Essence retools in face of increasing competition

At a time when music festivals are growing in number and popularity, the annual celebration of black music, art and culture that takes over New Orleans each Fourth of July has dropped the music from its name.

Essence Music Festival is simply Essence Festival this year. Now in its nineteenth year, the annual festival is pushing to separate itself from a growing pack of music-focused events around the country by placing greater emphasis on its other offerings.

“We really wanted to focus on the Essence brand and not so much on the music because it’s so much more than just the music,” Joy Collins, general manager of Essence Communications said.

“We really can’t have a gathering or festival experience without really bringing what makes the brand come to life.”

Essence has doubled down on events rooted in the key pillars of Essence magazine: culture, community, health, career, fashion, beauty and relationships, Collins said.

MSNBC will broadcast live from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center for four hours this weekend. New Orleans resident Melissa Harris-Perry will host her regular morning television show from the festival Saturday and Sunday. The topic will be poverty in New Orleans and beyond, a subject Essence magazine tackles in its own pages.

“We want to equip people with what they need for their everyday lives and so that they can bring those solutions back to their communities,” Collins said. “That’s really what you see across the four days and it’s important for us that that content, those conversations that our editors bring to life can be accessible to the general public.”

Essence has long billed itself as a “party with a purpose,” because its nights of concerts are preceded each day with educational seminars and events. But Collins wants the annual event to expand its purpose in coming years, trying to reach out to families looking to find workable solutions to problems such as violence plaguing their communities.

Essence Festival has partnered with NOLA For Life, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s murder-reduction strategy, for a special seminar on reducing the murder rate nationwide. The mayor is scheduled to moderate a panel on gun violence Saturday with Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

Thursday’s kickoff to the weekend of events featured seminars on violence and gave special attention to family.

“The focus around families has to remain something that’s core to the festival experience each year,” Collins said. “I think we’ll find ways to really highlight that and showcase that as we move forward toward our twentieth anniversary.”

Positioning itself as more than a music festival may become more important in coming years as the festival faces new competition for attendance.

Television network BET, for instance, hosted its inaugural BET Live festival in Los Angeles this year. Like Essence, the event featured nights of concerts and days of panels.

Beyoncé and New Edition, who will perform at Essence Festival, also performed at that event, which culminated with the BET Awards last Sunday night.

“The family focus is critical to our festival,” Collins said. “In fact, it’s one of the things that differentiates Essence Festival from any of the other festivals you’ll find. There’s a focus on family and a focus on empowerment.”