The Rapidian

Don't mean a thing if it ain't got...

As a local event producer, I'd like to respond to the potential exit of swing dancing downtown.

If you love it, you must fund it. It is that simple. 

This city and region has got by for far too long- and has had a long, good run- with FREE. The realities of producing events in cities are that cities are messy, chaotic and on rare occasions they can be violent. They also present wonderful moments that make a lasting impression. When I walked out of the GRAM after a lecture with my friend Phil Cooley, of Slow's BBQ and Ponyride fame in Detroit, he was blown away at the dancing. 

"What is this," he said as we stood on the steps surveying the hundreds of dancers who were crowding Rose Parks Circle all dancing to the music.

"This is Grand Rapids on Tuesday night," I replied. I was proud that this moment was being repeated on a regular basis every week and in a variety of ways. These events have real power that flowers and billboards cannot capture. 

But I daresay the harsh reality of the Grand Rapids Original Swing Society has been working with involves very limited, in fact more like starvation-like, resources devoured up in fees. Those fees often recycle back into the hands that deliver them. We can infuse a creative solution here that benefits all.

In this case, the solution is really very simple. We are long overdue to grow event producers who can begin to be paid for their contribution to the city. We want good people to advance in this area, I can as a seasoned event producer assure you. If we want our events to succeed, we need good people creating them.

Where we are now

Let's look at where we are typically with an event in Grand Rapids. Of course, there are other programs out there but this one is where we can start.

If the event producer has only been getting about a $1,000 an event say through a grant like the Downtown Alliance mini-grant program, then we need to look at what happens typically to these funds.

A.) Rosa Parks Circle parks fee gets paid (Client: City Hall) 

B.) Event Insurance gets paid so that producer or others are not sued. This is a requirement in the city for events. (Client: Insurance Agent) 

C.) Left over funds (and there are typically none at this point) are distributed to "The Other" event expenses like additional Audio Visual, guest artists, promotional, and then if anything is left the event producer gets paid.

If the event producer does get a corporate sponsor, they rarely are able to place their labor and time as a line item. Most often, in the end, the sponsorship is only a fraction of what it really costs.

In these cases- and I have seen it often- the show goes on, the event producer risks short cut and their name until they eventually burn out or take their show on the road to make it in other cities.Your area's best gets exported or quits before they have a chance to show us what they can really deliver with a fully funded budget.

The real beneficiary in this current equation is the City, who gets an image boost even from those events that go bust or, as in the case of the Swing Dance night, leaves the open sky of the city as a hosting space. The Insurance Agent gets paid of course. Our local Convention and Visitors Bureau, most commonly known as Experience GR, now can use this photo oppportunity to sell the city to others to come visit.

Even those that do not harness this openly in photos or promotions can benefit. For decades we have known that bodies on the street is the best advertisement of a vibrant city. Of course there are other factors. But a large crowd walking through the city center says more than empty sidewalks.

Area businesses, especially those in the food and beverage industries, also benefit from the cultural capital created by the event producer. They absorb the thirsty and hungry crowds, profiting off the event producer's labor and success of being able to do something so well to attract hordes of followers.

So, if all too often there is no profit to be made, no wage to be earned even, why do event planners still do this? Because even if it means we have no chance of ever making a living off producing, even if we never take one dance step ourselves... we still love what we create. We get to be a part of creating an event that we know a niche group or entire culture will enjoy, something meaningful that will build up the culture around us. 

But I'll be honest. We do get tired of not making any money at these place-building events. It's not sustainable, as is seen most recently by the changes happening with the Grand Rapids Official Swing Society.

Where we could go

The model to put forward necessitates one that enables the people working to create the event can get paid for what they do. To make that happen, we will need a greater contribution of area businesses. The very ones bragging about their huge windfall come ArtPrize should be the very ones helping these events happen.

If we are to succeed as a region, we have to start embracing these opportunities left laying at our feet for too long. Too often I have sat in meetings where the person who used their talent for producing an event is asked, "can you do this for free?"

The chain of folks getting paid or benefiting is long but so is our history of using up folks like the swing society as they exit stage right out of Rosa Parks Circle. I think this event- and others like it- is too important to just let it leave the city. But I also understand people in power might be stretched thin so this is me tossing my hat in the ring...and for a fee. 

We are growing as a city, and our approach to these cultural events should grow along with it. We have to begin to cultivate creative careers here. After decades of this type of work, I know that going forward the best proven model is one where rewards are extended to everyone as much as possible, not just the few.

It takes a generous heart and willingness to evolve as a region, to be open to the new. But it's time. It is time to understand the value of the people creating these events for all of us. And it is time for us to reward them.

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