Bluesfest collaboration aims to draw younger audience

A hint of nostalgia and a dash of discovery are this year’s main ingredients to Ottawa’s Bluesfest, one that will have more than enough music and memories for everyone hoping to attend. Organizers say they’ve made special effort to include musical suggestions from young people with the formation of a student panel, but also hope to keep older fans excited by pulling popular acts from past decades.

The capital’s most famous festival will be celebrating its 20th anniversary this summer from July 3-13 and will be hosting about 200 acts from a variety of different genres, including pop, country, rap, and rhythm and blues.

The headliners include pop sensation Lady Gaga, country acts Blake Shelton and Lady Antebellum, rock bands the Killers, Blondie and Journey, and rhythm and blues singer Gary Clark Jr.

Festival executive and artistic director Mark Monahan has been running the show since its beginning in 1994 and stressed how the event is different from other large festivals, such as California’s Coachella, because of it’s “urban festival” setting.

Monahan says the Ottawa festival’s location – on the open field beside the Canadian War Museum at LeBreton Flats – is a big part of what makes Bluesfest different from other festivals. It’s not in the middle of nowhere and there’s no camping required.

Since the Centretown site was opened in 2007, it has been the home of Bluesfest. The event was previously held at Major Hills Park, Confederation Park and at Festival Plaza at city hall on Laurier Avenue West.

One new aspect of this year’s festival is the collaboration between organizers of the event and youth in the city. The Advisory Group (TAG) was created in the fall through applications, and includes 15 people aged 16-21 who met with organizers weekly to give their input on what acts should be included in this year’s lineup.

According to Monahan, the average age for Bluesfest goers is about 30, but TAG’s goal is to get younger fans coming to the 10-day event, as well.

Music is a big part of society, Monahan says, and having the advisory team involved, he adds, allows for new acts to come to the event and allows the audience to discover new music. However, older bands were added to the lineup as a way to commemorate the past 20 years of the festival.

The goal each year is to not only make the event bigger and better, but to also get a sense of what people are listening to and attract everyone young and old, he says.

TAG team member and second- year Carleton student Brad Martin says the group of volunteers wanted to make the event more appealing to everyone. Being a part of the organizing effort through the frequent organizing committee meetings and social media has allowed the youth to bring in their taste in music to the festival, making it different from previous years.

One example of TAG’s contribution, says Monahan, was the decision to secure the Swedish rapper Yung Lean, a rising star in Europe who wasn’t known to older organizers before members of the TAG team drew attention to the performer.

It took a lot of digging to find and contact this young musician, says Monahan. But with Lean, 17, having more than 40,000 followers on Twitter he’s sure to attract a whole new fan base when he hits the capital on July 11.

Since its founding, Bluesfest has been dedicated to bringing blues to the city, but in recent years, fans have seen a lack of this genre represented throughout the festival, with more pop, country and rock music instead.

Gerald Williams, a longtime Bluesfest goer, says he isn’t surprised there are less rhythm and blues musicians each year, but you need to shake up the line up each year to gain more attraction.

“I’ll still attend because there are some acts I’m really interesting in seeing, but I’ll now definitely be bringing my two kids along, who are really interested in the more popular bands,” he says.

Bluesfest changes every year, but Monahan says he is stepping up his game and bringing the event to a whole new level that will hopefully be the highlight of the summer for every music fan.

 “If you’re a music fan, then there’s definitely something for you on either one or all of the 10 days,” he says.