Every year for the past 10 years or so, give or take a year here and there, I have made the trek to Tom Lee Park in Downtown Memphis for the annual Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival (from here on referred to as BSMF) for at least one of its three days.
And every year, after the last band has played, as I walk through the gates to head home on Sunday, I inevitably tell whatever person I am with, that this will be the last year I attend the BSMF.
But each May I go back. I’m not sure why I do or if I will ever stop. I guess I let the positives outweigh the negatives every year, but in reality, they shouldn’t ever be able to.
The BSMF has a few great qualities.
The primary appeal is the affordability of the tickets. For three days of music, most people pay $75 if they buy the tickets at the right time. If they wait too long, then they will have to shell out around $100. Compared to other festivals like Bonnaroo, Sasquatch, Coachella, and even the Hangout Music Festival, this is a steal. The aforementioned festivals sell their three day passes for well in excess of $150. I believe some passes to certain festivals can get up to around $250.
The other factors that make the BSMF a decent musical destination are its proximity to Downtown Memphis and Beale Street, its scenic atmosphere nestled along the Mississippi River, and its diverse lineup of musical acts.
Unfortunately, this is where the positives for the BSMF end.
The downsides to the festival are not too many in number, but they make a very large impact on the overall quality of BSMF, and most of them could be solved with a few easy fixes. Allow me to describe its primary pitfalls and give my humble thoughts as to how we can see the festival tweaked for everyone’s benefit.
Problem 1: The Weather
During the weekend of the BSMF it is either going to rain and Tom Lee Park will turn into a mud pit or it is going to be really freaking hot. The majority of the years, it rains. The years it doesn’t rain, people would rather it rain to cool them off.
The solution: It is common knowledge that Memphis is a storm magnet in late April and early May. The BSMF falls on the first weekend of May every year. So let’s move the festival to the last weekend in May. This way you have a better chance at avoiding the rain. It’s not guaranteed, but if the weather records for Memphis over the past century are any indication, this would be a smart move.
Now, if you are an intuitive reader, you are probably wondering, “Well if it doesn’t rain in early May and it is still unbearably hot, won’t it be even worse in late May when we know it won’t rain?”
The answer is yes. But a very drastic yet feasible solution to this problem would be to eliminate the early afternoon acts of Saturday and Sunday. Those two days the gates open around 1:00 PM and the acts go until later in the evening. If you were to say add a fourth day to the BSMF, maybe the Thursday before it usually starts, and have the first acts start at 6:00 PM on Thursday and Friday and 5:00 PM on Saturday and Sunday instead of the normal early to mid-afternoon start times, you could still accommodate the same amount of acts without having people passing out from dehydration and heat strokes, both of which I witnessed firsthand this year. It is unreal how much more enjoyable the BSMF is at 7:00 in the evening versus say 3:00 in the afternoon.
The final problem that people would have with this fix would be that it would likely interfere with the Sunset Symphony, the annual end of Memphis in May. Since about 10,000 people show up for the Sunset Symphony each year (Big estimate there. Gave the symphony the benefit of the doubt.), and over 100,000 people show up for the BSMF each year, this seems like a non-issue financially speaking. Move the Sunset Symphony to Memorial Day. Have a fireworks show after it’s over. Let the little kids come with their parents and run around for a couple of hours. Sure, it wouldn’t be the close of Memphis in May any more, but I just don’t think that MIM would see its demise if we moved its least popular event to a different day.
Problem 2: The Crowd
I’m not an elitist, but I don’t enjoy hanging out with the following groups of people: belligerent drunks, underage drunks (15 year olds, not 20 year olds; big difference) excessive drug users, people who wear inappropriate and/or ill fitting clothing, people who don’t wear clothing, people who are pushy, loud, violent, or obnoxious, people who make me concerned for my own safety, and people that have decided it’s best to shun personal hygiene.
The following people make up the majority of the audience at BSMF: belligerent drunks, underage drunks (15 year olds, not 20 year olds; big difference) excessive drug users, people who wear inappropriate and/or ill fitting clothing, people who don’t wear clothing, people who are pushy, loud, violent, or obnoxious, people who make me concerned for my own safety, and people that have decided it’s best to shun personal hygiene.
Seriously though, the crowd at BSMF is not a group that I am proud to associate with. I really hope they have come from some place other than Memphis so they aren’t making Memphis look bad during the other 51 weekends.
But just because I don’t like hanging out with these folks doesn’t mean other people don’t enjoy their company.
Solution: There are a few possibilities here. It would probably be best if they were combined.
1) Split the festival up. There are four stages at the BSMF. Keep two in one place; move the other two to a completely different location, most likely Shelby Farms. Have a very distinct type of artist at one venue and the opposite genres at the other venue. Here’s an example. Put the metal, hard rock, and hardcore rap in Tom Lee Park. Put the folk, soft rock, country, bluegrass, and blues at Shelby Farms. This way the genres of music determine the crowd and each venue becomes a more cohesive, enjoyable group of fans for all involved. Heavy metal moshers don’t want to hang out with young professionals trying to listen to folk music while they wait for Megadeath to start. And vice versa. It just seems too easy. Whenever people enter one of the parks, give them a wristband so that if they want to go to the other location later in the day, they can and can enter with relative ease.
2) Make punishments for normal law breaking more severe within the confines of the festival. If someone gets too drunk, throws up on a stranger, then passes out, the police typically bring them to a first-aid tent until they wake up and then send them on their way. This would probably be considered public drunkenness in most other places. So instead of taking care of the person until they wake up, take care of them until they wake up and then take them to jail. No excuses, no exceptions. Be responsible and you won’t get arrested; simple as that. The same goes for fighting, drug use, unruly behavior, and public indecency. If any of that crap goes on and is addressed by authorities, the festival needs to make an example of the offenders so it doesn’t happen regularly.
3) Make one or two of the three (or four if I get my way) days an 18 and up day. Yes I went to BSMF before I was 18, and yes I’m glad I got to, but watching what I assume to be high school kids at the festival makes me sad for the future. Not too sound too preachy but dope smoking, liquor drinking, and sexual debauchery have no place amongst high and in some case middle school kids. Not only does the BSMF give them an open environment to obtain drugs and alcohol away from adult supervision, but the kids typically become the people mentioned in the paragraph above. If you limit the amount of time younger, less responsible people can spend there, the more they appreciate the time they are allowed to be there. In a perfect world, it would be 18 and up every day, but I imagine that would have some far reaching financial implications.
Honestly these are the only two problems that have a drastic effect on the BSMF as a whole. Sure the food is expensive and parking sucks, but I think that if the problems of potential weather debacles and crowds that are too diverse for their own good are addressed that the Beale Street Music Festival could go from the minor leagues of summer music festivals to being compared to the big boys that people talk about all over the world.
I understand it probably won’t happen because of my writing, and it definitely won’t happen if I keep buying tickets every year and essentially telling the organizers that I love the product they are putting out. But if enough people made their opinions known on the internet or to the people they know at Memphis in May, then we could see some, probably not all, of the changes take place that would make the BSMF a much more enjoyable atmosphere.
As for the review portion, here is one sentence to review each artist I saw.
Florence and the Machine: Girls love her so much that their significant others have no choice but to enjoy her as well.
My Morning Jacket: These guys are keeping rock n’ roll alive and well.
Gary Clark Jr.: He will be a household name very soon.
The Old 97s: It’s fun to watch guys that look like your parents’ friends rock out when it’s 100 degrees outside.
The Head and the Heart: They were a little testy about their sound check, but I’ll chalk it up to them having spent the previous two days in Alabama.
The Civil Wars: They have more stage presence as a duo with one guitar than most full bands could imagine having.
Alison Krauss and Union Station: It’s not fair how much talent was present on that stage.