It was 4 pm and the temperatures were pushing 100 degrees. But that didn't seem to discourage anyone: The grassy knoll at Les Schwab Amphitheater was crowded; a few hundred concertgoers gathered on a patchwork of red, gray and blue blankets. Some sheltered under umbrellas while others shuttled between their sun-warmed beers and the nearby Deschutes River to jump in and cool down. A few dogs and children weaved through the audience with seemingly no owners or parents.
Sassparilla, a Portland rockabilly band, played a danceable set, although no one felt much like dancing in the scorching heat except for a few brave, shoeless souls who made their way to the front of the stage. Then, when the set was done, the band members walked off the stage and into the sweltering audience to finish up with some old-fashioned acoustic porch tunes.
The concert was part of the St. Charles FREE Summer Sunday Concert series that happens most Sundays from early June to early August. As its name advertises, it costs patrons nothing except their time, whatever they brought in their coolers and, prior to the show, sort of like a popup ad for a YouTube clip, a few minutes listening to facts about the maternity ward of a local hospital, the sponsoring agency.
What is perhaps most interesting about last Sunday's concert is not that it is free, but that almost every other summer concert in Bend also is free. In fact, last Sunday's FREE Summer Sunday Concert was the first of eight free outdoor shows scheduled over seven days.
Over the last few years, free shows have become the rule, not the exception in Bend. Concert series based on alliteration and ampersands like Munch and Music, Alive After 5 and the popular Pickin' and Paddlin' crowd the summer calendar. Starting last week, Mondays are claimed by Pop Up Picnic Shows hosted at Cosmic Depot; on Tuesdays, GoodLife has live music on its yard-game filled grassy patio; Wednesdays are the year-round indoor free concerts at McMenamins, which are joined during the summer months by the Alive After 5 series in the Old Mill and monthly by Pickn' & Paddlin'; on Thursdays Munch and Music takes over Drake Park and the weekends are stuffed with festivals like Hullabalo, Summerfest and Bite of Bend that bring nationally touring acts to the popup stages for the price of free.
Much like the Internet's sprawling encyclopedia of free information, the growing abundance of free concerts in Bend is conditioning consumers to expect culture at no cost. Of course, the Internet has popup and banner ads, and Bend's free concerts have banners and sponsors—but, what do those cost us? A blink of an eye's distraction? And then, like mosquitoes, so easily swatted away. Increasingly, this model—culture and information provided free—is expected. But is it sustainable? What does it really cost? Could Bend's free concert culture provide answers for even larger, 21st century business models?
Something for Nothing
The idea of entertainment for free is nothing new. In the late '70s, a group of young aspiring journalists started the Chicago Reader, one of a new brand of so-called alt-weeklies. It was the first generation of such city papers, like Village Voice in New York and Bay Guardian on the West Coast. The newspapers were popular with young, urban, hip residents. But until that time, although wildly different in tone and attitude, the papers were like their daily compatriots in that they charged money for the latest edition.
In a bold move—and, at the time, one widely chided by other newspapers—the Chicago Reader began giving away the newspaper—for free! The concept was that advertisements and classified ads would provide a sufficient revenue flow to buoy the newspaper editorial content.
That model, obviously, has proven successful. There are more than 80-some successful free alt-weeklies in the country, including this newspaper, and the free distribution model served as a blueprint for other mediums—like, oh, say, a small thing called the Internet.
The World Wide Web has left us gluttonously spoiled with a flood of entertainment and information at our fingertips—and, like no other time in history, all at no cost. Likewise, many promoters in Bend are delivering free music in the same mass-distributed way—free music sponsored by, well, sponsors like BendBroadband and St. Charles Medical Center, which provide funding in return for brand marketing.
But that model is still relatively young and, in a midsize market like Bend, still is figuring out its capacity and potential.
"As a promoter there is an absurd amount of saturation," said Gabe Johnson, founder of Bend-based booking agency In the Pocket Artists and president of Parallel 44 Presents promotions. "We're in an awkward growing pain phase where there's not quite enough market share for everybody."
Like the Internet and streaming music services like Spotify that offer free access to information and entertainment at seemingly no cost, Bend's free shows are transforming expectations from the demand-side for entertainment. A recent Pew Charitable Trusts study found that most Internet users take their content for free. Only one-third of users pay for music they listen to or download and, perhaps more applicable, only 11 percent of users pay for premium services on a website that otherwise offers free material. But, in particular, as the business model for music shifts from its 20th century of record and ticket sales, such free distribution models are straining the direction and flow of revenue.
Just last week, for example, Thom Yorke pulled Radiohead's entire musical catalog from Spotify, citing that artists only make fractions of a penny for each play of a song. Spotify responded that the service helps new artists reach new audiences, leaving the debate unanswered whether fortune (or at least working wages) and (relative) fame can coexist in the current model.
Locally, the closure of the Horned Hand partially exhibits the difficulty the traditional pay-to-listen model has: Typically, the Horned Hand charged $5 for shows, a reasonable price considering it was booking some of the best up-and-coming bands in the region. Yet, in its two years of business, the venue struggled to consistently fill shows—that in spite of its reputation throughout the region as one of the best places for touring bands to play in Central Oregon—a reputation the venue earned in no small part by awarding 100 percent of door proceeds to the touring bands, a rarity in the music business. But 100 percent of zero is still zero.
In a free model, bands still typically get paid and promoters (sometimes) see high attendance, but the presentation of free shows every night of the week creates new issues and challenges the concept that a small town like Bend can support a healthy and quality musical economy.
"No one should sleep on free shows," said Jason Graham, the man behind the local hip-hop group MOsley WOtta, who plays many of the free events locally. "Bands shouldn't be relying on it, and promoters shouldn't assume that people will turn out just because of free music and beer."
They pay. We play.
In the first episode of Mad Men, quintessential '60s ad man Don Draper explains in a pitch, "Advertising is based on one thing: happiness."
While billboards for Lucky Strikes that placate health concerns and instant-coffee ads that claim to be husband-pleasing may seem as relevant as horses and buggies, the baseline that advertising still aims to deliver happiness hasn't budged.
The free model is an opportunity for marketing-savvy businesses and corporations to sponsor events and promote their brands. Bend corporations are signing up left and right to fund cultural events and are on par with a larger national trend.
"The use of sponsorship has been increasing," confirmed Colleen Bee, assistant professor of marketing at Oregon State University. According to the 2012 IEG sponsorship report, 72 percent of businesses were considering new sponsorship and 36 percent of those were planning an increase in their sponsorship budgets from the previous year. Bee said that about 60 to 80 percent of sponsorships are sports-related—two-thirds of professional baseball stadiums are now named after a funding sponsor—but that artistic and cultural sponsorships are also on the rise.
"The recession caused a slight slow-down in the growth of spending, but global spending on sponsorship has consistently increased each year," explained Bee. "Sponsors are often hoping for a positive image transfer from the event (e.g., Olympics) to their brand or company (e.g., Coca-Cola)."
Many major music festivals are now coated with sponsorship. At South By Southwest, the 26-year-old festival in Austin, Texas, sponsorships include the Doritos Stage, The Verizon Wireless Stage and BrooklynVegan Day Parties. Every company wants to be associated with the next big thing, and to piggyback on the coolness of an event or band.
BendBroadband is one company locally that has turned a passion for community giving into a marketing opportunity. The cable company seems to have their name on every event in town, and employs a community relations and events manager, Sonja Donohue, whose entire job is to dole out over $750,000 allotted for philanthropic giving in BendBroadband's budget each year. Putting those dollars in the right places can be crucial for advertising success, and Donahue said that about 25 percent of the giving budget goes to cultural events including free and ticket concerts.
"Without a doubt there is an element of branding to it," admitted Donohue. "But our brand is our community involvement. We want to support and enhance our community, therefore, we choose to support arts and entertainment."
Keeping up with free
From one perspective, Bend's musical culture is booming: The town has more concerts, more new venues and more weekly shows than ever. On top of that, the sponsorship model sounds like a win-win. Businesses get their names out into the community and concertgoers get access to music. The problem lies in saturation diluting quality. When every night of the summer has a different event, booking big-name acts and competing with other events becomes a nightmare.
"When you find the right act, the only thing keeping you from booking is not finding the right date. It's now a game of Stratego," said Cameron Clark, owner of C3 Events, which books for both the 23-year-old Munch and Music, and paid events like the Peak Summer Nights concerts at the Athletic Club of Bend. "This has been my hardest year of booking. I've had great acts pass because they don't want to compete with other events."
Starting June 26, the shows have been endless. John Prine played the same Wednesday as Pickin' & Paddlin' on the river, followed by The Presidents of the United States on Thursday, Blind Pilot and Steve Miller overlapping on Friday, free music at the Pride Festival on Saturday at the same time as two daylong stages of music at Bite of Bend followed by evening shows at Crux and the Horned Hand. It's unreasonable to think that in a town of 80,000 people all of those musical events could be hugely successful, unless every music fan in town has a concert-attending doppelgänger. The numbers don't add up and by the end of the summer, locals are burned out and ready for a winter of hibernation.
"Last year Oktoberfest took a big hit, two years ago Little Woody was down," said Lee Perry of the Source's sister company Lay it Out Events. "With so many other free events we've had to raise our music budgets just to compete."
While we hope that the competition drives up the quality of entertainment, the abundance of free shows is reminiscent of so many other boom-and-bust situations that Bend has experienced. From having the two largest lumber mills in the nation (on land that is now a shopping center that, not surprisingly, hosts free concerts) to the fastest-growing and subsequently fastest-declining housing market in the country, to the current brewery boom, could Bend be facing yet another how-much-is-too-much predicament?
"I'm not sure that it's possible that there can be too much music or too much art or too much gathering. These are all things we value a great deal," said Clark. "But there is something kind of funny about the sheer quantity. As my wife says, 'I think there's still room between 3 pm and 5 pm on Tuesdays for someone to do a free series.' "