By Meg O’Neil
When it was announced in April that the Newport Folk Festival had sold all of its 20,000 tickets three months in advance of its July 28-29 performances, music fans around the world were stunned. Never before had the iconic weekend festival sold out so fast. By contrast, last year’s festival sold out three weeks before the event.
In retrospect, the sell-out might have been predicted. In February, early-bird tickets sold out in 45 minutes – and those tickets, which made up 65 percent of total ticket sales, were sold even before a lineup was announced.
With a long history of showcasing famous singers and songwriters, the Folk Festival has always been popular – but what caused this year’s festival to sell out as quickly as it did?
Festival producer Jay Sweet says the answer can be boiled down to two words: Social media.
“Social media has changed the game, because it’s an ongoing conversation,” he told Newport This Week. “I think a lot of people think it’s easy to use social media as a megaphone, but we don’t do that. We’ve created an online family where we can reach out one-on-one to our supporters.”
With daily updates on the Folk Festival’s Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Turntable FM media sites, its producers have created a near-constant flow of shared information with online followers.
“People have realized that we’re listening to them,” Sweet said. “Our social media isn’t solely about the weekend at the end of July. It’s about a community of fans that we talk to throughout the year about upcoming artists and past bands. We haven’t really done anything different this year, but social media has just finally, organically, built upon itself and gotten exponentially bigger.”
If you were to add up all of the online fans that follow the Newport Folk Festival through their multiple online outlets, the number would exceed the capacity of Fort Adams.
That's a point of pride for Sweet. “We are the original festival,” he says. “It’s a 'bucket list' thing to do for artists and the fans. So even though we’re small compared to a lot of the other festivals around the country, it’s a badge of honor for fans to say, ‘I’ve been to the Newport Folk Festival.’”
For would-be concert-goers who waited too long, festival tickets have become highly sought after, and ticket-scalping has become a major issue. Online websites such as Craigslist show Folk Festival tickets being advertised for hundreds of dollars above their market value. And there's no way of knowing if a ticket is real or not. Several recent postings have warned of con artists promising tickets that turn out to be fake.
To combat that, Folk Festival organizers have taken to their Facebook and Twitter accounts, urging fans not to buy the tickets from third-party websites, forcing scalpers to lower their prices.
In another sign of changing times, the festival has created a Smartphone app to help fans stay connected once inside Fort Adams.
The app includes event alerts and can notify the user when and on what stages their favorite artists are set to perform. It also features a map of Fort Adams as well as artist profiles and the latest updates from the Festival’s Twitter feed. Sweet says that the newly launched app has already been downloaded more than 20,000 times.
This year’s festival won’t end when the last verse is sung and the last string is strummed on Sunday, July 29. Instead, it will live on, online. “This festival was built by word of mouth,” says Sweet. “It’s always been a place to tell stories – and now social media has allowed that to continue.”