Brass Band Festival must embrace change or continue decline

Published 5:12 pm Thursday, February 13, 2020


Contributing columnist

Congratulations to Missy Angolia for being named the next Great American Brass Band Festival executive director. Having been the first community-member executive director, I know the challenges facing you and wish you the best in this next season of your professional life. This position will require all the skills you have acquired, in addition to skills you didn’t know you would need, the most important one being discernment.

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The brass band festival is a business. It’s a federally certified 503(c)(3) non-profit, which means it holds tax-exempt status regarding certain taxes. It pays all the required payroll taxes for the paid staff but is exempt from other taxes.

Other than its tax status, the brass band festival is a business. It must make more money than it spends in order to maintain financial health. It also must evolve over time, know what its consumers want, and have the capacity to meet that need.

The first years of the festival were a director’s dream — former Norton Center director George Foreman had the vision while Mary Schurz, former publisher of the Advocate Messenger, provided the financial backing. Local businesses and industry also offered financial support for the event.

This combination brought world-class musicians and brass bands to Danville. Foreman had the musical cache to score groups like the Canadian Brass and even had the Singing Policeman Daniel Rodriguez perform the summer after 9/11. He brought musical groups from Germany, Japan and Great Britain. He had the ability to not only understand musicianship at its highest levels, but also the importance of entertaining the crowd. If the audience isn’t engaged, the audience will fade.

The brass band audience is fading because the festival has lost the entertainment part of Foreman’s vision.

In its heyday, Danville was inundated with people from all over the world. I can remember attending one of the first festivals and being amazed with the volume of humanity. People were everywhere! Parking was impossible. The city was decked out in red, white and blue bunting. Downtown businesses were decorated in anticipation of the influx of visitors. We had Brass Band Fridays, where everyone wore their brass band shirts. The unveiling of the newest poster and T-shirt design were anticipated with excitement.

Back in the day, the picnic was HUGE! There were tables in front of the stage and back on the hill in front of Old Centre. Table decorations were elaborate and so fun to see. People would jockey for seats in the shade to hide from the blinding early-evening June sunshine. Once the sun went down, the show geared up. The closer has always been a New Orleans-style band that got festival-goers on their feet, dancing and clapping.

It was the best of times. The business of the festival was meeting the needs and wants of its clients.

With the 31st iteration of the festival ahead, one must wonder how it’s gone from the premiere international tourist attraction for Danville to the current snooze-fest. Instead of it being a great music event with high entertainment value, it has become a brass band concert that could just as well be performed in a high school gym. The 127 Yard Sale brings more people to town than the brass band festival.

It is the worst of times. Why?

The challenge, as I see it, is that the festival organizers are so focused on maintaining high musical integrity that they have lost sight of the entertainment part of the event.

Danville-area residents are the clients for the festival business. What do they want? Does the brass band board ask that question? Is it a valuable tourism event that brings money to our community or is it a drain on local resources? Is it a musical event that supports the community or is it a musical event that is in the community?

Today’s festival is smaller in audience and in vision. Efforts of past directors, including myself, to try and make change have been met with an emphatic “no.” I wanted to make it into the Great American Music Festival and start bringing in music to attract a younger audience. Other directors have tried to bring change with the same results.

Is it time to shake up the brass band board or is it time to put the event to bed?

I wish Missy Angolia the best in her new role. Maybe she can bring a much needed shake up to the festival. If anyone can, it’s Missy.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” — Charles Darwin

Elaine Wilson-Reddy, JD, is a professional educator, consultant and advocate. She lives in Danville.