Shenandoah Valley Music Festival needs sales boost
Posted: January 29, 2013
The Winchester Star
Orkney Springs — Organizers of the Shenandoah Valley Music Festival are proud to have reached 50 years and are determined the milestone won’t be its last.
Like many arts organizations, the festival has been a victim of a sluggish economy the past few years with lower-than-expected ticket sales, Executive Director Dennis Lynch said. While he couldn’t say for sure another bad season would mean the end of the festival, it definitely needs a good one to help ensure its future.
“It is our intention to be here for another 50 years, but a couple of things need to happen,” said Lynch of Clarke County. “The economy needs to get better. Also, I haven’t quite figured out what needs to happen with the weather, but a summer where it didn’t rain or wasn’t in the high 90s on Fridays and Saturdays would be nice.”
Thousands of people flock to Orkney Springs each year to see the series of outdoor concerts offered at the Shrine Mont Camp and Conference Center, he said.
Although it started in 1963 as a symphonic music festival, it has evolved through the years to include rock, bluegrass, country and other genres.
The line-up for the season usually is announced in May, but Lynch hopes to have it out earlier because of the anniversary. None of the acts have been finalized, so he couldn’t release any of the band names yet.
However, since 1979, the lineup has included two concerts by the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra playing a pops night and a classical night, and he expects there to be at least one bluegrass concert.
Musicians from across the spectrum who previously performed at the venue include The Temptations, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea, Béla Fleck, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs, Travis Tritt, Ronnie Milsap and more.
In 1963, outside the region’s county fairs, there was a lack of professional music presented in the Shenandoah Valley. That year, a small group of people started the Shenandoah Valley Music Festival. That August, the new group presented its first concert in the gym of Massanutten Military Academy in Woodstock, according to the festival’s website.
Despite the festival’s woes, organizers are not afraid of this year, they are celebrating it, said Leigh Devier, chair of the board of directors. Reaching 50 years is “phenomenal” for a music festival, and making it to 100 would be even better.
“We are going forward, and a positive attitude is really what we are looking at,” she said. “We are looking for a wonderful year ahead of us and for everyone to come help us and help us celebrate.”
The recession hit the festival a little later than many others, Lynch said. He noted that 2008 was a “wonderful year,” 2009 was a “good year,” and in 2010, the income was “higher than at any other point in the history of the festival.”
But for the past two summers, ticket sales have not lived up to expectations and fundraising has been off, he said. The ticket prices in 2012 ranged from a low of $23 on the lawn to a high of $40 for the symphony concerts under cover in the pavilion.
“Ticket sales account for between 40 and 50 percent of our annual budget,” he said. “When ticket sales are off substantially, that is not a good thing.”
Fortunately, the festival does not have any debt, Lynch said. Because of the foresight of board members in the 1980s and ’90s, the festival built up a reserve it could dip into in lean times.
That is what happened the past two years. But the reserves are getting “slimmer and slimmer each year,” so change is necessary, he said.
The festival’s budget was $270,000 last season. Organizers have been working to trim costs, and although he didn’t have final numbers, Lynch estimated this year’s budget at $250,000 tops. That covers everything from paying the bands and renting the space to paying the telephone bill.
Lynch hopes those cuts don’t come in the form of shows. The festival traditionally has eight shows, with a children’s event added in, but it might be necessary to go to six concerts, he said.
“I would not like to see that happen, but there are fixed costs every time we do a show. If you cut two shows, you cut a lot of costs,” he said.
A Future Fifty Fund was created with a goal of raising $100,000 by the end of 2013 to help keep the festival going, Devier said.
“We are appealing to the people around us as far as we can reach to tell us they really do like the opportunities we have given them and provide support for us,” she said.
It is sometimes a challenge to offer the level of quality performances organizers want to provide when costs constantly are increasing, Lynch said. The performance fees bands charge continue to rise.
Also, it can be difficult to fathom the interests of the public and what will drag them out of their homes on a warm summer evening, Devier said.
Because it takes place outdoors, the festival has issues many other venues don’t have when the temperatures rise, Lynch said. The past three Julys have been “among the hottest in the history of weather records in Virginia.”
“People will come out to a concert in the rain before they come out in the heat,” he said.
The festival does not control food and beverages, allowing concertgoers to bring in picnics, although there are some concessions, he said. That makes another revenue stream not available to the festival.
Part of the magic of the festival, and partly why it has lasted so long, is that people can come out and enjoy an evening under the stars in a beautiful setting while listening to great music, Lynch said. People can buy reserved tickets in the seats under the pavilion or bring chairs and blankets and sit on the lawn.
“Once you hit Orkney Springs and the lights go down and the music starts playing, it is like there is this complete and total relaxation that comes over you,” he said. “It is a great place to come and see friends.”
For more information on the Shenandoah Valley Music Festival, go to musicfest.org.
— Contact Laura McFarland at email@example.com