Business lessons from Bluesfest's Mark Monahan

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It’s hard to believe RBC Royal Bank Bluesfest got its start as a modest three-day event that drew 5,000 people to Major’s Hill Park in 1994.

RBC Bluesfest executive and artistic director Mark Monahan

by Elizabeth Howell

Twenty years later, it attracts more than a quarter-million spectators annually – as well as some of the world’s biggest acts – and injects $31.5 million into the local economy, according to organizers.

To mark its anniversary, OBJ spoke to Bluesfest founder Mark Monahan about starting the event, finding its first corporate sponsors and the advice he ignored along the way.

What was the original vision?

The original vision was to start a fundraising event for charity. It was Dinners Unlimited, a charity that was providing meals to the homeless. Around year two or three, we realized (Bluesfest) was becoming extremely popular and taking on a life of its own.

We are a registered charity, so the charitable purpose is to put on the event and fundraise for a number of different community programs. We have a program called Blues in the Schools, which includes 24 schools this year. We also have a program called Be In the Band, which allows teenagers to be in bands and mentored by local artists. We also started a Bluesfest School of Music & Art that runs year-round.

We see it as part of an overall corporate strategy. It’s part of our mandate, obviously, to promote music, and we associate many of those initiatives – music initiatives – with youth, which will lead to the ongoing success of the event. Kids will be aware of the power of music, and will be aware of the event, and then hopefully more open to supporting it or attending it.

What was the hardest part about launching a new music festival?

The hardest part was not really having a template to follow. There were no music festivals of this type at that time. So we were starting a popular music festival. It wasn’t a jazz festival, it wasn’t really a true blues festival, it was a popular music event. There was no template of that. A lot of modern music festivals now, they started 10 to 15 years ago. I’m not going to say we were the first, but there weren’t as many as there are now.

It was hard to figure out what the right musical mix was, and what people were looking for in a popular music event. A lot of it was trial and error in terms of different types of genres we programmed, what kind of headliners would draw people to an outdoor event, and then what was the demographic that was interested in attending an annual outdoor music festival.

I would say by year three or four it was definitely becoming much more popular. We were doubling and tripling in numbers from previous years. It became fairly obvious that we were on to something. I think it was just the diversification of the music acts we were promoting and presenting that really led me to see that we were on to something.

How did you finance the festival in the early years?

It was self-financed. Any surplus funds we had went into the next one. There really was no funding. There really was no investment. We didn’t have a lot of expertise in sponsorship, or how to get sponsors, so it was challenging. Very challenging. (We learned) through trial and error. We kept trying to find out what the sponsors wanted and come up with packages that could deliver that.

One of the very early sponsors we had was Mitel. This again was around the whole tech boom, the late ’90s, and Mitel was really the first sponsor not to have a direct consumer link to the event, which is interesting. Typically these events have a beer sponsor because obviously, people consume beer. They often have a soft drink sponsor. They often have sponsors that are trying to reach out to the public, like Xbox or back then, Sony PlayStation. Those things are fairly obvious. But the corporate sponsorship was not as obvious.

Mitel was not selling anything to the consumer. They were B2B, business to business. That was the first breakthrough, I would say, in trying to deliver benefits that are not obvious. I connected with Mitel’s investor relations person, and he said it was a two-pronged strategy: entertaining potential business clients, but also showing they were a good community-minded business working in Ottawa.

That was a goal of theirs, and that was really important, and we were then able to show sponsors – potential other sponsors – they could achieve those things by doing sponsorship, and that was a big breakthrough.

What was the best business advice you received?

I’m going to say – not that I followed it – not to grow too quickly. There were definitely points where we were ambitious and we tried to do things before we were ready for them. Around (the year) 2000, 15 years ago, we were doing things like trying to compost and being more aggressive on some of the greening aspects. But it was very expensive. We were trying to take on too much. We didn’t have the resources to do these things properly at that time. We actually needed more people and sponsors to do it effectively, and we ended up backing off on some of those things.

What was your most memorable Bluesfest moment?

It’s really difficult to pick out one moment. In recent years, I would say our move to LeBreton in 2007. The festival became much bigger there, and that was a memorable year. I would say it was really realizing its potential. It gave us the room we needed to meet the demand … We feel that’s our permanent home. We like it there.

What was your craziest idea?

I just came back from the Bonnaroo (festival) in Tennessee, and one of the things I’ve taken from there is you spend a lot of resources and time on non-music-related activities. They had a Christmas disco here, just a lot of fun, fun ideas that are not always kind of a cutting-edge thing. It’s fun. I’d like to think we’ll do some of that in Bluesfest, those things that make people laugh and have some fun.

What’s left to do?

I think the challenge is to keep the event fresh and exciting after 20 years. There is a tendency sometimes to become complacent, and we have experienced a certain amount of success, and I believe that’s the challenge, over the next five to 10 years, trying to keep the event relevant and fresh.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Organizations: Mitel, Bluesfest School of Music Art

Geographic location: Ottawa, Tennessee

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