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How The Art of Cool reimagined and struggled with the model of music-festival fundraising

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Cicely Mitchell and Albert Strong have an unusual rule about date nights: When one of them thinks about work, they don't say anything. They save the thought and e-mail it when it won't interrupt the romance or relaxation.

"It's good to have those boundaries, because it's hard work," says Mitchell, laughing. "But we're charged to do it."

For the last three years, Mitchell, a statistician by trade, and Strong, a trumpeter, have led The Art of Cool Project. An attempt to advocate for jazz by booking area shows and acting as a passionate promotional entity, the nonprofit this weekend launches its biggest initiative yet: The Art of Cool Festival, which will commandeer downtown Durham theaters, clubs and public greens on Friday and Saturday. Funk legend Maceo Parker shares space with soul voyagers The Foreign Exchange. Sophisticated singer Amel Larrieux offers a low-key foil to the wild-eyed psychedelic explorations of Thundercat.

"One of the reasons a festival like The Art of Cool hasn't happened here is because there hasn't been this alignment of numbers and knowledge," says Mitchell of her partnership with Strong. "I have my expertise, and Al has his great reputation and jazz experience."

Just before the start of The Art of Cool, Mitchell spoke at length about the possibilities and pitfalls of The Art of Cool's hybrid funding model, of being an unknown upstart and using start-up culture to make a musical statement.

INDY: The Art of Cool Festival grew out of your work in The Art of Cool Project, but starting a festival isn't the reason you began an educational nonprofit, correct?

CICELY MITCHELL: The goal for The Art of Cool Project was having a space for jazz, but instead of jumping headfirst into that and not having any data that said it could work, we used the food-truck model: See if there's an audience. Build an audience. Down the road, create something more. We wanted a space in the community for jazz, figuratively, and a brick-and-mortar venue. Locals would play most of the week, and headlining acts would come on the weekends. But we wondered, "How viable is that? Are there even enough people who like jazz?" So popping up in different places—LabourLove Gallery, Flanders, Pour House, Motorco—became the cheaper, less risky way to go. We built our way up from little art galleries.

After Art of Cool's programming reached the levels of proper rock clubs, how soon did you turn to the idea of a festival?

It came out of a need. I love Hopscotch. I like the concept of it and that shared experience of other music lovers. But I couldn't really connect with the music. I wasn't going to listen; I was going to be in the scene. Al and I started talking about how it would be cool to recreate Hopscotch but with more soulful flair. There's Hopscotch and the bluegrass festival in Raleigh, both touching on certain demographics. It felt like there might have been a demographic that was left out. Al and I selfishly wanted to have a Hopscotch-like experience where you hopped around from place to place and could partake in soul and jazz.

It's a huge risk: People say jazz is dying, but that's why we wanted it to be so eclectic.

Being a nonprofit, The Art of Cool has taken a rather nontraditional approach to funding the festival—a mix of crowdfunding, corporate sponsors and capital investors that you pitched for help.

The biggest thing that helped us was getting more resources, and that was through the Bull City Startup Stampede. We got the resources we needed to market more to people and to book larger acts. We wanted to get organized. We wanted to file trademarks. Being in an incubator took it to the level where we could reach more people and have some structure.

In the Startup Stampede, you have to pitch, so now it was more than just me talking about this festival. You have to stand up in front of a room full of people, like in Shark Tank, and pitch this idea. That's when my research cap came on: I interviewed different people who are directors of festivals about how you build a foundation. "What is the budget?" That was the first thing, like The Price is Right. You shoot a figure out. I thought it would be about a quarter million dollars, but we done kicked that thing on down, maybe a third of a million now.

You won the Startup Stampede, but how did that translate into actually building a festival?

I came out of the Startup Stampede in 2012, and I had pitched for money for almost a year. What I had pledged to me in that year, I didn't start getting until Startup Stampede's next fiscal budget, September or October 2013. That gave me a year to think about fine-tuning the budget and trying to get a war chest up. I had to piece it together.

We also did nine weeks of focus groups when I came out of Startup Stampede. I had already pitched for money, but I still didn't have all the fine details worked out. The final details were the focus group's open-ended questions: "Are April 25 and April 26 optimum?" Most people like April. So we talked about date. We talked about price point. We talked about footprint. We used, very loosely, some of the statistics mechanisms of thinking about a problem—in this case, a festival—and breaking it down into some sort of crazy equation and some actual hard data.

Has that data helped with pitching the festival at large—to fans, to bands, to sponsors?

When I pitched at Blue Cross, they were like, "You know there are so many people that come in here and pitch a music festival, right?" I'm sure, but can they show you this and this? Have they done nine weeks of focus groups? Have they done the Startup Stampede? They haven't.

But one of my biggest challenges was pitching this festival without ever having done it. We don't have any images from it. We have images from The Art of Cool stuff, but nothing like being out on the lawn. That was one thing I love about American Tobacco. I expressed that was my challenge, and they said, "Why don't you do something at American Tobacco's Center Stage? We'll give you Fourth of July. You can book whoever you want to book." It was The Beast + Big Band. We finally had images of what this festival was going to look like, at least in Diamond View Park. We were able to take those images to sponsors, bands, anybody who wanted more of a concept of what this is than just an idea. By August, we started getting checks. Once we got a certain amount, we felt comfortable.

Is there a financial safety net?

Yes, but there's only a certain level. This does operate on selling X number of tickets, and we have to get there. Then I can rest. Right now, we're trying to break even. We're a ways away.

Your Kickstarter campaign helped the festival raise $27,000, but that is less than a tenth of the festival's budget. Why was it so important?

Kickstarter was key. I felt like we needed people to prepay tickets. We could have said, "Yeah, we're having a festival," without any sense of urgency. I don't know if people would have rushed out to buy tickets. We were trying to get the spike you would normally get by announcing your lineup, but in a newbie fashion. Hopefully, we won't ever have to use Kickstarter again.

Kickstarter proved that people wanted it: That was a turning point for us. We had checks in the bank, but we were willing to let them sit there and give them back if we didn't get the Kickstarter. A lot of people who come pick up their Kickstarter rewards have no idea who the people that are playing the festival are. "This is cool for Durham," they say. Those are the people I want. I'm going to get my jazz lovers. Jazz lovers are coming from Los Angeles and D.C. I want people who just want to have a good time. That's how you help them discover new talent.

After a strong start, you were worried for a time that the Kickstarter campaign would fail.

We hit $10,000 pretty quick, and then it just sat there. They have those cruel websites where they will predict whether you will make it or not. I am a mathematician, so I fell into that trap. All of them said we weren't going to make it, based on prior data. It got very emotional. In that lull, you start questioning whether or not people want this festival.

How did you combat that?

We tried to pop up everywhere possible. We wanted to let people know this is real. This is what this festival is going to sound like. This is what it is going to feel like. We popped up at the coffee shop Cocoa Cinnamon. They've been our good luck charm. We'd send a band over there, and they'd jam. People would walk over and listen. The night before the last Kickstarter day, it was just magical. I know that sounds crazy, but music was playing. There were a ton of people. It was warm. People were pledging on the spot. People just donated: "They really want it," I thought.

Do you think the same thing will happen with the festival, that people who want it will suddenly appear?

I feel like that's what's going to happen on Friday or Wednesday: "OK, here they are. I've been watching them on my spreadsheet and tracking them, and here they are." Everywhere I go, people are talking about Art of Cool. People I don't even know are talking about it. We've reached way more people than if we'd just been doing our usual pop-up concerts.

Given all that research, those focus groups, the Kickstarter, the Startup Stampede, are you surprised that, on the eve of the festival, some people still don't understand what you're doing? And that you still need to sell a lot of tickets before the festival starts?

I thought people would just be like, "Oh, wow, a festival I can take part in!" But that's just the optimist in me. We're bringing something into an area that the masses don't know what it is. It would be different if we tried to do it in Austin. They know what it is. Here, it's almost culture shock. It's different. You have to be an early adopter or just love everybody that is on that lineup.

Up until this point, people know Art of Cool for pop-up concerts. We know what we're bringing. We know what we're capable of. People have no clue how much work, money and preparation has gone into this. Doing it next weekend will be a good step into letting people know what this festival is.

The Art of Cool Festival is unique in its ideology. Most modern music festivals feel like a series of concentric circles, and each one simply widens the styles and tastes of the lineup and audience. But The Art of Cool drew boxes around what it wanted to book and stuck to that idea. Does that throw people off?

Maybe. We really wanted to be good at our things. We booked the festival off our iPods and iTunes, and we looked for entry points for people being turned onto jazz. We booked it as fans. We went after people who we thought would put butts in the seats, but who are interesting. If people are looking for something that's more well-rounded, that definitely is a bigger festival. We're trying to build it to be more niche, but not so stuffy that the person who just wants to come out because it's in Durham says, "Oh, no, I can't go out looking like this." I don't want it to be that kind of jazz festival.

In the future, do you think more stylistic expansion would help Art of Cool sales?

I don't know. I'll do another set of focus groups coming out of this to see what worked and didn't work. We are testing a hip-hop stage. It's free. We have one rule at Art of Cool: No tracks. It has to be with a live band. Maybe that's something we need to think about a little bit more, booking bands like The Beast. They're a very sound jazz band, but there's someone rapping or singing. That may be as far out as we go. I don't see us doing free jazz.

Speaking of free jazz, one of the key complaints about this year's lineup is that it sticks pretty closely to standard definitions of jazz, soul or R&B. Why not test those limits?

I didn't step into that role because I don't know it. I'm not saying that Albert doesn't, but we just booked it to be more soulful and approachable. It definitely would be cool to get to that place in a couple of years, but the stigma with jazz already is, "I don't know what's going on." There's the when-do-I-clap moment. I don't want it to be off-putting, because I think that's the biggest thing with jazz—it's something your parents used to listen to, and it's not for young people.

Where do you hope to be in a year?

Doing The Art of Cool Festival again with a semi-full-time staff. It doesn't even have to be me. My lane is finding the money, pitching. I can't wait until we get the data, the numbers, the economic impact report, the pictures, the video. I can pound the pavement again, find the resources to get this off the ground.

If you don't hit your ticket goal, can that actually happen next year?

[Shakes head] The festival is the definitive, "Is there a market for this music?" I love the music, but I'm a researcher, a numbers person. The Art of Cool Project will survive, but we'll need to reconsider that program, the festival. If we don't hit the number, we'll lick our wounds, get our money back up, do concerts, focus on our educational programs and maybe try it again in 2016. But I think we'll get there.


The Art of Cool Festival lineup

FRIDAY, APRIL 25: Akua Allrich & Kris Funn, The Beast, Rafiq Bhatia, Bilal, Butcher Brown, Mark de Clive-Lowe, Gizmo, Russell Gunn, The Hot at Nights, Kidznotes Jazz Ensemble, Peter Lamb & The Wolves, Carolyn Malachi, Kate McGarry & Keith Ganz, Mel Melton & the Wicked Mojos, N.C. Central Big Band, N.C. Central Combo, N.C. Central Faculty Combo, Yolanda Rabun, Alice Smith, Thundercat

SATURDAY, APRIL 26: Marcus Anderson & Liv Warfield, Stanley Baird Group, Big Beat Dance (Apple Juice Kid & Jocelyn Ellis), The Brand New Life, "Carolina Soul" Tribute (Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Bilal, N'Dambi, Nnenna Freelon, Marcus Strickland, Gerald Clayton), Cody ChesnuTT, Clayton Brothers, Lois Deloatch-Gomes, The Foreign Exchange, Joshua Gunn, Ryan Hanselar, Brian Horton, Inflowential, King, Kneebody, Amel Larrieux, N.C. Central Vocal Ensemble, Laura Reed & Zoocrü, Revive Big Band, Christian Scott, Shirlette & The Dynamite Brothers, Soul Understated, Al Strong, Toon & the Real Laww, Shana Tucker, Valleyboy Music, Heather Victoria

This article appeared in print with the headline "Start-up jazz."

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