The Business Of Boutiques: How Big Ears And Knoxville Is A Win-Win-Win

Adventures In Audio:
Eli Johnson
– Adventures In Audio:
Jaga Jazzist playing at the 2018 edition of the Big Ears Festival, a boutique gathering started in 2009 that
During one half-hour period March 22, music lovers fortunate enough to be in Knoxville, Tenn., will have three amazing options: ambient legend Harold Budd, performing at a Methodist Church; Israeli jazz musician Shai Maestro’s piano trio; and jazz quintet Code Girl with Mary Halverson and vocalist Amirtha Kidambi. Not only will these performances happen before dinnertime, but they’ll be within a few minutes’ walk of one another.
A spoil of choices has awaited music lovers each March since 2009 – minus a break from 2011 to 2013 – in downtown Knoxville at the Big Ears Festival, perhaps the country’s least-expected gathering of out-of-the-mainstream, experimental and avant-garde music. 
“The audience for adventurous music is stronger than it’s ever been,” said Ashley Capps, founder and CEO of AC Entertainment, the festival’s producer. “There’s something energizing and galvanizing about bringing people for a shared, common purpose. When you’ve got 120 different concerts to choose from, you have an opportunity to explore in a unique and exciting way.”
The obvious question is why Knoxville, a relatively small city of 185,000 that hugs the western slopes of the Great Smoky Mountains, would host such a forward-thinking event. That Big Ears takes place in Knoxville can be attributed to AC Entertainment, founded in 1991 by resident and promoter Capps. Since its founding, AC Entertainment has ventured beyond its home town. Along with Superfly Productions, AC Entertainment produces Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival held in Manchester, Tenn. AC Entertainment also produces Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Ky., and WayHome Music & Arts Festival near Barrie, Ontario. “There’s still such a great jolt of energy with Bonnaroo,” said Capps, on the phone from Nashville. “The sheer spectacle of that experience is really exciting and energizing. But I love the scale of smaller festivals and the more intimate experiences.”
There’s something to be said for small-town festivals, but many have drawbacks. Although focused on downtown Austin’s grid of streets, SXSW has suffered from enough sprawl that bicycles are the most practical transportation. New York City’s CMJ in New York City was walkable yet chaotic in its heyday. Meanwhile, Toronto’s Canadian Music Week and San Francisco’s Noise Pop Festival are impractical for walking and lack small-town charm. Big Ears is notable for being a multi-venue event in a walkable, historic downtown district dotted with restaurants and hotels – think SXSW without hipsters on spring break and with considerably more NPR listeners. 

Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Knoxville
Juliette Larthe
– Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Knoxville:
Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce who this year will play on The Mill and Mine on March 22 at the Big Ears Festival.
Big cities certainly have advantages: a wealth of dining and lodging options, frequent inbound and outbound flights and near-countless diversions. But in small towns, festivals can build deep community ties while owning a good chunk of the calendar. In Knoxville, Big Ears can’t get drowned out. And the event attracts culture and visitors that might otherwise pass the town by. In both mission and experience, Big Ears is more like Lotus Festival, the 25-year-old world music festival that takes place in the venues and on the streets of downtown Bloomington, Ind., population 85,000. 
The 2019 Big Ears, running from March 21-24, will host a typically broad range of music. Rock fans will clamor for Spiritualized and Mercury Rev. Jazz lovers can see Sons of Kemet, the Avishai Cohen Quartet, Bill Frisell and the Mesmerists and many more. 
Fans of traditional folk music will find a solo performance by American banjo master Bela Fleck, as well as a set by Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor, a collaborator of both the Kronos Quartet and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Other genres on offer include experimental punk, psychedelic rock and 12 straight hours of drone, from midnight to noon
Sunday. Big Ears is a musical buffet lacking anything resembling pop music. 
And, for the first time, Big Ears will host ballet. The Nashville Ballet will perform with music by Rhiannon Giddens, who delivered a keynote address at Big Ears in 2018 and is known as a member of Grammy-winning roots trio The Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Capps started Big Ears while seeking more programming opportunities for AC Entertainment. The festival went “hugely” from 2009 to 2010 with lineups featuring indie-rockers like The 
National, Vampire Weekend and The xx. But Capps put Big Ears on hold for three years while focusing on Moogfest in Asheville, N.C. 
After its return, Big Ears became a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, which provided the best structure for the event to realize its broader goals of education and community outreach. AC Entertainment still produces the festival, and it operates and manages two of Big Ears’ leading venues, the Bijou Theater and Tennessee Theater.
Today, Big Ears has a symbiotic relationship with Knoxville: the festival showcases music and the city showcases itself.
“I like to say that we bring the world to Knoxville, but we showcase Knoxville to the world,” said Capps, who sits on the Big Ears board. He added that the 2018 festival attracted people from 48 states and a dozen countries and had a four-day attendance of 16,700. Ticket sales were up 20 to 25 percent through mid-February.
As for economic impact, Knoxville receives about $500,000 of direct spending during Big Ears, according to Kim Bumps, president of Visit Knoxville. Coincidentally, Bloomington receives an equal amount of economic impact from Lotus Festival. 
Both Big Ears and Knoxville are something of anomalies in Tennessee. Knoxville lies 180 miles east of Nashville, the famed home of country music and an increasingly varied music scene. A $6.5-billion sector that drew 15.2 million visitors in 2018, tourism is Nashville’s second-largest industry – behind healthcare, not music. The annual CMA Festival, a four-day country music event, produced $61.2 million directly. (A statistic that’s even more impressive considering that that figure doesn’t include Bonnaroo, held the same week an hour southeast of Nashville.) Memphis, a hotbed of the blues, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, sits 200 miles southwest of Nashville, on the state’s southwest corner. Eleven million people from around the world visit Memphis annually, many for music-related attractions including blues-club-lined Beale Street, Elvis Presley’s Graceland home.
A festival that changes visitors’ expectations makes an incalculable impact. Because Knoxville sits in the shadow of Tennessee giants, Big Ears is in a position to help boost its host city’s profile. “It means a lot to our destination,” said Kim Bumps, president of Visit Knoxville. “It showcases Knoxville to the rest of the world as a unique, vibrant destination that welcomes all of the different ways to enjoy music.” Similarly, Lotus Festival, held by 501(c)(3) organization Lotus Education & Arts Foundation, helps Bloomington show off its inclusive nature. “Here in the middle of Indiana, it’s the impact on our culture that’s huge for us,” said Mike McAfee, executive director of Visit Bloomington. “Lotus Festival is the best picture of 
diversity you can see.”
If you find yourself at The Standard at 6 a.m. on Sunday, March 24, halfway through a nonstop, 12-hour drone and ambient music concert performed by almost two dozen artists in succession, you might awaken, disoriented, and wonder where you are. The answer is easy: you’re in Knoxville.