Art of Cool: To find new fans, the festival listened to its early adopters | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Art of Cool: To find new fans, the festival listened to its early adopters 

Cody Chesnutt, leading the party charge at last year’s inaugural Art of Cool Fest

Photo by Jati Photo

Cody Chesnutt, leading the party charge at last year’s inaugural Art of Cool Fest

A week before the second Art of Cool Fest brings three-dozen jazz, soul and R&B acts to the outdoor lawns and indoor halls of Durham, co-founder Cicely Mitchell seems self-assured. She has one essential piece of information she didn't have before the festival's 2014 debut—confirmed dates for next year's festival and the confidence it will happen.

"Last year, we learned we need to get ahead of this thing as soon as we can," says Mitchell. Days before the first Art of Cool, she was unsure ticket sales would even be sufficient to power a 2015 edition. Those beginner doubts have passed. "We're planning a little further ahead this year, because ticket sales are much further along. That's exciting."

Mitchell attributes some of the change to growing awareness. After its first year, Art of Cool is no longer a theoretical endeavor, so people understand the event's musical and communal landscape better. In the last 12 months, news of Art of Cool's mission spread. But there's another, much more deliberate reason for Art of Cool's progress: data-driven adaptation.

By day, Mitchell works as a statistician for a scientific research company. Her analytical expertise has long been one of Art of Cool's biggest assets, helping the nonprofit win a round of funding through a 2012 startup contest. When the first festival ended, she began collecting data she could study by dispatching a survey to all year-one ticket buyers. She wasn't hoping to capture mere demographics or praise; she wanted insights about what would make the event easier to navigate in the second year and more appealing to people cold to the idea of a "jazz fest." She did the same through Art of Cool's social media accounts, asking people what acts they wanted to see in the second year.

Those findings altered Art of Cool's venue selections, ticket prices, talent philosophy and extra-musical endeavors. The event dropped the Hayti Heritage Center in favor of the Durham Armory, for instance, creating the more walkable downtown core attendees demanded. And instead of only offering expensive, all-inclusive tickets, Art of Cool offered cheaper options that let fans just see the headliners—jazz-and-funk crossover paragon Roy Ayers on Friday and soul crooner Anthony Hamilton on Saturday.

Those marquee acts reflect Mitchell's findings, too. She wanted to create a jazz festival that uses the phrase only as the center of a wide circle, not a stylistic corral. Plenty of events hew to academic jazz strictures, she says, with little room to show how the form has inspired others. But she doesn't think that suits Durham, a city with deep blues and soul traditions and where many current jazz musicians also play in rock and hip-hop bands.

"The intent of the festival is to be a gateway. Our mission is to expand the audience of jazz, so we have to think of new, creative ways to do that," says Mitchell. "We want more people to feel like there is something there for them, even if they're not jazz purists."

Mitchell is reaching out to another wide, active Triangle audience through the festival's first non-musical effort, a Saturday arts-and-technology conference called "Innovate Your Cool." A partnership with startup incubator American Underground, it aims to highlight ties between music and innovation. Wayne Sutton, a Raleigh native who has led campaigns to create more racial diversity among Silicon Valley investors, will deliver the keynote address. Producer 9th Wonder will lecture on the legacy of Roy Ayers, while Kendra Foster will explore her songwriting contributions to D'Angelo's lauded comeback album, Black Messiah.

"It's meant to link in a whole set of people who may not be turned on to jazz but who have the characteristics of what a jazz lover should like," she says. "You're a creative thinker. You know how to bootstrap. You know how to improvise."

The same, it seems, could be said for Mitchell. Though still just shy of the break-even mark, Art of Cool has sold more tickets in advance of this year's event than collectively in 2014. And after using the crowdfunding resources of a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the first two festivals, Mitchell says she'll forego the crutch for the third year.

If you see volunteers wandering this year's event with clipboards and surveys, they're doing Mitchell's data-collection bidding. She's got another year to make improvements.

"Last year was really hard for me as a researcher and math person, because I didn't have any numbers to go by," she says. "But we now have the data, and the more metrics we get, we'll know if we're going to make it."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Responsive design"

  • This year’s version of the Art of Cool Festival is heavily influenced by what last year’s fans had to say.

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