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How To Organize A Ukulele Festival
The Inside Scoop
By James Hill

Why is an article about organizing a ukulele festival appearing in a magazine for ukulele teachers? Simple. Two-thirds of the ukulele festival organizers I interviewed for this article are also ukulele teachers. For whatever reason, it seems that the kind of person who makes a good teacher is also the kind of person who can organize and promote a successful ukulele festival.

Contents

1. Before You Dive Head-first Into the Shallow End...
2. The Anatomy of a Ukulele Festival
3. The Building Blocks: Workshops, Concerts and Jams
4. Money Talk
5. The "Four Hats" of Ukulele Festival Organization
6. Timing Is (Nearly) Everything
7. Branding Your Festival
8. Summing Up
9. I Wish I'd Known Then What I Know Now

1. Before You Dive Head-first Into the Shallow End...

So you're smitten with the ukulele and you want to share your love for the instrument by organizing a ukulele festival in your area. Great idea! But before you dive head-first into the shallow end, read what today's ukulele festival organizers have to say; it will save you time and money and it might inspire you to consider new possibilities.

2. The Anatomy of a Ukulele Festival Top ^

The Ukulele Festival Equation

At its most basic, the "ukulele festival equation" is this: venue + performers/teachers + audience = festival. There are, however, many details to consider within that deceptively simple equation. The first thing to do is to identify the type of festival you envision. In my experience there are three basic types:

Type A: All educational workshops, no concerts.
Type B: A mix of educational workshops and concerts.
Type C: All concerts, no workshops.

The Type A festival is exemplified by the Langley Ukulele Workshop, the Vancouver Ukulele Festival, the Tatamagouche Ukulele Retreat and others. These events are focused entirely on teaching and learning; while there may be informal performances, there are no ticketed concerts.

Type B festivals – those that include both workshops and concerts – are the most common. The major difference between Type B festivals is their length. The longest (e.g. the Portland Ukulele Festival) run for 4-5 days; the shortest (e.g. the Southern California Ukulele Festival) for just one. A feature (a good feature in my view) of multi-day festivals is that they often feature sequential workshops i.e. workshops in which the instructor can build on the skills/ideas from previous classes with the assumption that students will return to the same class every day. The quality of learning in these situations is far greater than the quality of learning in "one-shot workshop" formats. More on this later.

Exemplified by Uketopia and Ukulele Festival Hawaii, Type C festivals are comprised entirely of concert performances. Revenue is principally through concert ticket sales and/or sponsorships. These events are usually "revue-style" in format i.e. they feature a number of performers and/or groups, each performing a set.

3. The Building Blocks: Workshops, Concerts and Jams Top ^

Workshops

Most festival organizers believe that workshops are an essential part of the ukulele festival experience. "It's the workshops that build community," says Hal Brolund, who produced the Great Canadian Ukulele Expo, referring to the "shared experience, knowledge and opportunities to grow" that make a great festival worth attending. "People can't just sit and watch concerts," offers Dave Wasser of the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum, "and free-form jamming is not for everyone." Marianne Brogan, founder of the Portland Ukulele Festival, agrees: "people are drawn to these events to play, not to be passive consumers." Moreover, says Susan McCormick, founder of the Southern California Ukulele Festival, "tax exempt status is easier to achieve if the purpose of a festival is 'educational.'"

It's the workshops that build community ... people are drawn to these events to play, not to be passive consumers.

A more cautionary viewpoint is offered by Doug Reynolds, director of the Tahoe Area Ukulele Festival, who says that, while workshops "seem to be a tradition, at some fests they are quite pricey and the students in class are so diverse that not everyone gets their money's worth." Reynolds' observations raise two important issues: 1) the diversity of skill-levels in a workshop and 2) the maximum number of people a workshop. Based on my experience I recommend limiting registration for any workshop to 30 people. I also recommend having three or four broadly defined skill levels: Beginner, Advanced Beginner (optional), Intermediate, and Advanced. Strive for a balance when booking workshops so that there's something for everyone in each time slot throughout the day. A very general definition of each of these levels (adapted from the Portland Ukuele Festival website) is as follows:

Beginner: A student at this level is brand-new to the ukulele. He/she has perhaps learned one to three chords but stops in-between chord changes to move the fingers to the next location.

Advanced beginner (optional level): A student at this level knows a handful of chords and can move from one chord to another without pausing. Student may have trouble with, say, the B-flat chord shape (the C chord in D6 Tuning). Student has learned a strum or two and/or a finger pattern for picking.

Intermediate: A student at this level can hold a steady rhythm and is competent with a variety of basic chords. Understands simple chord progressions (such as I, IV, V chords), can sing and strum at the same time, and learns chords to simple tunes fairly quickly.

Advanced: A student at this level can hear I, IV, and V chords, has mastered some chord inversions, knows there is life above the fifth fret, and has been there with barre or 4-fingered closed chords. Plays lead and backup easily with others and keeps steady rhythm.

These definitions are, of course, just a starting point; use them as a template to develop your own system of levels. Keep in mind, however, that in a festival context level descriptions should be short and broadly defined.

Don't Forget the Jam!

Workshops are an important part of any ukulele festival, according to Susan Borgersen, founder of the International Ukulele Ceilidh, "but not to the detriment of jamming and socializing." Gordon Mayer, co-chair of the Gorge Ukulele Festival, echoes this point, saying that the biggest mistake he made was "not providing a time and place in the nights and evenings for people to just jam."

The bottom line: workshops are a vital part of a great ukulele festival; they help to create community, they appeal to the characteristically "hands-on" ukulele audience and they can be a good source of festival income. Just don't overlook the importance of jamming. Provide times and places for people to make music in unstructured and informal settings.

Concerts

One of the most difficult aspects of planning and running a concert is getting the length right. Surprisingly, there seems to be little debate about the ideal length of a concert (in theory, at least!). Most recommend a two-hour time limit. Some would go as long as three hours in special circumstances (if a banquet dinner is part of the event, for example). Any concert over two hours long should include an intermission and don't forget to budget time for an encore and/or finale.

"Always leave the audience wanting more," says Jim D'Ville. "I don't care who's playing, I don't want to attend a four-hour show."

Sticking to your time limit, however, is easier said than done. "Good stage management to prevent performers getting carried away and running over time is paramount," says Susan Borgersen. It's true: time seems to move differently (sometimes slower, sometimes faster) from the point-of-view of the performer. He/she needs help to stay on time. Make sure every performer gets the set length he/she was promised and give each performer or group a five-minute (or "last song") warning at the end of his/her/their set.

Bottom line: "Always leave the audience wanting more," says Jim D'Ville, producer of the Columbia Gorge Ukulele Festival. "I don't care who's playing, I don't want to attend a four-hour show."

4. Money Talk Top ^

Can a Ukulele Festival Turn A Profit?

"Yes," says Susan McCormick, founder of the Southern California Ukulele Festival, and most agree. However, "it's easier (in theory) for places like Napa and Reno that can bring in non-uke people to concerts, charge more and partner with large facilities," says Gordon Mayer. "It's a bit tough for a small one-day festival (like ours in Hood River, OR), but it can be done."

In my experience, there are two basic "money models" on the scene today:

1. The Indirect-income Model: Exemplified by Ukulele Festival Hawaii (now in its 40th year), these festivals don't need to make money in-and-of-themselves (although they can and sometimes do turn a profit). Instead, a Indirect-income festival is tied to a larger organization (usually a store, school or ukulele manufacturing company) and serves as a platform for raising awareness of the organization. The purpose of Ukulele Festival Hawaii , produced by Roy and Kathy Sakuma, is four-fold: it's a) a wonderful "year-end recital" for students of Roy Sakuma Ukulele Studios, b) a way to promote Roy Sakuma's Ukulele Studios, c) a way to promote Ukulele Festival Hawaii, Sakuma's non-profit organization, and, of course, d) a way to celebrate all things ukulele.

2. The Direct-income Model: This type of ukulele festival is organized with the intent of generating income in-and-of-itself through sponsorships, ticket sales, workshop registrations, raffles, auctions, and special events. The majority of festivals on the scene today are Direct-income ventures organized by individuals or businesses (that doesn't mean that they all make money, just that their intent is to make money!).

Charging for Workshops and Concerts

So, what can you reasonably expect to charge for a workshop? How about a concert ticket? Here is some advice from the pros:

Based on the feedback I've had from many festival organizers, it's safe to assume that people will pay $20-$25 for a workshop and $25-$35 for a concert ticket. Obviously, the more "cache" your instructors and/or performers have, the higher you can go with the prices (according to Jim D'Ville, his "top dollar" for a workshop with a very well-respected clinician is $40). Keep your finger on the pulse: "I constantly look at other camps and festivals and try to stay reasonable," says Marianne Brogan.

Sometimes, festival admission is "flat rate" (e.g. the two-day Langley Ukulele Workshop: $99 early-bird, $129 regular; registrants attend up to five workshops). Other times, it's "modular" i.e. attendees can customize their ticket by adding extras like concert admission and special workshops. At the Gorge Ukulele Festival, the base rate is $85 for the day and the evening concert (open to the public) is an additional $10. Keep in mind that the more "customizable" you make the ticket, the more complex registration becomes. My advice: keep it simple (especially if you're a first-timer). A flat rate with an early-bird incentive is straightforward and effective.

Sponsors want access to your audience and expect something for their money. Create boundaries and a mission statement to avoid straying too far from your festival's original spirit.

Sponsorships and Advertising

Selling sponsorships and advertising space is an important revenue opportunity. Advertising space can take many forms: logos on posters, ads in a printed program, banners on stage (a personal note: it's classy to keep these to an absolute minimum), raffle draws and more. Be creative and you may find more funding than you expected. According to Noel Tardy, director of the Lonestar Ukulele Festival, turning a profit at an ukulele is possible but it depends on having sponsorship revenue. Who is likely to be interested in sponsoring your festival? Local music stores, ukulele manufacturers, music publishers, local restaurants, local hotels, tourism bureaus, city councils and many others.

Remember, however, that "if one pursues funding through sponsors and vendors, there is a price to pay," according to Marianne Brogan. "Sponsors and vendors want access to your audience, and expect something for their money. Create boundaries and a mission statement" to avoid straying too far from your festival's original spirit.

5. The "Four Hats" of Ukulele Festival Organization Top ^

It's unlikely that you – or any other individual – will have all the skills necessary to organize a successful, sustainable ukulele festival. Ultimately, it's not a one-person job. If you're not comfortable with a particular area of skill listed below, no problem. Just make sure you find someone who is and who is willing to help you.

I would suggest as a starting point that you consider the following four "job descriptions," all of which are essential in organizing a successful festival. You can wear more than one "hat" but be careful not to take on too much! "Delegate," advises Doug Reynolds. "Give those to whom you delegate power artistic license to come up with their own ideas. One person can't think of everything."

The "four hats" of ukulele festival organization are (in no particular order):

Job #1: The Dreamer
Has the vision. May have already come up with a great festival name and a list of teachers and/or performers. The Dreamer can see the whole festival in his/her mind's eye.

Job #2: The Do-er
Makes decisions – big and small – that turn the dream into reality. The Do-er takes care of the "nuts-and-bolts" stuff like booking the venue, hiring a sound system and sound engineer, communicating with artists / teachers, organizing rides to/from airports, and more. The Do-er understands and believes in the Dreamer's dream.

Job #3: The Treasurer
Takes care of all things money-related. The Treasurer writes the budget and knows a) how much you can spend b) how much you have already spent and c) how many people need to register in order for you to break even. Opens and oversees a separate bank account for the festival.

Job #4: The Promoter
Spreads the word about the festival. Among other things, the Promoter must be able to use the internet as a promotional tool (through a festival website, social media, email campaigns, and forum postings). The Promoter must also be proficient at writing clear, engaging copy for press releases and emails.

Now be honest with yourself: which of these essential roles can you play and which of them should you delegate? "Have faith in others," offers Susan Borgersen. "Delegation is a hard skill to learn. Others may not do things exactly to your liking – but hey – let them add their flavour to the pot too."

6. Timing Is (Nearly) Everything Top ^

Choosing the Date

Choose the timing of your event carefully. "Choosing Canada's Thanksgiving weekend was part of the strategy," says Susan Borgersen. "It enabled working volunteers to give of their time and the Monday provided a good 'day after' for clean-up etc."

Hal Brolund offers the following advice: "know all possible events that could occur during the time of [your] festival. I was blind-sided by a major corporate event with a big advertising budget that was announced after I'd locked in the dates of my festival. I couldn't compete."

Think carefully before scheduling a festival in June, July or August. This is the high-season which means that a) performers are very busy (and will need to be booked many months in advance) and b) transport and accommodation will be pricey for your out-of-town attendees.

Make a detailed schedule available well in advance on your website. Be sure that people know what they're getting into; nobody likes surprises on the day of the festival!

Crafting the Daily Schedule

Once you've chosen a date it's time to plan the daily schedule; your schedule needs (especially the number of simultaneous workshop spaces) will help to determine what kind of venue your festival requires. "Carefully schedule so as to not overlap popular performers and/or workshops," advises Doug Reynolds. "Some people travel great distances and if they find out that they can't see everyone they wish to see or take part in every workshop they wish to, it makes for disappointed customers." This brings up another crucial point: make a detailed schedule available well in advance on your website. Be sure that people know what they're getting into; nobody likes surprises on the day of the festival!

When it comes to the best length (in days) for a workshop, there are many opinions. For Reynolds, the ideal is "one full day bookended by two half-days." For the first-time do-it-yourselfer, Marianne Brogan recommends a manageable one-and-a-half day format: "a Friday night open mic and teacher intro, Saturday workshops and a Saturday night concert." Jim D'Ville agrees: "Have check-in and an evening get-together the night before and run the workshops and evening concert the next day."

Room to Grow

Start small and you'll have room to grow (not to mention some energy and – possibly – money left over). While she started with the one-and-a-half-day format, Marianne Brogan's Portland Ukulele Festival grew into a multi-day event. "I prefer the 3-5 day camp," she says. "I want to learn some things that I can really hang onto. That means a few days of a concept being examined and drilled in different ways. Maybe even more important is the community that develops – community that leads to relationships and friendships and collaboration." Noel Tardy agrees; she prefers festivals that are "music camp style with a true learning environment" and that take place over two-and-a-half to three days.

The bottom line: start small and consider the benefits of expanding your format in future years.

7. Branding Your Festival Top ^

By "branding" I mean finding the "angle" that defines your festival. Successful festivals like the Wine Country Ukulele Festival (Napa Valley, CA), UKEtoberfest (Eugene, OR) and the International Ukulele Ceilidh (Liverpool, NS), have good branding. What does your festival offer that others don't?

Tourism is fantastic and if you get people flying in that is good but you can't rely on tourism. You must make your bread at home.

Start with your local tourist appeal. For some places (e.g. Waikiki, HI and Cairns, Australia), the tourism angle is a no-brainer. Regardless of your location, however, make sure to highlight other things that can be enjoyed in your area. A spouse, for example, might like to know where to go shopping, hiking or sight-seeing while his/her partner attends the ukulele festival! Others might want to turn a one-day festival into a weekend trip; what else can they experience in your area?

On the other hand, Hal Brolund offers this advice: "Take a good look at your local marketplace and make the festival make sense for that group. Tourism is fantastic and if you get people flying in that is good but you can't rely on tourism. You must make your bread at home."

Bottom line: if you promote it effectively and thoughtfully, people will come from near and far to attend your festival.

8. Summing Up Top ^

If you're serious about planning a festival, "begin the planning 2 years ahead," advises Susan Borgersen. Marianne Brogan attended several ukulele festivals and took notes long before she produced her first event. Gordon and Char Mayer did the same: "We attended Portland, Denver, Langley and Eugene before organizing our first festival. That was a key because we were able to see what worked and what didn't."

"Be prepared for the unexpected," cautions Jim D'Ville. "A 110 degree heatwave stuck Oregon in June 2006 during the last festival I organized." Susan Borgersen takes it one step further, recommending that every job have an "understudy." "Ensure catastrophe planning is in place," she continues, "ask the question 'what if...' for absolutely everything." And "be ready to roll with whatever happens," advises Michael Schenkelberg of the Denver Ukefest.

Finally, don't let yourself get burned out. In Susan Borgersen's words, "if all else fails – stop – get out your uke, play a little and allow yourself to remember just what it's really all about."

9. I Wish I'd Known Then What I Know Now Top ^

Now some final words of wisdom from ukulele festival organizers. These are nuggets of advice from the trenches; lessons learned the hard way. Take notes and maybe you'll avoid some of the most common festival pitfalls.

"Understand how much running a festival impacts on your partner/nearest and dearest. You need their full support throughout the project as it becomes a full time commitment and affects the normal running of family and work life."
- Susan Borgersen (International Ukulele Ceilidh, Liverpool, NS)

"Make it fun. And, pay the artists what they're worth."
- Gordon Mayer (Gorge Ukulele Festival, Hood River, OR)

"The fastest way to burn out is to do all the work yourself. I would suggest organizing a board of directors at the outset. The main person in charge should have no responsibilities during the run of the festival other than being available to put out the fires that will most assuredly break out."
- Jim D'Ville (Columbia Gorge Ukulele Festival)

"Strive to accommodate everyone as best you can. Bend the rules if necessary. If someone wants to participate outside your normal guidelines, figure out how to make it work."
- Doug Reynolds (Tahoe Area Ukulele Festival, Reno, NV)

"It is easy to do a festival: get some people together, add some workshops and a concert and you're done.  The problems come in when you want to do everything LEGALLY.  You must have a board, bylaws, have meetings of the board to obtain non-profit status, deal with tax regulations, etc. We used all volunteers and Independent Contractors. To maintain non-profit status, you must file tax returns every year.  I don't think many organizations go to this much work, but that could mean ending up in legal 'hot water.'"
- Susan McCormick (Southern California Ukulele Festival, Cerritos, CA)

"Workshops don't all have to be the traditional set up where one teacher lectures and students learn. We covered multimedia, film, production, and recording."
- Michael Schenkelberg (Denver Ukefest, Denver, CO)

"Our first Ukulele Ceilidh wouldn't exist were it not for passionate volunteers. As chair my first challenge was to convince the volunteers that such a project was feasible. The board and volunteers brought together people with such varied backgrounds, skills, talents and experience it was possible to form an organization that was guaranteed to be successful. For me it was like being CEO of a company"
- Susan Borgersen (International Ukulele Ceilidh, Liverpool, NS)

"Where people often go wrong is their dreams exceed their business plan (or they don't have a business plan in the first place). As an example it's great to invite all the top ukulele players to perform at your festival but if you can't sell enough tickets to make that money back you're losing the battle (and your shirt)."
- Hal Brolund (Great Canadian Ukulele Expo, Winnipeg, MB)

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James Hill is editor of Ukulele Yes!, co-author of Ukulele in the Classroom and director of the annual Langley Ukulele Workshop. He also maintains a busy touring schedule as a performer; his latest CD release is True Love Don't Weep. Visit www.ukulelejames.com for more.

In This Issue: PRELUDE IDEAS & LETTERS UKULELE REPORTS INTERVIEW FEATURE ARTICLE FREE ARRANGEMENT PEDAGOGY CORNER FROM THE VAULT