The Essence of Essence (from left): Kimberly Paige: Associate Vice President African-American Marketing, Coca-Cola; comedian Kevin Hart; and Essence Communications president Michelle Ebanks. (Photo: Walik Goshorn)
The Essence Music Festival wrapped its 18th year in New Orleans this weekend with a buzzworthy lineup, a record number of sponsors and one of its largest crowds to date, with 413,000 attendees. And as Essence Communications president Michelle Ebanks will tell you, it wasn't easy to get to that number (which was down slightly from 2011's 422,000) especially with July 4th falling in the middle of the week.
But the addition of a fourth day plus an all-time high in sponsors meant that this year's Essence will likely be the highest revenue generator in the festival's history. Mega blue-chip sponsors from The Coca-Cola Company, Wal-Mart, Coors Light and Verizon to McDonald's, Procter & Gamble's My Black Is Beautiful, U.S. Army and Ford led the roster this year, with additional support from CNN, TV One, State Farm and Visa Pre-Paid.
On Thursday, Essence announced 2013's festival will be held Thursday July 4 through Sunday July 7 at the New Orleans Super Dome, continuing an expanded four-day format that debuted this year. On July 5, Essence hosted its first Youth Empowerment Experience at the Super Dome with performances from Roshon Fegan, Diggy Simmons and Kevin Stylez, among others, providing unique entertainment to nearly 10,000 African-American youth in attendance. The experience was a professional highlight for Ebanks. It was created in part because seemingly no other event had been created at such scale. "I'm searching my brain to see if there's any other experience like it, and I don't know that there is," she says.
Billboard.biz spoke with Ebanks about this year's other highlights, the role it plays in the Essence portfolio, the significant number of men who attend the festival and why, despite its continued growth, we won't see another Essence Music Festival anywhere else any time soon.
Billboard.biz: This year's lineup was exceptionally buzzworthy, with D'Angelo's first proper US show in 10 years and headliners like Charlie Wilson, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Kahn, Mary J. Blige and a reunited Dru Hill. How far in advance were they booked?
Michelle Ebanks: We started having the conversations with managers and agents as far as a year in advance. We've already stared talking about artists for next year's festival. We're in constant dialogue with managers and artists basically because we're in constant dialogue relative to Essence magazine and essence.com, planning covers and working continuously with the music community. That allows us to have our fingers on the pulse of what is new and exciting for the audience. It is a continuous conversation with the artists and managers related to how we might work together with artists - it's a good, organic, always-on conversation."
Essence is known for its appeal to African-American women in particular, but what other demographics cropped up this year?
One of the great things about Essence and focusing on our core audience of African-American women is that we attract those other audiences that love to be around African-American women. Some are an important part of our audience, they're an important part of our programming and so we see a significant number of men who attend the festival who read Essence magazine and visit Essence.com. And with the excitement of the return of D'Angelo, the appeal of Trey Songz, the appeal of a Dru Hill, men are very important to the Essence experience. And then everyone, all groups, are important so we'll see women of all races and ethnicities join the festival. African-American women represent the force of empowerment for all of us, we're happy to welcome everyone to the Essence experience.
Essence has also become a go-to event for sponsors. How do you work with your partners to create experiences that add to the festival?
We had a record number of festival sponsors this year and what I believe is truly remarkable is the staying power - The Coca-Cola Company as an example has been an Essence presenting sponsor for 17 of our 18 years. And the average tenure of our sponsors now, most have been with us an average of seven years. So this is not a transaction. Our sponsors don't come and partner with the Essence Music festival just to check the box that says "I have an experience for African-American women." There is a relationship that our partners have with Essence that drives them, compels them to be a part of this Essence Music Festival experience. The relationship with our partners begins with Essence magazine and Essence.com and Essence mobile on an ongoing basis.
What impact does the festival have on other Essence properties like the magazine or web site? Do you offer sponsors multi-platform packages?
To a large extent, the conversation is a very holistic conversation across platforms. It is not, "What will you do at the festival?" The conversation is one that says, "What relationship do you want to have with our audience? With African-American women? What conversation are you interested in having? What are your priorities?" And then we talk about how that messaging happens - in the magazine? On the internet? On digital or mobile? And how does it happen live? The activation reinforces the over-riding message for each of our partners. Each channel is stronger because the channels work together.
The festival is only getting bigger in its 18th year. Have you ever considered expanding the festival to other markets?
There are absolutely opportunities for the Essence experience to expand to other markets, and we are expanding in ways that are not a replication of the Essence Festival in New Orleans, but are complimentary. For example, we have experiences during fashion week in New York that are style-focused, and experiences in L.A. during red carpet season that are complimenting the Grammys and the Oscars. These are the types of ways in which we expand the live experience. The Essence Fest is the standalone as the pinnacle experience of the live, of black women. We don't believe you should try to replicate that but to continue to strengthen and dimensionalize that pinnacle experience.
We were excited this year by adding a fourth official day, the youth day opening the festival this past weekend with our Youth Empowerment Experience. It was the first ever night-time Super Dome youth concert on what we named the New and Next Stage Thursday night, and that was an exciting first to create this live concert experience for black youth. Walking into that Super Dome and seeing nearly 10,000 little girls and little boys of color having a concert tailored to them was absolutely a professional highlight for me.
So if that was your professional highlight, what performer stood out to you as a fan this year?
Mary J. Blige. She is just a perennial performer at the Essence Music Festival and to know that's not something she at all takes for granted. Mary J. Blige's performance was nothing short of extraordinary. It was pitch perfect. She is at one with the audience. Artists are completely vulnerable and at one with that emotion, and no single artist epitomizes that more than Mary J. Blige. The complement of having Kevin Hart's comedic performance with Mary J. Blige back to back was one of the most remarkable and significant one-two punches in the history of the Essence Festival. And when is it not a highlight to see the Queen of Soul and to be in her presence? And Ledisi, Chaka Khan, Trey Songz, it's hard to pick. Anthony Hamilton was a surprise success. He owned that main stage.