40th Ann Arbor Summer Festival set to open
David Fair: It was March of 2020. The state of Michigan issued stay-at-home orders as COVID-19 began running rampant. As we moved through that summer and ensuing years, our daily lives changed dramatically. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU. So many of the events and community gathering opportunities that most all of us had taken for granted were canceled. Now, we've moved from pandemic to endemic, and we continue our journey with the return to a sense of normalcy. Even events that took place last summer were either restricted or did not achieve pre-pandemic numbers. So, the recovery is ongoing. Beginning this Friday, June 9th, the Ann Arbor Summer Festival and its Top of the Park activities, concerts and events get underway, and I imagine hopes are running rather high. Joining us in studio today is Michael Michelon, and Michael is executive director of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. Thanks for stopping by today. We appreciate it.
Michael Michelon: Thanks for having me.
David Fair: Have you been able to fully assess kind of what the impacts of COVID-19 and the pandemic have been on the Summer Festival and its operations?
Michael Michelon: Yeah. As an organization that works with dozens of community partners, dozens of vendors, employees and volunteers, we're in touch with all those people, and we see the effects right up close. Even this year, which I know we'll talk about, Top of the Park is temporarily six days shorter is certainly part of that.
David Fair: Well, as you mentioned, this is a festival reliant on contributions and donations from the community, but also on that pool of volunteers. How well did the volunteer program come through the pandemic?
Michael Michelon: I think it's starting to come back. There's a lot of people. We were fortunate to live in a community and a county that is very philanthropic and very active. And we've seen volunteers come back and employees come back. So, you know, Top of the Park, on any given night, you have a high school or college student that has their first job, a long-time volunteer that is greeting people, and those pools of people have started to return. And we're thankful for that.
David Fair: The festival this year, as you mentioned, is a bit shorter than years past, going from three weeks to roughly two. What factors went into making that decision to shorten it up for the 2023 edition?
Michael Michelon: Budget, David. I think people are probably familiar with it feeling the impact in their lives of the, you know, inflationary forces and other things kind of coming out of the pandemic, in some cases, rightsize--when you look at wages, right? I think a lot of these things were far overdue. For us, we came back right away last year with a full season. And, as we prepared for 2023, our 40th anniversary season, we realized we needed to take a step back for a second and evaluate the new cost structures. Live events are challenging and exciting and costly. And so, we made the choice--the responsible choice--to reduce the season by six days this year, as well as some of the operating hours and Friday and Saturday nights, with the goal of coming back full force next year, but really just kind of giving ourselves a chance to evaluate things.
David Fair: In a shorter and more concentrated summer festival and Top of the Park festivities, are you able to celebrate that 40th anniversary in a better and perhaps larger way?
Michael Michelon: Oh, I think so, still. I think that, at our best, we are the best expression of our community. And that's the entire county. When you look at our artists, our audiences, and I think this is still a special season, one of the great things about being out at Top of the Park is, on any given night, you have these really local favorites, these artists that we know are in our community that we live and work with, and then you might have a national headliner or an internationally touring artist join as well. And it's that really wonderful mix. And that's taking place this year as well.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and we're talking with Ann Arbor Summer Festival executive director Michael Michelon. And he and his team continue to prepare for the June 9th opening. And you just went down the path I wanted to head. And that is how do you and your staff go about curating the artists and organizing the activities that are featured each summer?
Michael Michelon: Hopefully, thoughtfully and humbly. We work with a lot of people. There's a lot of partners that make all the various activities happen at Top of the Park work and a lot of artists. On average, you know, somewhere between four and 600 artists are responding for our call to submissions, as are local and regional artists. We convene a small advisory group that helps us think through, everyone that is playing and is represented at Top of the Park. We work with national and international artist agents. And we talked to a lot of folks, a lot of input. There'ss community input with things like the pick-a-flick campaign or the artist wish list. And so, we look through a lot of that data, ask a lot of questions, talk to a lot of people, and know that we don't always have the right answers, but we want to put together a great program that's representative of our community.
David Fair: Well, certainly during the pandemic, musicians and artists were sometimes literally starving for work. So, one would imagine that you have an overabundance of those ready and willing to work. Is that what you found in putting together this 2023 edition?
Michael Michelon: I think so. There's always fewer spots than, you know, we'd like. And there's always an abundance of of great artists in our community and people that are wanting to play at Top of the Park. And so, it's tough finding that balance of community favorites and then people that are making their A2SF debut. In any given year, between 40 and 50% of the artists at Top of the Park are making their festival debut--sometimes their Ann Arbor or even Midwest debut. And it's a balance because today's, you know, new artist is tomorrow's favorite for many people.
David Fair: Our conversation with Michael Michelon continues on 89 one WEMU. Mike is executive director of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. And based on the financial hardships created by the pandemic, the changes in wage expectations coming out of the pandemic, is the festival able to pay performers as much as you have in the past, or is the expectation it will be more?
Michael Michelon: Well, I think we continue to make sure that we're benchmarking with national trends and our peers and making sure that Top of the Park and the Summer Festival generally that is a great place to play. And so, that fee is most of that. But that also means a professional staff, a smooth advance process, and a great ride. And it's always a work in progress. But, you know, we push forward.
David Fair: We know what it's like to sit in front of the stage at Top of the Park. I've certainly been there--love it every time I go. How hectic is it for you and your staff backstage? Do you even get a chance to enjoy it?
Michael Michelon: We do. And part of that is, you know, we're a year-round, small team of four, and then we rely on this really wonderful management team of ten that join us each May. And they, in turn, hire and help us recruit hundreds of volunteers and employees. And so, I think with live events, there's a thrill, you know, maybe controlled chaos at times. But it's so important that we fill our tanks this time of year because, out of the ten months remaining in the year, we're focused on the year ahead and the year after that. And just being connected to the work is super important for our staff.
David Fair: So, in that ten-month period of when you're putting the next one, how do you take what you learned from one year and apply it to creating the next year?
Michael Michelon: Some of it's fairly straightforward. I take good notes, but, sometimes, the years also blend together, and we're trying not to make the same mistakes over and make new mistakes instead. So, we have a pretty great strong evaluation process that takes place after the season. We give ourselves some time to think and reflect, capture a lot of community feedback, artist feedback, vendor feedback, and then try and be better each year.
David Fair: So, again, referencing back to the pandemic, it taught us a lot as a society, it taught us a lot as a small community, and as individuals. What lessons perhaps did you learn—and your staff learn—about the notions of uncertainty and taking things for granted?
Michael Michelon: Yet, taking things for granted is an interesting one. I think we had been producing uninterrupted for, you know, 35-plus years. And to have those two years where we weren't producing a full-scale season, we realized just how much momentum carries you into some of those things, like cost. It's just you take a two-year break, and you rightsize a lot of things. And so, you know, more cost wasn't totally a bad thing if it meant evaluating who we're working with, how they're being compensated, all of those issues. And so, I think, with the pandemic, we all saw that this tide went out. And, you know, in some places, there might have been a cliff that you weren't aware of. And, ultimately, that's been a very positive thing. Just time for reflection.
David Fair: Well, a part of any event that has survived and thrived for 40 years is tradition, and it has become tradition for WEMU favorites, George Bedard and the Kingpins, to close out the Top of the Park music offerings. And they returned in that slot this year. What's your favorite Summer Festival tradition?
Michael Michelon: Well, that's one of them. So Long Sunday, First Friday--June ninth here. Those are great kind of inflection points for the season. For me, it's wonderful to bounce indoors to ticketed performances outside of the Top of the Park. And then, really just a reunion of sorts, seeing so many people that I sometimes only see, you know, during the summer. And that's part of the tradition, kind of the town square and count square aspect to it.
David Fair: I certainly have my favorites on the stage, but I also like looking off the stage and seeing all the people dancing, particularly the little kids who are perhaps experiencing it for the first time. They just have that sense of joy and exuberance.
Michael Michelon: Yeah, it's really wonderful. Great people watching, a lot of joy in all ages, too. There's just not many places that bring everyone together like that one place. As you know, media is so bifurcated now, and it's just wonderful to be together for a live experience.
David Fair: Well, thank you for the time and for stopping by today, Mike. I really appreciate it.
Michael Michelon: Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks, David. See you out there.
David Fair: That is Michael Michelon. He is executive director of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. And the festival and Top of the Park concerts and activities begin this Friday, June 9th, and it's going to run through Sunday, June 25th. For more information, visit our website at WEMU dot org, and we'll get you all linked up. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89-1 WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.
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