Busking Around the World - Introducing the Lawrence Busker Festival
Gene: Hello everybody. I'm Gene Carr and I'm joined today by Evyn Lundy and Leo Hidy - both of whom are interns from Oberlin College, and I'm delighted to welcome our guest, Richard Renner, who is the director and producer of the Lawrence Busker Fest. Welcome, welcome Richard.
Richard:Thank you. I'm glad to be here.
Gene: So we want you to start by telling us everything you can in a few minutes about the Lawrence Busker Fest. Where is it? What is it all about?
Richard: I do have an elevator pitch, but it's a rather long ride on the elevator! The Lawrence Busker Fest was started in 2008 when I, as a performing artist, moved back to my hometown and I realized that the downtown area was prime for street performing. And after that street performance [scene] we had there was pretty sad. And having gone to busker festivals all over the world, I knew the potential that it could have. So, I approached the downtown business association and gave them the idea for the festival. And they said, yes, we'll find you some money for it, and we did our first event. Our first year in 2008, on $2,000. It was rather phenomenal. Everybody worked for free and everybody worked long and hard and it became a thing, and, it was popular enough that we just kept redoing it.
So this is our 14th year, and to describe the busker festival, I always like to think of it in terms of surprising. You want to be surprised when you walk down the street, you want to be surprised that there's a performer over on this corner doing magic, or there's a living statue on this corner, just being a statue.
So I liked the element of surprise, and then to add into that, I also liked the element of unique and odd too, because street performers in the culture - they're not your normal run-of-the-mill performers. Some of these people are doing some pretty outlandish things, like riding 12-foot high unicycles and smashing apples between their biceps and that kind of thing. I contend this as an art form, by the way!
Gene: Is that a thing you can do?
Richard: I can't do that, I do crazier things. Slapstick and such on the street myself, but I contend that street performing for me is an art form. And so, I wanted to create this festival to promote busking and also to put it in people's minds that this is something that people are passionate about and they pursue it just like you would any other art.
Gene: That's beautiful. And give us the scope - When does the event happen? How many people come? How many performers?
Richard: We originally started doing it in August. It's supposed to coincide with the time that the students came back. After doing that for a few years, we found out the students weren't coming downtown anyway. They're staying up on the campus and drinking in the dorms. So we decided to move it to a more pleasant time of year where it wasn't a hundred degrees outside and we moved it to Memorial Day weekend.
And that's been a big hit. We've gradually gained in attendance up to where we're attracting around 20 to 25,000 people over three days, which is pretty good for a little town like us. We draw regionally, we're close to Kansas City, so we draw from larger metropolitan areas. And last year, if we had the festival, we were going to do it for four days and that's still in the plans.
This year we're going to be doing it in September, in order to get a little bit ahead of the pandemic and the vaccination schedule so that everyone feels safer about being out in public. And we're still doing it for three days this year, but the year after, we are going to go to a four day festival.
Gene: I think Ev has a question that fits right into this.
Evyn: Yes, I was wondering how COVID-19 has impacted the operations of your festival? And do you see any of these changes being long term?
Richard: It impacted it by canceling it originally in May - I was pretty naive. Last March, I was thinking, oh yeah, okay, everything's going to be fine by May. We'll be able to go on. I was looking at the holidays, graphs and charts and everything said, everything's going to be much worse than if it didn't happen that way. And we didn’t actually cancel at that time; we decided we'll reschedule for September. Everything will be fine in September, everything will be great!
That didn't happen either. So we just can't cancel it out altogether. And how it's going to affect what we do from now on, because we are an outdoor event - I don't think we're going to have to be too stringent, it depends on what the health department has to say, of course, but I don't think we're going to have to be too stringent about airflow and social distancing and things like that.
Actually, the biggest effect I think is that people are ready to party! You only have to look at the crowds here in Florida right now, to understand that the people are ready to party. I think the biggest effect that it's going to have is that we are going to have a blowout of people that want to show up and feel good and be entertained.
Gene: We feel the same. That's partly what's motivating us to do something. Over the course of your festival, how many performers do you have and how often do they perform? Do they perform every day? How does that work?
Richard: I advertise that we have about 20 to 25 different acts, but that is made possible because we have a musician’s pitch where they have a different act or group in every hour long slot.
So there'll be 20 groups there alone. As far as on the other pitches, the variety of performers - We have 9 total, I would say maybe 10 at times. And they're a good mix of local performers and out of town performers as well.
Gene: And what time do you start and end?
Richard: We start at 5 on Friday and go to 11. And we started at 12 on Saturday and went to 11. Oh yeah, you gotta be there at night, man. You gotta be there at night. Cause that's when people want to see the fire dancing, that's when they see the fire-eaters, man, they're better at night. And then on Sunday we started at 12 and went to 6.
Gene: Got it. Now, let me ask you - have done any studies to try to understand the economic impact of what you're doing for the community?
Richard: Yes. We work closely with the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and we also work with the state tourism agency, and they have convenient metrics for us to use and plug into to determine the overall effect. And we determined that we have about a quarter million dollar tax increase because of our event that weekend, because of the hotel and restaurant and other [income increase].
Gene: And what's more or less the overall budget for the operation?
Richard: 50 to $60,000; not a bad return on their money.
Gene: You're getting a 5X return on the money. That's excellent. And I've asked this question before, and we're hearing that number over and over again. So, it's not only an artistic event, it's a community engagement event, but it's an economic winner. So it's got a triple, sometimes we call it a triple bottom line. And you're proving that.
Richard: What helps the busker festival too is that because the performers are paid basically on their tips, is that our budget for entertainment isn't as big as if we're putting on a ticketed event where we had to pay the performers exactly what they were worth. But because of that also, I feel obligated to get people out there, because I don't want these performers to walk away feeling like it was not worth it.
Gene: So what have you found is the best way to get the word out? Give us some advice, we're starting from scratch.
Richard: The best way to start is social media. And we also work with our CVB. It's called ExploreLawrence, and they have some rather unique online marketing tools that we take advantage of. You've probably seen [our ads] when you go to newspapers and things like that, there'll be a set of ads alongside on the margins. They will place our ads onto new computers that people are more likely to use.They’ll be interested in that kind of thing. And then they're also able to attract the people who look at our ads and find out if they actually attended the event.
Gene: And I would imagine on social media - you've got 25,000 people, I'll bet you a lot of them are posting it on their own Instagram or their own Facebook and they're hashtagging and so on. Unlike when you're at a show, if you're in a fixed theater where you're indoors, the lights are off, and you're expected to be actually looking at the stage or listening to a concert, whereas outdoors, you've got all the freedom in the world. You can take 10 different pictures and post them. So I think we're going to absolutely focus on that as well. Leo, you've got a question?
Leo: Yeah. So, obviously, you've been doing this for a long time. So I was wondering if year after year, is there a specific aspect of the festival that remains your favorite?
Richard: The day after it's over! No, I know, I will tell you, Leo. Particularly, in the beginning, I was doing this for free, and there were some years that we lost sponsorship and I put in my own money. So, I was like the sponsor of the festival. The aspect of the show that I like is that invariably, there'll be a moment where I'm sitting somewhere downtown and I'll hear a huge cheer come out a block away, all the applause and laughter and cheering going on. And I say to myself, that's when I get paid, when I hear that. Yeah.
Gene: That's beautiful. It is fascinating to talk to you! Is there anything [unique] for people that might be traveling around the country who might want to come to the festival? Or is there anything that we haven't asked you about your festival that you'd like folks to know about?
Richard: Let's see, it does seem rather odd. We'd be doing something like this in the middle of Kansas, and believe me, we've pulled people in from Europe and the East Coast and the West Coast and places like that. And they all say they'd never thought they'd be in Kansas doing this.So I like to, just let them know that they may be in Kansas, but they're in Lawrence, and Lawrence isn't technically like the rest of the state. It usually helps. It usually helps if your town has this oddball character going for it that has this sense of uniqueness. And this is a strong brand, I guess you would call it. Our brand is unmistakably Lawrence.
Gene: I think I completely agree with that. I also think that this is the very same thing - If you did a busker festival in 10 different cities in the country, each one would have its own personality. And it would brand that city if you did something in the Southwest, in Albuquerque, that busker festival would be different than if you did something in Portland, Oregon or in Lawrence, Kansas. And we're in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. So we're about to find out our own flavor and our own brand.
And we will keep you posted. We'll let you know how things go.It's been delightful to talk to you, and really, thank you so much for your help. So many thanks for being with us today.
Richard: You bet. I look forward to seeing how you guys do this. That'll be awesome.
Gene: Thanks so much.