2 weekends of Big Ears in 2021?

One of Knoxville's biggest festivals had an expansion on its radar, but organizers didn't plan for it to happen so soon.

Big Ears Festival could take place over two weekends in 2021, after the cancellation of this year's event due to COVID-19, allowing artists to reschedule their canceled performances and allowing new artists to join the bill.

The festival's founder, Ashley Capps, told Knox News the 2020 festival was on track to be the most successful iteration to date, making it "extraordinarily painful" to cancel.

"The day that we canceled was the day we were selling out," he said. "I think we had just a handful of tickets left. They were going to go that day."

Moving to two weekends in 2021 could help the festival bounce back, along with the local businesses that benefit from a large influx of people to Knoxville.

Preparing to pivot

Offering unique programming over two weekends certainly could cause a dilemma for festivalgoers trying to decide which experience is most appealing. But it's also "a wonderful luxury" to be able to choose between the two dates, Capps said.

"(Two weekends) is the plan, although as anyone knows, the state of the coronavirus and the pandemic is so unpredictable at this particular point," Capps said. "It's looking increasingly doubtful that we'll be able to implement the plan as we intended, when we intended in March. But we're still hopeful."

Big Ears organizers are prepared to pivot to later dates if necessary. If that happens, Capps said, the possibility of two weekends may just go out the window.

But expanding the festival in this way is something organizers were considering before the pandemic.

Exploring new opportunities

People from 48 states and 22 countries attended the festival in 2019. Its success continues to grow, and organizers have been planning for how to grow with it.

"The growth of the festival has been very strong year after year after year," Capps said. "And, at the same time, we recognized the festival has a unique character to it — the size of it, the size of the venues in which the performances take place, the walkability for all of the festivalgoers from venue to venue in the heart of downtown Knoxville."

Capps said the festival couldn't lose these components. The Spoleto Festival in South Carolina and the Sundance Film Festival in Utah take place over multiple weekends. So, Big Ears organizers decided to take a page out of their book.

Most of the artists scheduled to play the 2020 festival could schedule for March 2021, but not all of them could play the same weekend

"We felt like by moving to the two-weekend model we could offer the opportunity for people to see artists they had hoped to see in 2020 and still introduce many new artists into the mix," Capps said.

The weekends each would offer unique experiences with unique lineups. One of the most exciting components, Capps said, is what can be done in between.

The weekdays could be used to host special community events and outreach programs for young people. This possibility was "the cherry on top, so to speak — something that we were really excited about exploring more deeply," Capps said.

A tough call financially and emotionally

Two weekends could also help the festival bounce back from some of the negative impacts caused by canceling.

"The fortunate thing about Big Ears is that we were able to cancel more than two weeks before the festival, and that enabled us to plan a bit better and to mitigate some of the losses and the negative impacts on artists in terms of travel and hotels and so on," Capps said.

Capps said Big Ears was "still out of pocket well, well into the six figures" due to expenses, such as marketing, planning and certain deposits.

"On a personal level, I was just so proud of the programming that the festival was presenting in 2020 — I think our boldest and most dynamic lineup to date," he said. "It was hard (to cancel). Both financially and emotionally, it was very difficult."

Big Ears refunded everyone's tickets, not knowing what the future of the festival would look like. But a "fan-based initiative" led some prospective festivalgoers to donate their ticket money to the festival. It was an effort that "speaks volumes about what the festival means to its audience out there," Capps said.

'A really great thing for the community'

Fans want the festival to survive and thrive. And Capps wants the same for the local businesses often supported by Big Ears.

Festival attendees stay in hotels, eat at restaurants, shop in stores and drink at bars.

"So, being able to hopefully help people build their businesses back by offering a festival two weekends in a row and bringing in people to stay at the hotels and eat at the restaurants would be a really great thing for the community as well," Capps said.

Jesse Newmister, owner of Kaizen, recalled business nearly tripling during the 2018 Big Ears weekend. Spending related to Big Ears had a $2.1 million impact on the local economy in fiscal year 2017.

Visit Knoxville President Kim Bumpas previously told Knox News that Big Ears exposes Knoxville as a tourist destination on an international scale more than any other cultural event.

But Big Ears is not just known for its international audience; it's known for its international artists. And having people travel from all over the world comes with its own unique challenges.

"I think one of the things about this pandemic is it spreads, and it's really bad in one area, then it becomes really bad (in another area) for a while," Capps said. "There's such a lack of consistency."

Options are on the table for March

If Big Ears is able to take place in March, the festival might put a tighter cap on ticket sales to create smaller festivals each weekend. There may be fewer venues or venues that aren't as densely packed.

Options are on the table, but the important thing is keeping staff, artists, audience members and the community safe, Capps said.

"There are a lot of unknowns to grapple with at this moment," he said.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Ryan Wilusz

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Published August 20, 2020