Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Longtime MerleFest friend concerned by changes at the festival

The consolidation of power by MerleFest executive director B Townes raises concerns about the festival's future as an artistic beacon, says a long-time festival supporter who does not wish to be identified.

In an interview with Festival Preview, the source charged that Townes and managing director Ted Hagaman are more committed to making money for Wilkes Community College than they are to the audiences that have supported the festival since 1988. The source worried that the feel of the festival on the ground will become increasingly "sterile" as management overlooks the interests of patrons and ticket buyers. The festival should belong to the people who pay their money year after year and to the artists as much as it does to the college, according to the source.

The source's concerns mirror many of those that have been expressed on the festival's online discussion board.

Festival executive director B Townes responded to the changes in a
separate interview [link] with Festival Preview.

According to the source, the festival management was not under any
direct pressure from its presenting sponsor, Lowe's Companies. However, Townes and Hagaman adopted what the source describes as “a Lowe's way of doing things,” in which consistency is valued over originality.

Lowe's influence is felt because many of the college's donors are
retired Lowe's employees. Although they may not attend the festival,
their voices are heard when it comes to upholding the conservative
values and standards of the community. The source said that while MerleFest is the largest of WCC's many fundraising efforts, the festival often did not fit well within them. Some artists and audience members display values that differ from the Wilkes County mainstream and from the image the college likes to project.

Writing on the wall

The changes that culminated in seven people leaving the MerleFest
staff have been underway for several years, at least since 2004, when
a previous managing director stepped down, the source said. For the
next year, the staff operated democratically under Townes leadership. Managers had authority for their areas and festival-wide issues were decided by consensus.

But the next shoe dropped in fall of 2005 after Townes returned
from hiking the Appalachian Trail. Hagaman, a former Lowe's marketing executive who had been working for the college for four years as hospitality director and director of the performing arts center, was named managing director. Other managers' job descriptions and reporting structure were changed. Unnecessary travel was eliminated. Staffers were expected to fit the policies and culture of the college, instead of functioning more independently.

At the 2006 festival, the performance by the Woody Guthrie Ribbon of
Highway, Endless Skyway tour was seen by critics as honoring a political leftist, the source said. It was a reminder of a flare up the year before over antiwar statements from the stage by Steve Earle and Alison Moorer.

For staffers not on the same page with management, the writing was on the wall. Armbruster took a new position in December 2006. Two other key staff people, Art Menius and Nancy Watson, were known to be seeking other employment but were forced to resign. In addition to those three, four other staff people have left the organization.

The source thinks that the housecleaning is now over. The college is
advertising for a replacement artistic director and marketing director, with more narrowly defined job descriptions.

The relevance of the controversy to attendees commenting on the festival discussion board is the possibility that a change in direction in artist bookings and programming could result.

The source did not feel that 2007 booking of a Nashville name artist Pam Tillis was necessarily indicative of a trend toward mainstream country. MerleFest fans will find out soon if there is a new booking
philosophy when the 2008 lineup is announced in September.

A more commercial approach might succeed in increasing attendance and revenue, the source said. So MerleFest could continue to prosper, yet lose its importance as an artistic taste-maker. Should that occur, it would be a loss not just for MerleFest attendees but for the greater roots music community, for which MerleFest is a flagship event, the source said.

The source believes that there is natural conflict between the needs of a public college formally charged to have local focus and a fund-raising event that has international scope. Menius and Armbruster, in particular, were perceived as having a greater allegiance to MerleFest rather than to Wilkes Community College.

The source doesn't know what Doc Watson thinks about the staffing changes, but said that Doc exercises minimal influence. However, Doc's continued endorsement of the festival is important to MerleFest’s reputation, and should Doc ever publicly break with the festival, that would be damaging. To date, there is no indication that anything like that might happen.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I think the fact that the Kruger Bros. were shut out of the festival last year shows a problem in artistic relations and booking. They are, after all, festival mainstays like Sam Bush and even Doc, and they are now permanent residents of Wilkes County and contributors to the community good, as well as excellent musicians. They should be welcomed back in '08 with several Watson Stage billings.

Hannah said...

Forgive me, but I'm trying to reach Dan Ruby with a follow-up question. My address is

Thank you.