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Audience Development: Down With Jazz!

Ireland’s Improvised Music Company produces a range of festivals and events, including a two-day annual festival, Down With Jazz, now entering its 6th year.  Based in Dublin’s cultural quarter in Temple Bar, the festival is built around the anti-jazz movement of the early 1930s in Ireland when the church and state denounced jazz as anti-moral and degenerate.  Kenneth Killeen explains how this history has helped to engage audiences: “There’s such a rich back story to the festival in the anti-jazz movement in 1930s Ireland, and we use that as a foil to attract media attention, because everyone loves a juicy story.  The Irish particularly love to look back at our not-so-distant past and then juxtapose that sharply with the progressive, modern, globalised world that we live in.”

Today’s festival reflects its two-fold aims; to attract new audiences to the music, and to showcase domestic jazz, as the programming consists exclusively of Irish musicians: “We wanted to give new audiences just a taste of the music, a kind of low barrier to entry, with a very inviting space and a good back story for which they could come along. People often just sit on the fence, and we wanted to just tilt them towards the festival.” The audience for the event is similar to that for IMC’s 12 Points festival, and at the opposite spectrum of the typical ageing jazz audience. IMC’s own audience research found that 70% of its Down with Jazz audience are in the 25 – 44 age group, of which 41% are 25 – 34, with an even gender balance.  This is attractive to sponsors, as Killeen confirms: “When you’re talking to sponsors, you say the word ‘jazz’ and you can just see them go blank.  You say 25– 44 and they’re engaged again…”
Constant data collection and follow-up is a mantra for IMC, who have found that 80% of their previous audience said they were highly likely or definitely going to return to future events, and 45% of whom were new to IMC events and jazz.  Killeen is convinced that despite IMC being a relatively small organisation, it’s important to invest time and resources in both collecting data and following this up: “One of the most important things we’ve done is to set up a very coherent structure for post-event follow-up and follow-through with audiences – for example, finding out how many people signed up to the newsletter after the show, or how many people bought tickets as the result of a press release.  It can be very resource intensive as a small organisation and it’s about your priorities, and our priority is to get as much data as possible to inform how we programme in the future. As a promoter you need to give people what they want, however sometimes they don’t know what they want until you they see it, so it’s really important for us to join the dots.”
IMC uses the back story to Down With Jazz as a primary strategy to engage its audiences, with clever programming as a secondary strategy: “There’s so much to be milked from the history, and the Irish thing of being able to poke fun at yourself is very important, and young people in particular identify with that.  We programme 5 bands per night and it attracts the curious people and those that are not into the idiom, and we sell them bits of bands they might know, and jazz musicians that may stretch their music into hip-hop or indie.  We ensure that the bands can keep the audience engaged.” Down With Jazz features younger bands and gives them a domestic platform, something that’s particularly important given the exponential increases in numbers of Irish music graduates with expectations about performing careers. 
Carving out a space for a new festival in a busy cultural centre like Dublin is challenging, and Killeen explains how Down With Jazz has succeeded in gaining traction with its audiences: “First, we make sure that we don’t undervalue the events – we had previously tried and failed with free tickets for events like the first year of 12 Points, and we now charge €15 per ticket for the night’s events.  We have a good slot in the calendar for the event – the June bank holiday weekend – although we know that it’s a competitive time, as other events like Body and Soul and Forbidden Fruit are vying with us for audiences.  Looking at the 25 – 34 audience, we know that the two biggest things that influence those people is word of mouth – because the value the opinion of their peers – and social media.  From the outset, we’ve developed a very strong social media campaign.  For example, in our first year (2012), we put a subversive spin on the event by setting up a Twitter account for Peter Conefrey, the priest who incited and led the anti-jazz rally in 1934.  We would put out 'good news' and his feed would lambast it.”
IMC does different campaigns each year to maximise social media interest in Down With Jazz – in 2015, on the 80th anniversary of the Dance Halls Act in Ireland, which effectively killed traditional live music in the process, the company issued an official fine in lieu of a ticket for its paying audiences.  The 1930s cottage the company built for selfies in the corner of the festival venue was extremely successful, with turf and a Virgin Mary over the fireplace: “It seems frivolous, but it’s got very strong parochial elements that everyone can identify with because they are strong stereotypes.  This selfie corner was a massive hit on social media as people took photographs, we engaged with them and the best ones got prizes. So we’re constantly trying to reinvent what it means to be at a music event and what ancillary activities can augment the musical experience.  The experiential concept at festivals is critical for audiences because they’re fickle – and especially our demographic because they’re discerning.  They’re also vocal – if it’s good and they’re vocal, that’s good for us. If it’s bad and it’s vocal, it just gets around like a bush fire. And we recognise that and we tap into it.  We don’t want passive audiences, we want active audiences who will go out and be ambassadors for what we do. To get people’s attention in a very noisy digital environment is hard but we like to think that we’ve got hooks that we can use and they’re very effective.”

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