In 2009, about 2 percent of visitors to Arkansas went to a rock or pop concert, according to a report by Longwoods International, a marketing research and consulting firm.
While that number might not seem significant, these visitors spent nearly $107.6 million in the state. And several recent and pending music-related developments could increase the number of music tourists – and revenue – coming to Arkansas.
Festivals play a big part in bringing in music-related visitor dollars. Some of these are regional in nature and are attended mostly by residents, while others attract attendees from around the nation and the world with top-notch talent.
The Arkansas Blues & Heritage Festival in Helena is one of the state’s largest music fests and has been a major economic engine for the area. Organizers are betting this year’s festival, which takes place in October and is in its 25th year, will be among the best-attended in its history. They plan to announce several “big name” headlining artists by May 3, said Munnie Jordan, director of the festival.
Another Arkansas music event gearing up for a big year is the Wakarusa Music & Camping Festival, which kicks off June 3 at Mulberry Mountain near Ozark. Though it started in 2004 outside of Lawrence, Kan., Wakarusa moved to Arkansas last year, hosting about 11,000 people.
So far, ticket sales are brisk, about double the number for this time last year, and organizers expect attendance could approach 15,000, said Brett Mosiman, director of Wakarusa.
As far as permanent musical attractions go, plans are under way for a $22 million, 16,000-seat outdoor amphitheatre in western Benton County. The Osage Creek Performing Arts Center was approved by the Benton County Planning Board in January and is scheduled to be complete by late summer, said Bert Piraino, vice president of operations for the center.
There isn’t a similar venue within a 300-mile radius, so Osage Creek would definitely attract visitors from the surrounding states, Piraino said.
At its peak attendance in 1999, the Arkansas Blues & Heritage Festival, previously known as the King Biscuit Blues Festival, brought in perhaps as many as 100,000 people over the course of three days, said Bubba Sullivan, one of the founders of the event. An exact count is difficult, though, because for the first 23 years, the festival was free, he said.
“I was one of the founders, along with some other people, back in 1986, and nobody had any idea it would do what it did,” he said. “But there’s so much history here, it turned out really good.”
That history is a big part of why people visit Helena and attend the blues festival, which has been a financial boon for an area that has seen some hard times during the last few decades.
According to the 2008-09 Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism annual report, the festival generated more than $31 million in tourist spending in Philips County and fostered 312 travel-generated jobs there with an annual payroll estimated at more than $5 million, Jordan said.
Helena-West Helena is also close to the intersection of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Miss. – the “crossroads” where blues legend Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil. Many of the blues history buffs visiting that region also come to Arkansas, Sullivan said.
Sullivan owns a record store on Cherry Street in Helena called Bubba’s Corner, and he has hosted guests from all over the world, including Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin and John Kay of Steppenwolf.
“I have a guestbook in here, and people are just blown away,” he said. “There’s at least three or four foreign countries in here a week, just making that Southern Delta tour. They’re just fascinated by the culture here. They’re fascinated by the music and the food.”
Attendance for the festival was down last year, at about 30,000, but that was probably a result of rain and colder weather, Jordan said.
But for 2010, the festival should garner much greater attendance from the big acts organizers are courting, she said.
“It’s the largest tourism attraction in eastern Arkansas,” she said.
Moving a successful festival can be a risky endeavor, but judging from the feedback organizers have gotten, Wakarusa’s transition from Kansas to Mulberry Mountain, outside of Ozark, has been a big hit, said Mosiman, the director of the festival.
The festival has always drawn people from all over the country, and that trend continued after the move. So far, people from 45 states have bought tickets to the 2010 festival. The peak attendance for Wakarusa when it was in Kansas was about 17,000 in 2006, Mosiman said.
The lineup this year includes jam band veterans Widespread Panic, Ohio blues two-piece the Black Keys, Frank Zappa offspring Dweezil Zappa, Chicago progressive rockers Umphrey’s McGee and 80 other acts from across the musical spectrum.
“Probably anywhere from 70 to 80 percent of the patrons come from out of state,” he said.
No matter which direction they come from, the odds are good that festival-goers spend money on gas, food, beverages and other essentials in Arkansas. Many of the visitors to Wakarusa’s Web forums have inquired about other attractions in the state.
“A lot of what we’re seeing on our boards now is that people want to come early or stay late. They’re asking what state parks to visit, what canoe rental places are around and where they could camp before or after the event,” Mosiman said.
“I know that the three or four nearest towns were all out of hotel rooms during the event. We were putting people in Springdale and Alma,” he said. Springdale is about an hour and a half away from Ozark, and Alma is 30 minutes away.
As for whether Wakarusa and its throngs of music lovers have been good for businesses in Ozark, the answer is “unequivocally, yes – and then some,” said Fred Romo, Ozark Chamber of Commerce director.
“It was a good, positive experience for this area to have thousands of people come into town, as well as being so well-behaved as they were,” Romo said.
Spa City Vapors
Another Arkansas festival that will expand in 2010 is Valley of the Vapors in Hot Springs, which takes place March 17-21 and is in its sixth year, said Bill Solleder, who founded the event along with Shea Childs.
Valley of the Vapors is much smaller in scale than Wakarusa or the blues festival, but it still brings in hundreds of visitors. In 2008, the city gave the festival its Tourism Organization of the Year Award.
“It was a shocker for us. We were like, ‘Wow, really?'” Solleder said.
This year, VOV expanded from one venue to two. It will host 40 bands, including acts from Canada, Japan and Brazil. The host venues for VOV this year are Maxine’s, on Central Avenue, and Low Key Arts on Arbor Street.
Solleder said he and Childs are somewhat wary about using the term festival to describe Valley of the Vapors, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that is run by volunteers.
“People often see festivals as these very large things,” he said. “We have to use the term ‘festival’ very loosely, because people are expecting, one, [to be] outside, and two, a hundred portable toilets to choose from.”
This year, Solleder and Childs expect about 400 people to attend the festival each night. Outside of Arkansas, they are primarily marketing VOV in Dallas, Memphis and Oklahoma City.
The event focuses largely on independent bands and features several Arkansas acts.
As far as growth is concerned, Solleder said he wants to make sure the event is always intimate, with attendees getting to meet and rub elbows with the performers.
“The way we’re trying to expand is through workshops and panels and becoming more of something people where can bring children out and not only see a great show, but learn something,” he said.
Renamed Highway 67 a ‘Long-Term Project’
Live performances aren’t the only music-related tourist draws in the state.
In March 2009, Gov. Mike Beebe signed a bill, drafted by state Rep. J.R. Rogers of Walnut Ridge, designating U.S. Highway 67 in Randolph, Lawrence and Jackson counties as the “Rock n’ Roll Highway,” so named for the legendary performers who frequented the clubs along the road in the 1950s and ’60s.
Some of the biggest names in 20th century popular music – Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash, among many others – cut their teeth at venues like Bob’s King of Clubs in Jackson County.
Business owners in the area hope that increased publicity for the highway’s musical history, along with the Rock n’ Roll Highway 67 Music Festival in Pocahontas, which started last October, will increase tourism, said Linda Collins-Smith, president of the Randolph County Tourism Association.
“I’m really excited,” she said. “We could develop this highway to bring visitors and revenue to our area. And it’s much needed.”
Collins-Smith is interested in seeking grants to promote the highway, possibly through having it designated as a scenic byway.
“It’s one thing to say, let’s name a highway, but this is not a one-year or two-year or three-year project,” she said. “This is a long-term project, and we have to commit to developing the highway to get tourists here.
“We want to get them from Memphis. When they stop and they come to the rock n’ roll festivals and go to Elvis’ home, we want them to come up 67. And we think we’re going to be able to do that.”