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VOL. 130 | NO. 135 | Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Memphis in May Faces Decisions in Offseason

By Bill Dries

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The stages in Tom Lee Park are down. Any leftover picnic blankets are long gone. The barriers at each end of Riverside Drive have given way to the return of traffic.

But Memphis In May International Festival’s offseason promises to be an eventful one, highlighted by the festival board’s decision on a replacement for the Sunset Symphony.


“They had been studying it for a while,” festival president and CEO Jim Holt said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind the Headlines.” “It’s our oldest event, 39 years old. The attendance hadn’t been quite as vibrant as it once was. Next year will be the 40th anniversary for the festival. So the decision was made to introduce a new event in 2016.”

Behind the Headlines can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com, and is hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News.

Holt offered no clues for what that new event could be.

“We haven’t decided,” he said. “We are looking at a number of different programs.”

When asked specifically about a festival presence outside of May, Holt said it is being discussed by the event’s board of directors.

“Probably the most optimal time would be in October,” he said.

The symphony was once the festival’s banner event drawing the largest turnout when the Beale Street Music Festival was a one-day event on Beale Street and the barbecue contest was on the parking lot north of The Orpheum Theatre.

That changed in the 1990s with the transition of the Beale Street Music Festival to a three-day event with multiple stages in an expanded Tom Lee Park.

Holt notes that even the music festival has changed, often in time with the music and concert businesses.

“The talent … is largely dependent based on artist availability and routing scenarios,” Holt said. “We work very diligently to put together a roster of artists that’s going to have broad-based appeal to the community. There’s a focus on the younger generation because they tend to be a little bit more active in terms of attendance.”

The festival doesn’t release attendance numbers. But approximately 100,000 people bought tickets for the three-day festival this year that took place under clear skies. More than half of those attending the music festival come from outside the 200-mile radius around Memphis, according to Holt.

He counts 850 similar music festivals in North America, which adds to the competition to book a lineup that lives up to its reputation.

“We had numerous artists who weren’t touring that we had fly in to play the festival this year,” Holt said. “Band of Horses is one example. They weren’t touring. We thought they would be a perfect fit with the Avett Brothers.”

The festival has about 66 slots for musical artists and the proximity on the calendar to the New Orleans Jazz Festival played a role this year in booking Ed Sheeran, Lenny Kravitz, Wilco and Hozier.

And about 10 to 15 percent of the festival slots go to local musicians.

“We like to feature the best of the best Memphis talent,” Holt said. “We take the artists that we feel are going to be the next big thing or break nationally.”

The one rain issue for this year’s month-long series of events came during the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. That event is likely to stay put despite the forced 2011 move to Tiger Lane at the Mid-South Fairgrounds, when the Mississippi River rose to a level that it spilled into Tom Lee Park.

Many of the teams liked the experience at the Fairgrounds.

“We surveyed the teams after the event that year to get their input because there was this question: Should be move it on a permanent basis?” he said. “And while the teams loved having the hardscape … and convenience of that, they missed the ambience of being on the river.”

This year, the contest featured 244 teams from 23 states and four foreign countries with 60 of the teams described by Holt as “serious, significant hard core competition teams that are not there for the party.”

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