Growing inexorably from its roots in a parking lot crawfish boil at the Rockaway Athletic Club, Columbia’s Rosewood Crawfish Festival has hit its stride and has become a model of how to build a successful, sustainable, community music festival. What was once a few thousand people catching a few bands on a Saturday afternoon has now become 10,000+ attendees hearing over 15 bands on stages cunningly arranged over sprawling festival grounds with food, art, and surprises sprinkled throughout. A festival originally scheduled on what organizer Dave Britt described as “the first weekend we thought would be temperate enough” for such an event has now become an anchor of Columbia’s festival season, demanding that other events now be planned around its date. This stunning and persistent growth has been achieved by adhering to a few guiding principles, maintaining community involvement and appeal, and drawing on the work of an expanding army of happy volunteers and the deep pool of South Carolina musical talent.
Principles such as building on previous success, trying new things, and learning from each year’s experiences have allowed the Rosewood Crawfish Festival to continue to grow in size and popularity. Securing funds from the city of Columbia’s hospitality tax in 2006 permitted the festival to purchase a national headlining act. This solid base allowed the festival to start small, to grow each year based on increasing ticket and beverage sales, and to provide solid benefits to early corporate sponsors such as First Citizens Bank and Budweiser who continue their involvement today. By paying careful attention to the popularity of the musical acts, the organizers tailored the musical selections to suit the audience’s demand, which is a tricky task and can be the downfall of any festival. A signature blend of pop-rock, blues/jam-influenced rock, and Americana/folk acts supporting a national headliner brings the crowd to Rosewood every year so that is what organizer Dave Britt books. Measured ventures into hip hop and reggae have been tried with mixed success. Plans for an Electronic Dance Music stage were scrapped this year due to a lack of physical space, but do not be surprised to see acts from these and other genres work their way into the festival’s future lineups to keep the musical selection fresh. Exhaustive surveying efforts allow organizers to make sure that there is plenty of fun and appealing music for everyone who attends. When scheduling of the track and field season made the hugely popular pole vaulting contest no longer an option, Britt’s connections in the community lead him to Carolina Crossfit whose competitions were a huge hit this year and held a sizable crowd for a significant potion of the day. Participants in this year’s Crawdaddy Dash 5k (the day-opening road race is a South Carolina music festival staple) could choose to make it a biathlon by participating in the Crossfit competition as well. Paying attention to these types of success allow organizers the continue to grow and improve the festival each year.
The setting for the festival is fantastic. As Britt puts it, “Rosewood is simply the right market for the event.” The large number of artists and musicians in the neighborhood and their nearby friends and family make a great core around which a large base of attendees has been built. Local artists’ work fills the artists’ village area. Long-time establishments such as Rockaway Athletic Club and Pizza Man, as well as newcomers such as Foxfield, maintain a thriving food and beverage scene which is essential to the festival feeling like an extension of the community’s daily life. The Columbia Arts Academy provides a fresh supply of young musicians, which recording studio The Jam Room and music scene-supporters, Listen Local, helped bring to the festival by providing a stage on which groups of Academy students and teachers performed throughout the day. This was the second year that the Academy had a stage at the festival, providing important live performance experience to aspiring band members.
The festival grounds are extremely well apportioned. A large stretch of food vendors is supported by a dining tent and abundant hand washing stations. The variety and quality of food available (not just the obligatory crawfish but fried alligator, meatloaf cupcakes, fresh watermelon, and everything in between) makes it clear that food’s importance stretches beyond the event’s name. Expanding the festival grounds to the intersection of Rosewood and Harden allowed for ideal placement of the main stage at that intersection. Rosewood’s shaded side streets made for perfect pockets to house the other stages. The Howard Street stage in particular was a great location with a very backyard party feel. The most striking audio feature of the festival is that the stages are arranged to prevent bleed-over of sound between stages, evidence of Britt’s respect for the musicians and a factor that keeps the bands from feeling that they are competing with each other. Some families with young children left the festival earlier during the day in past years, so organizers moved the Li’l Crawdaddy Carnival area to one end of the grounds. This made an ideal space for families to hang out, play on inflatables, ride carnival rides, and generally steer clear of the louder stages and free-flowing beverages. Maintaining this family-friendly environment has allowed the Rosewood Crawfish Festival to remain popular with a segment of the surrounding community who might skip other festivals. Proper waste disposal and recycling are two of the vital tasks that the volunteers perform which help to keep the festival popular with local residents and businesses. The festival stays true to its Rosewood roots by making sure that proceeds go to improving neighborhood parks, recreational sites, and greenways as well as to supporting local charities.
The volunteer workforce sets up, cleans up, tears down, and generally makes the festival possible. Volunteer coordinator Missy Curls aims to make sure that her volunteer army has a safe and fun time doing their work. The volunteer coordination team works hard to tailor tasks to individual’s interests and level of proactivity. Curls’s goal is clear, “It’s a Saturday. I don’t want this to feel like work. These people need to enjoy what they’re doing” and she makes sure that the volunteers get more than just “a ticket and a t-shirt.” Corporate sponsorships help to support amenities and thank yous for the volunteers. Curls was ecstatic when the introduction of Everclear, this year’s headliner, began with “I would like to thank all of the volunteers.” Curls started as a volunteer herself, and worked her way into a globe-trotting career of production and event coordination. She strives to make sure that interested volunteers gain more experience and opportunities as they return year after year, happy to have a chance to participate in and enjoy the festival while learning about the logistics involved.
Playing well-organized festivals such as the Rosewood Crawfish Festival is a huge boost for developing bands at all levels. Festivals provide the performing bands a ready-made audience, staging and PA, and the opportunity to associate with other bands and industry professionals. Britt takes the popularity of playing in festivals and parlays that into a strong lineup of local, regional, and national acts. Every act in this year’s lineup, outside of the headliner, was a local band or a South Carolina act with strong local ties. Planning an event such as the Crawfish Festival often starts six months or more before the event date, so getting involved in the selection process is key for bands that want to perform. Other qualities that festival promoters are looking for include:
- bands that are actively playing and drawing an audience in the area
- professional manner
- active self-promotion
- family-friendly stage show
Developing and presenting these skills are how bands get selected to perform at prestigious events such as the Rosewood Crawfish Festival.