Wednesday, June 24, 2009

VBLX 2009 - an organizer's view behind the scenes

After several rollercoaster months of preparation, Virginia Beach's most successful lindy exchange went off with barely a hitch this past week. For the first time, registration had to be closed (at 180 paid registrants), roughly three times the usual size. As the Head DJ/musical director and marketing strategist for the team, I’d like to think I had at least some small part in that success.

To add some background, watching our local exchange develop over past years is always like the old Cherokee proverb that says every person contains two wolves -- a good one and an evil one. The one who wins is the one you feed. VBLX 2008 had definitely been a bad (and unprofitable) wolf - attendance was about only about 50 and it had generated a lot of bad publicity for its misleading marketing as a "national battle of the east coast's best lindy and blues DJ's." When those organizers announced they didn’t want the risk of losing more money again this year, local Chris Crawford took on the challenge of organizing the exchange with zero budget, no local headlining bands, a slew of burned bridges with most surrounding scenes and a deeply fragmented and untrusting home scene.

My involvement actually began as a complete surprise to me with what I originally thought were a series of random phone calls from regional friends asking for a reference on Chris and his invitation for them to come DJ for he and I at VBLX? Um, Excuse me? What?

I phoned Chris, who informed me that, yes, I was invited to be his head DJ/music director - he'd just forgotten to actually ask me. Before signing on I demanded that things would be run wholly above board-- no sketchy advertising, no phantom headliners or venues that a last minute announcement cancelled (after registration closed). Also, everyone would be fairly compensated and recognized for their efforts. Additionally, the focus was going to be on the quality of the music; no creepy pajama parties in pitch black rooms or any other themes, just the best DJ's I could recruit playing their best music for an appropriate price. In other words, it was going to be a reputable exchange.

I insisted we have a Lindy room and an alternate/blues room rather than the traditional "swing" and "blues" room that frequently had DJ's playing similar westie music playing at same time.

Within weeks we’d assembled a solid team of known lindy DJ’s head liners: Jam Cellar DJ's Allen Kerr and Lee Tucker, Mike ‘the girl’ Legett, NC's Jeramie Anderson and Laura Windley; plus respected, seasoned regionally known DJs: Valerie Hargis, Victor Celania, Kait Mahar, and Mike Quisao. Our marketing pitch was, “We’ve got these solid DJ’s, who've headlined these events, and a weekend at the beach at the height of tourist scene for only $35; how bad could it suck?”

Once the ball was rolling, local dancer Jeff Miller asked to join the team and run the blues room with himself and other local DJ’s. We said that was fine as long as he understood this was going to be different from events they'd worked in the past - no pajama parties that some found inappropriate, no bait and switch advertising that left registrants disappointed, and no tacky marketing stressing low ball pricing or irrelevant gimmicks as the reason to attend.

The response to our honest business strategy and focusing on the music was immediate and unprecedented — 100 new registrants within the opening 2 weeks. Half of those from people who'd never come to a dance event in VB, plus several large blocks of people who had attended earlier event here but said they'd never come back.

Ultimately, our event was meticulously planned and therefore executed on pretty much on schedule with even the weather cooperating (no nearby wildfires creating unsafe air quality levels or no sudden thunderstorms rolling over the Battleship to cancel afternoon dances).

For the first time since the old days with Wendy Craignhill running the scene in the tiny Huette Center, we actually got complaints our dance venues were too crowded or some locals couldn't get in because they hadn't registered assuming we'd never sell out.

Despite all the planning and preparation, of course, no dance event would be complete without a few glitches and needless distraction. The day before the exchange a local organizer emailed all attendees announcing he was adding themes for the various dance nights, including the ubiquitous creepy pajama party blues room and Hawaiian shirt night. Thankfully, other than a couple pairs of joking bunny slippers, his ideas were wholly disregarded and the exchange carried on.

The only serious logistical failure during the weekend happened when that same local, who'd asked to be in charge of food at the late night, announced at the end of the Friday main dance that everyone should head over to the lone, small Denny’s since there wouldn't be food at late night after all. He later told us he independently decided not to waste our budgeted funds on food when attendees could just buy their own. The chaotic result was a majority of the exchange attendees missed the opening 2 hours of the late night and several of Friday's headlining DJ’s.

These two rogue actions should have signaled us to dump this person from the team but no one wanted to make waves at the time; plus he assured Chris we were all now on the same page and there would be food at Saturday's late night venue.

Yet unbelievably, the guy did the same thing on Saturday! This time the restaurant got overwhelmed and turned most people away. Needless to say, there were some rightfully unhappy, extremely hungry dancers who missed our best DJ's and several hours of the dance (as well as pissed off DJ's) and they let people know about it. Also, none of the allocated food budget money that was supposedly "saved" ever turned up or was repaid, so somebody made out okay for themselves at the expense of our local dance community.

While we were all seething about this, we learned yet another ridiculous lesson in human nature - the need to secure the sound system. While organizers Chris, housing coordinator Kristin Fisher and I were out scrounging up some food for ourselves before the announcements and organizer jam, the same rogue local emerged from the blues room to jump on the microphone in the main room during a DJ shift switch and embarrassingly took credit for organizing the event himself. He even threw an "organizer's" jam for he and his buddies!

After the organizing committee returned and learned what happened, we decided most people knew who’d put together the event and saw his stunt as just dishonest self promotion. To avoid the dance losing focus to someone's need for ego, we agreed to cancel our announcements and the organizer jam and just keep the music going in the main room. In fact, it seemed like our DJ's took the disruption as a personal challenge to make sure dancers were swinging so hard for the rest of the night that nobody went to check out the blues room. Ultimately, we publicly gave the volunteers their formal thanks in the local online forum and with a jam at the weekly dance the following week, which was run by the cad who'd tried taking credit for everyone's work. A fitting reward indeed!

In the end, one person's misbehavior was ultimately trivial in light of everyone else's hard work and it would have only been a needless distraction from our plan if we'd acknowledged it. Be keeping things rolling and maintaining the focus on the music and the excitement that a crowd of 180 dancers, instead of 60, brought, we think we generated a lot more positive energy and definitely fed the good wolf.

The benefits were a lot of new friendships, repaired relationships with surrounding dance scenes and organizers, locals who got to dance with solid dancers from the outside dance world for the first time, the return of many faces who'd left the scene long before I arrived, and our local scene getting on other people’s radar in a positive way.

It just goes to show you-- Good music, honest marketing, and respect for your guests can still take you far in this world.

As a final note, Patty and I did another Tex Mex vegan dinner party at our house between the Saturday afternoon and main dance, with music provided by local Gina Dalmas, Chris on bass and Victor on drums. It was the only live music of the weekend and was a lot of fun, as well as a great chance for people to eat and power nap on comfy chairs between the official dances.

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