing, inspiring set of music."
And Leftover Salmon is back. [Yay!] "They’re sounding as good as ever. Andy Thorn is playing with them now and is really a full time member of the band. They’re doing more touring so the band is tighter than ever. Obviously that’s a band literally born in Town Park."
Then there's the piece de resistance, The Telluride House Band. Bela, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Bryan Sutton. "It’s funny, almost all these guys live in Nashville and this is the one time of the year that all of them get together to play music. They take that set really seriously because of the tradition of the festival and each is so intense about their music. They push each other so hard that that is always a special set of music." Take a look at this video:
Okay, we're set for Telluride 2012. For the most part. The lineup's not complete, and Brian says there will be some big surprises (not that he shared any with me!), so stay tuned. Then there's that little issue of tickets. If you don't have tickets yet, watch closely for single-day tickets to go on sale in coming weeks, check the Festivarian Forum for tickets and, beginning in April, Planet Bluegrass will begin selling returned tickets on Tuesdays. Don't buy scalped tickets to this event. If you see them for sale at above face, chastise whoever's selling them. This ain't some Beyonce concert (or a Jimmy Buffett concert, even). This is Telluride Bluegrass, and that's not how we roll.
Top photo: Benko Photographics. Other two photos: Mando Lines.
Mando Lines is on Twitter @mando_lines.