Q’s With Beale Street Music Fest’s Jim Holt: 100K Fans In Search Of Authenticity

Beale Street Music Festival
Brandon Johnson
– Beale Street Music Festival
Beale Street Music Festival is on track for another close-to 100,000 tickets sold with a major lineup and extremely affordable tickets.

Beale Street Music Festival seems like a somewhat humble operation on the surface: It’s put on by local nonprofit Memphis In May, which stages events such as the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest and the Great American River Run. It in fact used to be quite humble, with the first edition taking place in 1977 in the city’s nightclub district, headlined by B.B. King with tickets costing a cool $2.

At the scenic Tom Lee Park since 1990, the Tennessee event has since grown into one of the year’s major events. Now in its 43rd year, it attracts up to 100,000 (paying) fans, and this year May 3-5 features Dave Matthews Band, The Killers, Cardi B, Khalid, and G-Eazy on its three stages (plus one dedicated blues tent and local artist side stage). 

The lineup is 60-strong, with the undercard having draws like Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Moon Taxi, Rodrigo y Gabriela and many others. And maybe the most surprising part is the ticket price – $135 for a three-day pass.

Memphis in May CEO Jim Holt got his start at Mid-South Concerts in the early ’70s, run by Bob Kelley, and has been at Memphis In May since 1998. The lineup is booked by Alabama-based talent buyer and amphitheatre operator Red Mountain Entertainment, which was recently acquired by Live Nation.
Pollstar: How is the BSMF lineup curated? 
Jim Holt: We’re the birthplace of blues and home of the rock n roll, so that’s the core underlying thing we look at. Then we look for potent acts that are going to have very strong audience appeal. We’re known for having a very electric, diverse lineup. We try to cover a very broad spectrum of genres.
What are you particularly excited about this year? 

Jim Holt
– Jim Holt
Memphis In May CEO

I’m excited when we get a good public response, which we’ve had with this lineup. We’ve got some old favorites, we’re bringing Dave Matthews Band who’s played with us a couple times. The Killers were last here in ’05, there’s a lot of excitement about Cardi B making her Memphis debut, Khalid is a very hot artist, G-Eazy played for us before, this is the first time OneRepublic played the festival. We’re looking to really mix it up and bring a lot of fresh new artists. We have a total of about 25 artists making their debut this May. 

Your fans are coming from pretty far and wide, right?
We’re up to all 50 states now, when I looked over the weekend we’re up to 14 foreign countries. We get a real strong response from Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, but we’ve got music lovers coming from Argentina, Sweden, Japan and Germany. Our city’s got such a great heritage. A lot of great music fans aspire to one day visit Memphis. There’s historic Beale Street, Sun Studios, Stax, Museum of American Soul Music. We know our immediate area, and sell a lot of tickets within 200 miles, but also have about 45 percent of our buyers from outside the 200-mile radius. 
What separates BSMF from the rest, and what are so many fans looking for when they come?
What they appreciate and enjoy is they’re having a very authentic experience. They’re coming to the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll. You’re at the foot of historic Beale Street where blues was born and really began. It’s real, it’s kind of a purist environment – we don’t have Ferris wheels or fireworks and major art exhibits and things like that. There’s a tremendous number of musical attractions in our city, including the nightclub district and world-class barbecue restaurants. When you’re in the park you’re focused on the music and then you have the whole city as a playground.
How do you keep the ticket so cheap?
We are probably the most affordable festival in the country. A three-day pass is $135 right now. 
That’s hard to beat for the caliber of artist that we present each year. Memphis is not a particularly high-income market. A normal $250-300 ticket would be out of reach for many. We operate on an incredibly narrow margin – we’re a community nonprofit. Our average operating margin is 2 percent, and that doesn’t include weather contingencies that can easily wipe that out. 
And last year was a record-breaker.
We had our highest gross ever, about $4.6 million, with just a great lineup last year – Jack White, Queens of the Stone Age, Odesza, Erykah Badu, Alanis Morissette, Post Malone. It was just a great overall lineup, and the weather was perfect in a beautiful setting and we had a lot of fun. I think it’s going to be bigger this year. We’re celebrating our bicentennial, which occurs May 22. We went a little deeper budget-wise, so I think that’s reflected in the lineup.
What makes the festival business so difficult?
Everybody wants to be in the music business, and a festival is an attractive space to get into. A lot of commercial entities have gotten into it in a big way in recent years. If you’re doing it from a commercial perspective, you don’t have to do it every year. You can try it for a few years and if it doesn’t make money you go away. There’s a core financial-gain perspective for many, and that’s not the role we have here. We’re here to promote and celebrate the city’s rich musical heritage.