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Essence Music Festival: The magic and the business behind this summer's hottest ticket

This article was originally published by the Grio on July 4.
Lionel Richie performs during the 2009 Essence Music Festival at the Louisiana Superdome on July 5, 2009 in New Orleans. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Lionel Richie performs during the 2009 Essence Music Festival at the Louisiana Superdome on July 5, 2009 in New Orleans.

This article was originally published by the Grio on July 4.

A week before the 2013 Essence Music Festival, the team at Essence was already preparing for 2014 with brainstorming sessions and strategic planning. The team was booking talent, taking meetings with government officials in the event’s host city of New Orleans, and securing future partners and sponsors.

“It really is all about relationships,” says Joy Collins, Essence Communications’ general manager, who has overseen the planning and execution of the festival for the past five years.

The Essence Music Festival, taking place from July 4-7, will deliver its 19th installment this year. Featuring headlining performances by artists including Beyoncé, Maxwell, New Edition, Charlie Wilson, Brandy, Jill Scott, LL Cool J and Keyshia Cole, guests will also be treated to a series of high-profile speakers, parties and other vibrant happenings.

As the festival’s tagline goes, “There’s nothing like it!”

It is, however, so much more than a giant party.

Situated in the Big Easy, the yearly spectacle — also called the “Essence Fest” for short — has become one of the most anticipated music-themed destination events in America, recently being recognized by Advertising Age as one of the nation’s Top 10 Leading Brand Events.

How does the team at Essence do it?

A commemoration becomes a tradition

“It all really started by accident,” says Essence Communications President Michelle Ebanks. “At the time of the magazine’s 25th anniversary, the Essence founders wanted a way to commemorate the occasion. They met with a number of people and settled on the idea of a concert in the Superdome as a onetime event.”

Attendance far exceeded expectations in the very first year. “That was the sign that we had to come back,” says Ebanks. And they have. Every year since its inception in 1995, the Essence Music Festival has been held in New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome, except in 2006, when post-Katrina repairs to the structure pushed Essence Fest to Houston.

Now, every Fourth of July weekend, thousands of black women and the people who love them journey to New Orleans to enjoy what has become one of the summer’s hottest tickets.

A celebration and a chance to give back

Organizers behind the Essence Fest call it a unique celebration of black women. Ebanks says it was the magazine’s longtime editor-in-chief Susan L. Taylor who insisted that the event be more than a party, developing a mission to give back to the community simultaneously that would become a trademark of the festival in years to come.

At this year’s Essence Fest, organizers are giving back with a serious of community-centered, free events. For instance, on the Fourth of July the festival will hold its first-ever Family Reunion Day. Part of the day will be held in New Orleans’ Woldenberg Park, and will feature free music, food, and activities for children.

Also that day, organizers will present seminars at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, hosted by New Orleans native Master P and his children, Romeo and Cymphonique Miller. The goal of this event is to empower attendees with messages from seminar speakers, which will include Dr. Steve Perry, Tonya Lewis Lee, and Traci and Trina Braxton.

The team behind the Essence Fest

The task of organizing a successful extravaganza with roughly 50 artists, 120 speakers, a deep list of sponsors, and almost countless vendors falls on a small staff at Essence magazine’s New York City headquarters and a handful of local partners on the ground.

It’s a process that touches every Essence employee. As members of the editorial staff develop topics and engage with celebrities, they’re also securing opportunities for the festival. The advertising department’s efforts to boost relationships for festival marketing is what Collins calls “a business unto itself.”

What work is left is carried out by a local production company, the New Orleans police department, the fire marshall – all the local teams necessary to support the Essence Fest experience.

The key to the success of Essence Fest — its yearlong planning — is a process that unites numerous elements into one powerhouse showcase that fulfills multiple cultural, social and economic needs for festival fans, performers, and partners alike.

“Overall, it’s a great team that we have,” says Collins.

The Essence Music Festival: Great for Business

Essence Fest is also a tremendous asset to Essence Communications’ bottom line, because it is a magnet for sponsors. The Coca-Cola Company, Wal-Mart, Verizon, McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble’s My Black Is Beautiful, Visa and Ford represent just a few of this year’s underwriters.

“The solution the festival provides is allowing our brand marketers to engage our audience with their brand in relevant ways,” Collins says. “For them, the magazine delivers one solution and the website delivers another. The festival really rounds that out with an experiential marketing solution. Whenever we go in to speak with our clients, it’s not just with a magazine solution. It’s with a full 360, yearlong plan.”

A perfect example: singer Janelle Monáe, who graced the magazine’s May cover, will rock the festival stage on its last night this year. To add to that, CoverGirl cosmetics — for which Monáe is a spokesperson — will also curate one the festival’s “super lounges,” the smaller, more intimate performance spaces within the Superdome.

While Essence Communications would not divulge the amount of revenue generated by the festival, or the percentage of its total gross Essence Fest delivers, a look at the costs for tickets compared to the number of people who attend certainly spawns some intriguing speculating.

Last year festival attendance was estimated at about 413,000, although far fewer people attend the shows at the Superdome. (Many go to ancillary events and attend the Empowerment sessions, which are free.) Current tickets range in cost from $50 to $1,000 for a single night’s VIP ticket. Even if just a quarter of the total number of Essence Fest attendants see the shows, that’s quite an impressive cash stream.

Combined with the financial assistance provided by sponsors, the Essence Music Festival might be a model for how media companies can continue to be lucrative as the magazine industry in particular undergoes massive changes, such as circulation losses.

Great for New Orleans, awesome for audiences

Essence Fest is also a financial coup for the city of New Orleans. As turnout for the event has reached nearly 420,000 people annually, it’s estimated that in recent years the festival has driven more than $90 million in spending by visitors, who number at nearly 90,000 for out-of-towners to the city, according to the University of New Orleans.

In fact, last year the festival was so highly attended, there was a 93 percent occupancy rate for hotels in downtown New Orleans. On top of this, there was more than $82 million in spending by locals.

The key to all this is the huge attraction the Essence Music Festival has become for music artists and general audiences alike.

“We’re lucky to now be a go-to event for many artists to showcase their work. Our talent community, our partners are significant to the process,” says Collins. “They matter just as much as the audience does. Cultivating those relationships is what allows us to be such a unique experience. Knowing our audience and following them as they change and grow has also been critical to our growth and survival. For example, us launching a festival app was really in response to the needs of the audience. Now you can find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. That helps us to remain relevant to our audience.”

The future of the Essence Music Festival

Plans are already forming to take the festival to the next level for it’s 20th anniversary next year.

Neither Ebanks nor Collins will hint at what’s in store and laugh off suggestions of maybe appearances by first lady Michelle Obama, or Oprah Winfrey. Ebanks says, however, that they’re looking to heighten audience engagement and personalization of the festival experience.

“The challenge now is how do we innovate, how can we continue to add to the experience and have people come back the next year and the year after,” says Ebanks. “We know that we have to keep providing fresh experiences so they keep coming back and bringing friends. Early on the co-founders and Susan L. Taylor put together a formula that was unique. No other publication in the country has this great party with such an awesome sense of purpose. That’s the key to the festival’s success.”

As they continue to innovate, Ebanks says she expects the audience to continue to grow and the Essence brand to expand. The Essence Festival’s popularity with audiences and sponsors alike is perhaps a part of what’s kept Essence magazine competitive in a time when other print publications are struggling to stay above water.

“It has been a tremendous, tremendous asset for Essence Communications,” Ebanks says of the festival that began as a one-time concert 19 years ago. “It’s where we peak as a brand. All platforms rise when we raise the tent on the Essence Festival.”

Follow Donovan X. Ramsey at @iDXR

msnbc, the parent organization of, is the media partner of the Essence Music Festival.