Virtual Festival gets international ovation

Brass band plays outside a big mural
Photo by LeeAnn Stephen

A successful business strategy usually involves managing expectations: under promise, then over deliver. But in the case of this year’s first-ever Virtual Festival International, the bar was immediately set high. In the weeks leading up to the event, Festival Director Scott Feehan told sponsors — many of whom had generously committed to sticking with Festival, despite the absence of a physical event — to expect a world-class virtual show. “I told them to think about the level of event that we do; that’s what we’re about to do online,” Feehan says. “That kind of put us in a position where we had to do something cool.”

With the pressure ratcheted up, the Festival staff and community responded with admirable speed. Their work is garnering some national attention and applause. Specifically, organizers of the annual globalFest in New York City, in affiliation with the Association of Performing Arts Professionals, the nation’s largest live music presenters association, singled out Feehan and Festival Programming Director Lisa Stafford to give a Zoom teleconference presentation Thursday on the virtual version of FIL. Approximately 60 members joined the call, which lasted more than an hour. (Earlier this year, globalFEST awarded Stafford its prestigious Trouble Worldwide Award, given to innovators in the field, citing her work as a pioneering curator and humanitarian with Festival International over the past 21 years.) 

Isabel Soffer, Globalfest co-founder and co-director, notes that because Festival International was one of the first major festivals to have to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, other event organizers were watching. “Many of us thought they would just cancel,” she says, “and then to see all of this collaboration, archival footage and artistry put into some really engaging programming was just astounding. 

“We were shocked by the numbers and support that they got,” she continues. “It was really inspiring.”

Soffer contends that in an industry facing so much uncertainty, it was refreshing to have a success story offering hope. “Everybody’s trying to figure this out right now and handling it in some unique ways,” she says. “It’s interesting times. It’s not like there’s an obvious way to go.”

Stafford says organizers with the World Music Festival Chicago and Lake Eden Arts Festival have reached out to Festival International for specifics on how they managed the virtual event. Referencing all the fans who set up viewing stations and fake stages in their backyards, Stafford credits the Lafayette community engagement for making the event true to spirit. “It really encompassed pretty much all of the aspects of Festival,” she says. “I think it was a bright spot over the weekend in a long depressing hull, and that alone made it worth it.” 

Virtual Festival International de Louisiana consisted of a patchwork of programming (totaling seven hours) broadcast last Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening. Produced by Festival staff, it featured Festival highlight video archive performances (all professionally recorded and edited by Acadiana Open Channel), quarantine home performances from scheduled artists, and Festival fan interviews and promotions. Headliners turned in audio and video from multiple band members, often in different locations, whose audio and video recordings were then tracked together for a “live” performance. The broadcast culminated with the Virtual Festival finale performance of Sinkane’s ‘U’Huh’, featuring audio and video feeds from more than 15 artists, representing six different countries, many of them recording from home. The final mosaic was stitched together by several hands, with audio engineering headed by Chris Stafford of Staffland Studios and video editing from Festival Marketing Director Carly Viator. 

Over the weekend, Virtual Festival hit high marks on social media. The Facebook Live broadcast pulled in around 1,000 trackable steady viewers, including viewers from more than 44 countries, with 18,900 engagements (likes, loves, shares, comments) and 1,600 new followers. That’s a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of Festival-goers who crowd Downtown Lafayette every April, but the reach is nonetheless impressive. 

This year Festival International was forced to cancel entirely for the first time in its more than 30-year history. That news broke on March 15, following recommendations from the CDC to cancel large gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic. Festival looked into rescheduling, but that proved near impossible due to the scope of the event and a crowded local events calendar still clouded by coronavirus.

Feehan says Virtual Festival evolved after an outpouring of support and assurances from Festival sponsors and supporters — all of whom had an option of backing out of the canceled event. This year, Festival managed to keep roughly 65 percent of its corporate sponsorship funds and 75 percent of revenue from individual donors — Rain Angels, Amis du Festival and Festival pass holders — all of whom are typically rewarded with VIP access and other perks to the weekend event (Festival earmarked 20 percent of this year’s sponsorship money for a financial security fund). 

“That was huge,” Feehan notes. “This is a tough time for everybody. And once we got that response from the sponsors, that gave us the confidence to spend a little bit of money.”

Feehan says the worst-case scenario was that Festival could have taken a half million dollar hit from this year’s cancelation. Organizers scrambled to see what could be salvaged, with ideas including a scaled-down rescheduled event in fall, a telethon, and a virtual event on the gaming platform Twitch. “We probably looked at about a dozen different scenarios,” he says. “There were several complications. For one, it’s expensive. For us to do an event with our name on it, it has to be a certain caliber.”

“We’re still gonna take a hit this year,” he adds, “but it’s not gonna be a half a million dollars.

With limited time and resources, the virtual event operated on a fraction of the budget of the annual Downtown festival, ringing up just under $20,000 in expenses. Of that, half went to paying artists booked for the virtual event. Comparatively, last year’s Festival artist budget totaled almost $250,000, which included two more nights and many more hours of programming, as well as street performers and other off-stage artists. Festival International operates on an overall budget of $1.8 million, which includes annual overhead costs for its office and staff and other programming events throughout the year. 

“Internally, we have a staff full of maniacs who are awesome at what they do,” Feehan says. “Putting on Festival International period is a huge challenge and takes so much work and so much commitment and coordination. I think there was a part of our staff who was maybe depressed that they were going to miss out on that so when this new challenge came up they just kept saying, ‘Yes, let’s do it.’ We knew we wanted to innovate and we knew we wanted to do something different that people hadn’t seen.”