As part of developing a five year strategy for the long term sustainability of both ABOTMA and the Mountaingrass festival, it was approved by the committee to survey members to ensure that their interests and views were both gathered and considered in future plans. The ABOTMA executive and its members now need to make choices about the direction it will take over the next five years and those decisions need to be informed.
This survey was conducted online and was open between 1 June and 31 August 2016. It is the most extensive survey of bluegrass participants undertaken to date. Previous online questionnaires have focused largely on immediate festival experiences and responses only numbered around 20-30, thus limiting them as a tool to base long term decision making.
A total of 126 people responded to this survey. The survey was promoted through direct email to the ABOTMA mail list (which includes past and present members, performers and other interested persons) as well as being prominently promoted on the ABOTMA and Mountaingrass websites. While a return of 126 responses is by no means a large proportion of all possible respondents, it can be considered to represent a reasonable sample of views.
The survey followed a proven methodology to assist with increasing the survey responses:
1. It was relatively short in that it took around 5-10 minutes to complete. The questions were predominately closed and the survey was structured to be within the accepted ranges of enabling five closed-ended questions per minute and 2 open-ended questions to be answered per minute.
2. It provided clear value to respondents by stating this was their chance to communicate their thoughts and have a say in how the festival and organisation is run and provided a forum for input. There was also a random prize drawn for a respondent, which also had the effect of encouraging responses.
3. Reminders were sent within newsletters and on related websites – all of which caused immediate spikes in responses.
The survey questions mostly asked for a level of agreement/disagreement with a number of statements. There was also space for respondents to expand further or comment more broadly in free text within each section of the survey.
Part A: Mountaingrass Festival
This section contained 12 statements on the structure, location and size of the Mountaingrass festival.
1. Mountaingrass always has an exciting program of performers
This statement was to gauge support for how the festival was currently being conducted and whether there was a groundswell of support for rotating some of the bands that had been performing over some time.
There is clearly here customer satisfaction as to the programming within the festival – nearly 90% were in agreement that the festival had a program that attracted them.
2. US performers are the major attraction of Mountaingrass
This item was seeking to measure support for overseas acts and assist with budget allocation. It has always been a feature of Mountaingrass/Harrietville to have a US guest(s) and this item sought to gauge the importance of this against other factors.
Again, there was a strong tendency to agree with this statement. The right US act(s) are considered a very important part of the festival. They tend to entertain, inspire, teach and otherwise provide an experience that makes each festival unique.
3. Australian/NZ performing bands are the major attraction of Mountaingrass
Local acts have always been the majority of performers at the festival and while the quality can vary, the festival’s bedrock will always be built on local performers. This item sought to gauge the importance of this, particularly against the drawing power of US acts.
There was strong support here too for local acts. The festival provides a valuable performing opportunity and gives bands something to aspire towards. Some of the free text reinforced the idea that local bands are undervalued and are quite capable of entertaining the audience at least as well as foreign imports.
There was however, quite a strong ‘no opinion’ count particularly for local acts (and to slightly less extent US acts), which indicates that bands themselves are not the primary drawcard to the festival and the prime attraction is most likely a combination of factors.
4. Mountaingrass should always be located in Harrietville
This item was to determine support for the local environment as a pull factor.
There was extremely strong agreement on this. While 78% agreed with this, there also was a very large proportion that strongly agreed – further reinforcing this idea. This was also backed up in in many free text comments.
5. I’d like to see less formal concerts and more time for walk ups/blackboard concerts
This item sought to understand people’s expectations better and whether performing opportunities for casual bands and non-featured performers was an issue.
The results here weren’t really decisive in either direction and, probably like item 1, people are generally satisfied as to the current programming of the festival.
6. I’d like to see more workshops/classes or information sessions
This item also sought to understand people’s expectations better as well as gauging support for expanded learning opportunities such as master classes or other focused learning opportunities.
There was tendency to agree with this – probably because many of the audience play themselves (see part C) and part of their festival experience is to learn new skills.
7. Mountaingrass is currently the best size for a festival of its type
Given that Harrietville is a small town with finite accommodation/food resources and also in consideration of the niche nature of the music, this item sought to gauge participants’ satisfaction with the current size of the festival.
There was very strong agreement on this – approaching 80% either agreed or strongly agreed, while not one person strongly disagreed. It indicates that most people are very happy with the size and location as part of their festival experience.
8. Mountaingrass should remain exclusive to the styles of bluegrass and old time music
This item goes to the essential nature of the festival. It has always been very focused on restricting the music to its core and this item seeks views on this.
There was very strong support for this. Many people view Mountaingrass as a kind of enclave for their particular musical passion and are quite protective of it. There are many other folk and music festivals that are more liberal in their musical tastes and it seems people enjoy that point of difference with Mountaingrass.
9. Mountaingrass should extend to Friday daytime to include artist workshops and/or masterclasses
Many other festivals are running additional sessions of learning opportunities and this item seeks to explore whether there is support for this at Mountaingrass. As an extension to item 6, this statement seeks whether the appetite is there for extending the festival program into Friday daytime for these activities.
There was strong support for this and it shows that this is an area to explore further. Rather than making the festival larger, there is definitely enthusiasm for it to extend.
10. Mountaingrass tickets are excellent value for money
This item gauges support for the current pricing structure. It also connects strongly to item 1, in that it is a key indicator of festival goers’ experience.
This should be reassuring to the festival committee and further supports the programming and organisation of the festival.
11. I’d rather jam than watch many bands
Due to the interactive nature of bluegrass and old time music and the large proportion of participants compared to other music festivals, this item sought to measure this against other festival activities. This item also attempts somewhat to ascertain people’s priorities at the festival and to assist organisers with budget allocation.
In the early days, nearly the entire audience were musicians and most would have preferred to jam rather than watch others perform – and the early festivals reflected that. As the audience has grown, it has attracted a larger non-playing audience, similar to that of other music festivals. This is essential for the music to survive and grow and the results here suggest that this is taking place.
12. Mountaingrass should include competitions or awards
Some festivals make a feature out of awards or competitions. This item explores the appetite for that at Mountaingrass.
While there was some support for this concept, those who disagreed outnumbered them. Many people in bluegrass and old time music are quite wary of industry based awards, such as country music type awards that have little musical credibility and would be quite an organisational minefield to conduct.
Instrumental awards have a long history in the genre, but the local scene has neither the depth of field nor the culture of competition for this to take hold and flourish. On the other hand, instrumental competitions tend to attract younger participants and this could be a way of expanding the festival to younger audiences and participants. This is further reinforced by the strong skewing of the aged profile of respondents (see part C 7) and the need to keep the festival relevant to younger people. Festivals such as Clifftop (USA), seem to be able to successfully blend these elements into a vibrant scene.
Part B: ABOTMA
This section sought opinions on the role, directions and priorities of the Australasian Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association (ABOTMA). A number of other bluegrass associations already exist in various parts of Australia and these provide a range of activities. Some organise an annual festival, while others have monthly get-togethers providing socialising, jam sessions and concert opportunities. Other industry bodies are more involved in strategic development of the music have longer term goals in mind. These can include lobbying businesses and government, providing a professional membership association for industry participants and broader connection to the music and festival industries.
Most of these items canvassed were contained in the ABOTMA 5 year strategy document and with these options being put forward to the committee; the participants’ views were sought.
1. ABOTMA’s only role should be to organise Mountaingrass
This item was to isolate the organisational arm from the strategic.
Whilst there certainly was some agreement on this, more people wanted ABOTMA to expand beyond being a single festival organisation committee.
2. ABOTMA should aim to expand to become a centralised organisation to deliver administrative, communication, marketing, funding efficiencies for a sustainable future of the music in Australia/NZ
This statement took the opposite view and sought support for a more strategic focus. 11
Here the agreement to expand ABOTMA’s direction is more pronounced and it seems the wish is for ABOTMA to be more of a leader in the field.
3. ABOTMA should be focused on expanding the Mountaingrass festival even if it means relocating it
This item builds from those in Part A items 4&7 and also connects to options in the 5 year plan.
This outcome supports those results and further reinforces the community’s connection with Harrietville.
4. ABOTMA should move more into leadership, funding, marketing, administration and development of the music and have a separate festival organisation arm
This items gauges expectations over the future of ABOTMA activities and how attention should be focused going forward.
This item explored support for having two separate arms of ABOTMA – a festival organisation committee and an industry peak body. The results show no particular preference, but when taken with other results it does show that people want more functionality from ABOTMA beyond just organising the Mountaingrass festival.
Part C: ABOTMA Members
This part looked at the membership of ABOTMA, including their interests and expectations. As the survey was extended to non-members, this section also serves as a view of those who attend the festival and/or those just interested in the music.
The survey ended with an open ended statement on what would make a person more likely to join or renew their ABOTMA membership. This was to gather ideas for consideration going forward.
1. Are you a current or past member of ABOTMA?
As this survey was conducted at the beginning of the 2016/17 financial year, the results might reflect a combination of the previous year. In any case, membership of ABOTMA was stated by around 78% of respondents, which is a strong connection.
2. Do you play/sing bluegrass and/or old time music?
There is a strong connection between the audience participation in this field rather than being a passive observer. In bluegrass and old time music this is significantly greater than nearly every other type of music. A jazz, rock or classical music festival would not have anywhere near the proportion of audience that is an active participant as well. The result shows around 71% of respondents play or sing at some level. This furthers consideration given to holding more classes or information sessions in addition to concerts.
3. What instrument do you primarily play?
This question sought to measure interest for workshops as well as understanding membership interests. Bear in mind, however that many persons play (and are interested) in more than one instrument but in order to not make the question too complex, it sought only their main one.
Guitar and bluegrass banjo were the main instruments chosen. Unsurprisingly too, the instrument makers who display at the festival tend to be of these two instruments more than others.
4. What other related festivals have you attended in the past 3 years, or plan on attending in 2016?
When Harrietville started in 1988 it was the only dedicated bluegrass gathering available. There are now a number of bluegrass/old time themed (as opposed to folk festivals) festivals throughout Australia and throughout the year and most people attend a number of them. 108 people responded that they have attended at least one of the listed specific bluegrass themed festivals with a total of 309 attendances – an average of around 3 per respondent.
As a large proportion of respondents were Victorian (see Q5), it is not a surprise to see these festivals feature most, however the pulling power of Mountaingrass needs to be maintained to remain prominent in a competitive and growing field.
5. What State/Territory or Country do you live in?
This question helps demonstrate economic benefits of the festival to the local community as well as furthering the understanding of member demographics. There is no doubt that Victoria is the ‘bluegrass belt’ of Australia with the most number of festivals, fans and bands. This may be the result of a combination of a stronger culture of live music and a more concentrated population.
6. What is your gender?
The next two items were to gain more information about the make-up of the bluegrass community. Two pressure points are undoubtedly the need for more female participation and a younger age demographic – preferably both. In the music at large, there is currently an increase in female involvement and this must be brought to the local scene. Encouragement of female participation is important, as are options to do other things during the festival that don’t necessarily involve watching or playing bluegrass. This is something the Kelly Country Pick does well as the location within Beechworth provides other family friendly activity options besides the festival itself.
7. What is your age group?
This is probably the area of the greatest concern. Nearly 80% of respondents were aged 56 or more and only one single respondent was aged less than 25 years. With only 8% being aged less than 45 years, it is imperative that the festival and organisation has a plan in place going forward to promote a more youthful appeal.
While it’s not the role of this paper to analyse solutions, it is also obvious that young people are more time poor than their older, retired colleagues and previous responses that heavily favour retaining Harrietville as a location may not translate to the wider group who often cannot give up as much time needed to attend a festival in a remote location.
In addition, consideration could be given to involve area school children in performances or other involvement (such as is done at the Karuah and Dorrigo festivals). Highlighting youth achievement through a dedicated concert is another possibility for the committee to consider further.
Given the age demographics of the survey respondents (and taking into account the responses to the instrument played question), it is obvious that a sizeable number of musicians that have performed at the festival have not responded to the survey. It’s difficult to assume whether they sensed the survey wasn’t aimed at them, or felt unwilling to provide input, but a greater proportion of their views would have added significantly to the broader picture.
14 September 2016