Big Ears 2024: Big Knoxville Impact

Jon Batiste, Big Ears Festival, Civic Auditorium, Knoxville, March 2024
Jon Batiste, Big Ears Festival, Civic Auditorium, Knoxville, March 2024
I know I bring up Big Ears early and often. I know not everyone cares about the music involved nor has interest in attending the festival.  For example, I spoke to a couple on the last year of this year’s festival who have lived in Knoxville their entire lives (they are late 30s) and only attended the last day because they were given tickets. They simply didn’t know much about it. This made the jaws drop of the couple in front of us who have traveled every year, for years, from New York City to attend the festival. That information, in turn, blew the other couple’s mind.
So, a lot of people in Knoxville have never heard of the festival and a host more aren’t interested. Why then should it matter to them? I think there are a number of reasons, one of which is what else happens in Knoxville that draws an international audience and press? Put another way: What does Knoxville do that other cities don’t that would amaze and impress people around the world? Big Ears truly has put Knoxville on the map for thousands of people.
But say you don’t care about that, either. There is still plenty of reason to be glad the festival makes Knoxville its home. To put numbers to the entire event is difficult, but the Big Ears Festival asked Austin-based AngelouEconomics to do just that. To determine these numbers, they surveyed a wide range of ticket purchasers and obtained a surprisingly high response rate of 53%. Some of those numbers are astounding.
Fatoumata Diawara, Big Ears Festival, Mill and Mine, Knoxville, March 2024
For starters, they estimated the festival had a $69.8 million economic impact on the city. Overall attendance, which does not include the large amount of free programing all around the city, was 30,441 for the full weekend, with an average daily attendance of over 7,600. The majority of passes sold were sold for the full four-day event. The split between visitors and the local audience has remained fairly steady at about 70% visitors and 30% local. Almost every state in the U.S. was represented, as well as a range of countries including Australia, Japan, Germany, Italy, France, the UK, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and others. 45% of attendees traveled more than 400 miles to attend.
So, where did that money go? In a lot of directions, as you might imagine, but local “food and drink” is estimated to have earned about a $17.2 million bump from the festivals, and hotels another $12.4 million. I’ve long been told that numerous restaurants downtown have their best four days of the year. Nearly $2.2 million is paid for labor related to the festival.
Making these numbers even more interesting is the fact that this is an era of declining attendance at festivals. While Big Ears is small compared to some others, Ashley Capps said that “it is one of a select few that has grown in attendance in recent year.  In fact, a large number of festivals have gone on hiatus or folded in just the past few months.” He also said that as far as he is aware, it has become “the most successful (and perhaps largest) cultural event in our region, perhaps the only one that has an international profile . . . (as well as) the fastest growing arts and culture organization in the southeastern United States and perhaps beyond.
Other similar and related organizations have taken note and Capps said that Big Ears “has increasingly become a destination for our peers from other festivals and performing arts organizations from throughout the country and beyond.” So much so that they’ve created an industry mixer/happy hour to bring those visitors together. They’ve “hosted programmers and producers from Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Central Park Summerstage, Celebrate Brooklyn!, the London Jazz Festival, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, the Berlin Jazz Festival, the Sydney Opera House and numerous other national and international events.”
Yo-Yo Ma and Ashley Capps, Market Square, Knoxville, May 2023
The organization behind the event has also grown rapidly. The Big Ears Festival organization brought in over $4.5 million in total income, producing the festival for for just over $3.6 million. Of that, $2.4 million came from ticket sales, while “the rest came from donors, grants, and sponsors.”
Capps added, “I am proud of these numbers but . . . growth has never been our primary objective. In fact, we capped this year’s attendance to focus on the quality of the overall experience, for patrons and artists alike, selling out a week in advance.” Looking forward, he spoke of “the opportunity and potential we have to continue to have a positive impact in this region in the future.”