Jazz Festivals: A Guide to Attracting a Younger Audience

As the attendance of long withstanding patrons, musicians, volunteers, and trad jazz enthusiasts wanes, what does the future of the jazz festival community look like? Or should we say, who will be entrusted to carry on its beloved traditions? These seem to be the recurring questions going around in the jazz festival community today, and leave many people wondering: what’s next?

Consider this: today less than 20% of the festival market is under the age of 40. This gives good cause for concern when we think about who will carry on the tradition of these jazz festivals. Festival leaders must take care to communicate the community’s values if they want to see the tradition and festival format live on. The key to passing on the torch successfully over the next several years involves investing in a younger, well-educated audience who cares deeply for the art of live traditional jazz music. In this article, I would like to explore several things festival leaders can do differently to tap into a younger market of vintage jazz enthusiasts. This market already exists and is growing by the minute.

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Since starting my band in Iowa three years ago, Joe Smith & the Spicy Pickles has been playing almost exclusively for swing dancers at Lindy Hop dance events all over the country. In addition to leading the band, I have been managing and promoting swing dance events for the past 6 years in college scenes and in Denver with the non-profit company CMDance. Having been invited to play at a handful of jazz festivals this year, I have been hearing a recurring conversation among organizers and patrons about how to get a younger generation involved in the festival scene. As someone fairly new to this community, but with several years of experience in the swing dance scene, I have some ideas on how to connect swing dancers with jazz festivals.

So you want to attract swing dancers?

To start, you don’t have to convince them—they already love the music. They love what it represents and they are willing to travel to see and dance to their favorite bands. They also love to be a part of a special community that honors the tradition of jazz music. To attract and sustain dancers at their events, festival organizers need to cater to their needs as dancers. Organizers must think about re-imagining their marketing, promotion, venue set-up, and payment structure if they want to draw swing dancers to their festivals. If you are a jazz festival organizer interested in growing your numbers and passing on your passion, here are some tips to help your event become more dancer friendly:

1. Hire bands that specialize in playing for swing dancers. This is the easiest bet, as these bands are known names in the swing dance community and likely already have a following. If dancers know a favorite band will be at your festival, they are more likely to invite their friends and show up. Playing for dancers is different than playing for a sitting audience. Trad jazz is fun to listen to, but many dancers these days prefer swing music because of its distinct rhythms and patterns. Different rhythmic structures call for different types of movement. The “swing out” is the most common pattern of movement that brings lindy hoppers delight. Having a good mix of both swing and traditional jazz (and advertising as such to dancers) is a good way to get them out on the dance floor.

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2. If you want bands with little exposure in the “swing dance world” to play well for dancers, help them by giving them a few pointers on what dancers like: no songs over five minutes long, danceable tempos between 80 and 200 bpm (beats per minute), and a driving rhythm section. Exposing dancers to new bands who don’t typically play for dancers is a great way to broaden their horizon and bring publicity to unknown bands (i.e., bridge the gap between swing dancers and jazz festivals).

3. Have a good quality dance floor at your event. My wife and I have attended a few jazz festivals where dance floors have been advertised but have not held up well over the course of the weekend. Very quickly, these floors start to come apart when people are dancing on them and create a tripping hazard. There are several groups who specialize in providing high quality flooring for dance events. These floors are easy to put together and last longer than your standard hotel dance floor.

4. Try not to hide the dance floor(s) in the corners of the room. Dancers love being able to see the musicians, and as a musician, I love being able to see the dancers. One of the really special things about this music is its ability to inspire people to move. There is a spontaneous conversation/interaction that happens musically between the dancers and musicians and this can’t happen if the dancers are far away from the band. It’s a good idea to have one dedicated venue available where you can put a dance floor in front of the stage. This will create a focused space where dancers can spend the majority of their time interacting with the music and the band.

5. Think about offering dance lessons throughout the weekend. If you really want to attract a younger audience, find professional Lindy Hop instructors or dance troupes that travel the country and can draw a crowd. Many are willing to help promote your event to the dancers that they regularly teach. Instructors and troupes are dedicated first and foremost to quality music. They also bring top-notch dance instruction and help get people out on the dance floor.

6. Consider hiring younger bands that share similar goals and represent your festival’s values. It’s often less intimidating for younger dancers to show up if there are others represented in their age group; people tend to identify and invest in their peers. Younger dancers are also more interested in supporting start-up groups they know and believe in.


7. Think about re-branding your event to reach a different crowd. A successful example I’ve seen by an established festival is the Redwood Coast Music Festival, which also operates under the name “Emerald Coast Lindy Exchange.” This festival offers a substantial discount to dancers under the age of 25, those still in school, and those who are working to get on their feet in the world. I have heard some organizers worry about offering such a deep discount to dancers for fear of lost revenue. This is not true, as you are bringing in people who wouldn’t otherwise know about or come to your festival. You are bringing in an untapped audience, raising awareness, and connecting your musicians with a different audience. You are investing in the future of the jazz festival, and that is what will keep it going.

8. Explore how you can expand your marketing efforts. To reach a new market, you must adapt to the times or hire someone who can help you. Social media is the quickest way to reach the under 40 crowd today. You can start by creating a Facebook page and an event. Consider doing both organic and paid marketing via Facebook to cast a wider net outside your personal social network. Initiate contact with your local swing dance groups to let them know about your festival, and ask them for help in promoting to their friends. Get creative with these groups, and collaborate to support each other’s events. Consider offering incentives to a few key stakeholders who are well respected within the local swing dance community. Having support and involvement from these folks will be critical to drawing a younger crowd at your festival. A key motivator for getting dancers to your event is convincing them that their friends will be there.Joe Smith and Spicy Pickles

With the swing dance community gravitating towards authentic traditional jazz and swing music, now is the perfect opportunity to reach out to them. Find ways to foster relationships with younger folks to get them involved with your local festival. They can contribute to the jazz festival scene in a myriad of ways, whether it be through attending as a dancer, teaching workshops or performing, volunteering to help with the event logistics, leading your social media campaign, or becoming a donor—every bit can help. Do your part to keep the traditional jazz festival community alive and invest in the younger generation today!

Joe Smith is the bandleader and Trumpet player for Joe Smith & the Spicy Pickles Jazz Band based in Denver, Colorado. He is the music director for the Denver Jazz Festival (formerly Denver Vintage Jazz Festival). Joe Smith is also the owner and piano technician for 5280 Piano Tuning. Joe Smith can be reached for feedback and your questions via email at [email protected] or via phone at (720) 737-4680.

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