Alan Parsons, Todd Rundgren
June 17, 2020
In the summer of COVID-19, there are three strategies for dealing with the pandemic’s effect on long-planned events: reschedule them, cancel them, or move them online.
Moving events online is easier in some cases than it is in others.
If you want a metaphor for what moving Sweetwater Sound’s GearFest online must be like, perhaps this one would suffice: It’s like modifying an aircraft carrier so it can be driven over land.
From physical to virtual
It almost goes without saying (or writing) that the decision to move GearFest online was not made lightly.
“It was a very, very difficult decision to make,” said Bob Bailey, the trade show’s executive director. “Because this is the one time of the year when we get to see a lot of the folks that we have dealings with all year long. We get to see them in person. We get to spend time with them. We get to enjoy music with them.”
Ultimately, it became clear to everyone involved that sticking with the original plan wasn’t a viable option.
“We got to a point in late April and early May where things were still too up in the air, too fluid,” he said, “There were too many unknowns as to where we would be at the end of June.”
GearFest, which happens June 26 and 27, is unusual among trade shows. A typical trade show — the fictional “SpatulaFest,” for example — brings together storeowners who sell spatulas and companies that make spatulas so the former can become acquainted with the latest in spatula technology and get deals on future spatula stock.
The people who buy spatulas at big-box stores for their home kitchens don’t attend SpatulaFest and probably know nothing about it.
GearFest, however, is a festival for everyone who loves music and music technology. And it is always packed with star power: Some of the biggest names in the music business are on hand to demonstrate products, participate in panels, and perform concerts.
Claiming your show has “the biggest names in the spatula business” probably wouldn’t have the same draw.
Big Names on your screen
Alan Parsons and Todd Rundgren are just two of the stars taking part in this year’s digital GearFest. (See the accompanying article on the next page for more information about the line-up.)
To be clear: Parsons and Rundgren will not be visiting the Sweetwater campus. They will be patched into a main, streaming GearFest feed from remote locales.
There is no on-site component to GearFest this year, Bailey said. People who are planning to come to the Sweetwater campus during GearFest to participate in, or randomly encounter, something or someone GearFest-related should cancel those plans.
“No one is in the building,” Bailey said. “All the streams are coming from outside the building. You aren’t going to be able to run into any legends. They’re all somewhere else.”
Plenty of ways to view
GearFest has offered some streaming content in the past, but it has attempted nothing on the scale of what Sweetwater staffers are preparing to do in a week or so.
This year, all of GearFest’s live and prerecorded panels and workshops will be available on one stream that will run all day each day.
The stream will be available on Sweetwater’s GearFest page, on Sweetwater’s Facebook page, and on its YouTube page.
Viewers will have the ability to interact with speakers and panelists where relevant, Bailey said.
“We will be accepting questions through chat on the live content,” he said.
Vendors who would usually be on site with displays of their wares will be represented this time around with prerecorded videos.
“As of right now, I am sitting on 250 videos and I have literally dozens and dozens more coming,” Bailey said. “There will be a virtual vendor booth site. Some of the videos are pretty cool. I’ve been watching them as they come in.
“A lot of them got really creative with it,” he said. “What I can say publicly is that I think there will be some real surprises with these booth videos. You never know what artists you may or may not see.”
The logistics of transforming a giant terrestrial festival into a giant virtual one were daunting. (See the sidebar on the next page for that story.)
Pros and cons
There are obvious drawbacks to making GearFest digital, but there are some advantages as well.
“We think this could be our best attended GearFest ever,” Bailey said.
Normally, GearFest attracts more than 15,000 attendees. An online GearFest could attract 100,000 pairs of eyes.
If 100,000 people are made aware this year of what Sweetwater and GearFest have to offer, visits to the campus might increase next year.
“Our hope is that this just causes people to want to come to Sweetwater that much more,” Bailey said. “Because, honestly, unless you’ve been here….”
During the 2019 edition of GearFest, Bailey was speaking with a customer about the challenges of explaining the event to potential attendees and the customer summed things up quite nicely.
“He’s from South Carolina,” Bailey recalled. “And in his best Southern drawl, he said, ‘Well, Bob, it’s kind of like the Grand Canyon. You can look at pictures of it all you want, but until you’re standing there looking into the bottom of that thing, you have no idea.’ That nailed it.”
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