New Jersey Music Tourism

Can A Music Tourism Industry Thrive in New Jersey?

Several United States cities, including Nashville, New Orleans and Austin, have become well-known tourist destinations from their musical heritage and thriving music scenes. Other attractions, such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion and the Experience Music Project in Seattle, have created popular attractions, drawing visitors from around the world.

Could New Jersey, specifically the region around the Jersey Shore, develop a similar reputation and attract the tourist dollars and development opportunities those dollars present?

A meeting held at the Asbury Park Library, in Asbury Park, NJ, the jewel in New Jersey's music crown, on April 26, 2002, revolved around the possibility of developing a tourist trade in New Jersey. It focused on the state's past and present musical legacy and gave those interested opportunities to share ideas of what could be done to develop music tourism into a profitable industry that would benefit local economies.

Maggie Powell, the event's administrator, opened the meeting by defining "music tourism" and how it relates to the New Jersey area. Powell, a Scottish native now living in Germany, has been a familiar local music scene figure for many years. She also is the Jersey Shore Editor for "The Ties That Bind", the U.K.'s largest Bruce Springsteen fanzine, and European Board Member for the Save Tillie organization.

Powell told stories of how the lure of the Jersey Shore music scene brought her over from Europe, and continues to bring her and many others from the other side of the Atlantic to visit the area. "Fans with a deep appreciation of Jersey shore music come here," said Powell. "It's what brought me here ... and continues to bring me here."

"Monmouth County must be blessed with the greatest musical heritage in New Jersey," said Powell. She described how she felt a tourism trade could be developed to take advantage of that heritage as "a magnet to attract people" and hoped that the meeting and its guest speakers would "illuminate the possibilities that are achievable through music tourism."

Powell stressed that New Jersey's musical legacy is not a recent one, and stretches back to colonial times. Thomas Edison's famous workshops produced the earliest collections of recordings. Asbury Park's Convention Hall played host to the Big Bands of the 1930s and 1940s, and continued to host acts such as the Rolling Stones in the 1960s. More recently, it hosted local favorites Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen.

The podium was turned over to Robert Stewart, director of the Asbury Park Library. Stewart went into detail about the library's collection of print materials relating to the career of Bruce Springsteen. He related that the collection of the materials, which includes over 1,000 books, magazine and periodicals, is being inventoried and will be made available to the public via the Internet. This work is being done via a state grant and will soon be available through the library's home page. He stressed that the Internet is changing the way research is being done, as scholars no longer need to travel to repositories of original materials, but can view the texts via the Internet to do their research.

Expanding on his discussion, Stewart described a lack of formal research and printed material on the history of Asbury Park. The library owns only one incomplete book on the subject and, despite the area having a long, storied history, there has been little effort to record it. The library is working with the newly created Asbury Park Historical Society, formed last year, to assemble the 100+ year history of the city.

Despite the mystique the city holds for many people, Stewart said, "all the wealth has been sucked out, sucked dry" from the area. The two square miles of Asbury Park was once one of the most prominent resorts in the United States. Its economic decline is not unique, nor is the tradition of public investment in the area. For many years, the wealth of the city was able to support public building projects. After the area was purchased from James Bradley, who founded the city of Asbury Park in 1887, public money built, or helped develop, the waterfront, boardwalk and Convention Hall. All of these projects have been subsidized and, said Stewart, financing from government funds or private donations are essential for building and tourism development in the area. Since few museums are commercial enterprises, Stewart cited Graceland as a rare example, financing must be found if museums are to be built or the important buildings in the area preserved.

The next speaker was Mr. Numa Saisselin, CEO of the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, NJ. Saisselin explained he wanted to speak at the event when he was asked to attend because "there's a cultural district here, and there's an opportunity we're not taking advantage of." He stressed that rock is not the only genre represented in the lore of the Jersey music scene. There is also a "rich [jazz and blues] history that goes back over 100 years."

The namesake of the theatre he oversees, Count Basie, was born in Red Bank and played his first performances in Red Bank and restaurants in Long Branch and Asbury Park. Even after he left the area for Manhattan, he continued to hang out, and be influenced by, other shore musicians who had migrated into the city. There are "lots of low-hanging fruit in this area", concluded Saisselin, explaining that research would uncover numerous important players involved with the evolution of American music in the 20th century who worked or lived in the area.

Returning to the stage, Powell asked the question: "what do music fans expect when they come here?" Are there fans who are visiting the area and, if so, why? To help answer that question, and present some of the commercial elements of a tourism trade, Councilwoman Kate Mellina took center stage.

Mellina, a first-term member of the Asbury Park City Council, had a "vision of SoHo" when she opened her "Cleopatra Steps Out" gallery on Cookman Avenue. While the gallery features high-end pieces, and was featured favorably in art and design publications, Mellina described that almost everyone who enters her store has two questions. First, they wanted to know if she had met Bruce Springsteen. Their second question to Mellina was, "Do you have anything that says Asbury Park on it?"

Mellina told how she slowly began to devote a small part of her store to "Greetings from Asbury Park" t-shirts. Those very popular items sold out quickly, and were constantly being reordered. Reluctantly, sweatshirts were added to the displays, then posters, then pictures and souvenir glasses. As the crowd laughed, Councilwoman Mellina began to humorously anguish over the transformation of her gallery into a shop for increasingly commercial Asbury Park-related memorabilia: more t-shirts, postcards, clocks, "Tillie" wall hooks, jewelry, earrings and even toilet-paper roll holders. A $1,100 "Tillie" rug sold the day in came in, and all of the merchandise sells out quickly and needs to be reordered. A worn-out Mellina, having bared her commercial soul and surrounded by all of her merchandise, asked rhetorically, "Is there an economic impact from music tourism?" as the audience applauded her presentation.

Powell returned to introduce Ms. Jane McCreery, a communications consultant and event organizer, who shared some of her experiences, as well as gave suggestions for events which could be put together to bring attention to the scene.

McCreery began by sharing her vision for "Destination Asbury Park." This is a program to highlight the history of the area, and also promote the musicians who are active now and the current events taking place for people to experience and enjoy. She presented slides about the city of Austin, Texas, which currently bills itself as the "Live Music Capitol of America", building on the popularity of its hot local music scene and "South by Southwest" music festival. McCreery pointed out that Austin, which has a population almost identical to Monmouth County brings in $1.68 billion of tourism dollars per year, at least 10% of which is specifically related to music tourism.

McCreery, along with Powell, helped organize the "Jukestock" festival at the Holiday Inn in Tinton Falls in March 2001. The festival was meant to bring fans of Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes together to share their love of the Jukes' music, and to have the opportunity to hear the various Jukes perform in the bands they play with while the Jukes are not touring.

Three hundred tickets for the event sold out, via the Internet, at $140 each in one day. The number of tickets was limited by the size of the room at the facility, and McCreery stressed that more tickets could have been sold for a larger venue. Fans came to Jukestock from nine countries and 20 different states to participate.

McCreery went on to detail the economic impact of the event. As an example, she mentioned that the $42,000 budget was almost all spent within Monmouth County. This included salaries, the venue, staging, hospitality, security, insurance and communications. The largest part of the budget went to paying the many bands that performed. In addition to the budget for the event, which was covered by ticket sales, attendees paid for their own lodging, meals and other amenities.

McCreery estimated that if all guests paid for an average of two nights of lodging, about $18,000 was made by local hotels. All of these figures do not included money spent by guests on transportation, side trips or souvenirs, both at the event and elsewhere in the area.

McCreery also stressed that despite the reservations about holding a rock show, especially where there would be alcohol being served, the crowd drank responsibility and there was no "spring break" atmosphere. Rick Harrison, general manager of the Tinton Falls Holiday Inn where the event was held, followed-up briefly to second McCreery's version of events, confirmed the hotel benefited financially and wondered out loud when the second Jukestock would be held. "Can it happen and financially be a great success to the community? Yes." he said.

McCreery concluded the segment about Jukestock by highlighting that over $100,000 was put into the local economy during the off-season due to this one event.

She concluded her talk by presenting a series of other concepts that could be used to develop musical events, bringing attention to the area, and spreading news about the music currently being made. These included:

  • "The City Rocks the Shore," New York City bands play in Monmouth County venues, a weekend package with tickets, food and local transportation.
  • "Clarence Clemons Fan Weekend," highlighting the music of the E Street Band's famed sax player, and featuring other horn-driven bands.
  • "Count Basie Festival," a weekend at The Count Basie Theatre highlighting jazz bands and those who have been influenced by the music.
  • "Blues on the Beach," a blues festival highlighting nationally-known headliners.

She also proposed the creation of a "Jersey Shore All-Star Band" that would tour the country. It could be organized with the state tourism bureau, travel to various cities during the off-season and help promote music tourism in the area.

Colleen Sheehy, Director of Education at the Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota was the following speaker. Sheehy, a cultural historian and scholar, is also the curator of "Springsteen Troubadour of the Highway," an exhibit presenting Springsteen's use of car and highway imagery in his music, through the use of video, music and lyrics and well as extensive photography.

Sheehy explained how Minnesota has been slow to take advantage of its own musical history, both as the birthplace of Bob Dylan, and as the breeding ground for great acts as The Replacements, Hüsker Dü and Soul Asylum. She said the difference between those bands and their relationship with Minnesota, and the Jersey shore's relationship with Bruce Springsteen, is significant. While those musicians paid scant attention to the area, Dylan has said barely a word with the exception of one album title, Springsteen has written and talked extensively about New Jersey, both through his lyrics and in interviews. He has added to the magic and legend of the area, in the lyrics of songs like "Born to Run" and "The E Street Shuffle", and countless photographs which have adorned album covers, t-shirts and tour programs. His imagery appeals to fans around the world who have never seen any of these places. "Springsteen even made the New Jersey Turnpike cool," mused Sheehy.

Obviously, Sheehy explained, any effort at music tourism would need to take advantage of Springsteen's popularity. Two million people attended his last tour, those who could actually get tickets, and "the nature of his music is very self-reflective of his own life", which has created a special bond between the artist and his fans. Springsteen would be the biggest draw of any music tourism effort, and the places "both real and legendary" recalled in his lyrics would be some of the more popular attractions.

The good news, said Sheehy, is that an infrastructure is already in place to support a music tourism industry. Because efforts thus far to save legendary sites as The Stone Pony rock club and The Palace have succeeded, the local "communities are a living museum". She stressed that these important sites must be saved and restored, "nothing can compare to the actual place. A replica doesn't have the same sort of power."

While music tourism is developing nationally and internationally, continued Sheehy, "it's important to engage audiences." She explained that exhibits have to be innovative, and must reach out beyond simply being entertainment. "The bread and butter of museums for nine months out of the year are schools," explained Sheehy, and grade schools, colleges and universities must be involved in these efforts as well as be given useful lessons with which to engage their students.

"Springsteen Troubadour of the Highway" will open in the fall, and will travel to several cities around the country. Hopefully, said Sheehy, a plan will be worked out to bring the exhibit to either Freehold or Asbury Park.

The featured speaker at the event was Simon Osborne, who was visiting Asbury Park for the first time from Liverpool, England. Osborn, a Manager at the National Trust, manages several properties including the Paul McCartney family home at 20, Forthlin Road, the "birthplace" of the Beatles. The National Trust, which is independent of the British government, is subscribed to by over 2.9 million people and has taken on a significant role in developing music tourism in Liverpool.

Osborne explained that, for many years, Liverpool ignored its relationship with the Beatles and did little to take advantage of it. Today, the city is forced to paint a "Penny Lane" street sign on the wall, because too many of the actual signs were being stolen by tourists.

He explained some of the similarities between Liverpool and Asbury Park. Liverpool was once a thriving shipping and port city. Its role as the second most important port in England 100 years ago made it the landing stage for blues and jazz records brought over by mariners from overseas. These records eventually made their way into the eager hands of British youth who, unencumbered by the burdens of race, embraced the sounds and made them their own.

The citizens of Liverpool held a long-standing animosity towards the Beatles, since the band never returned to the city after gaining their fame. Osborne described how the process of changing this view has been a slow process and, despite many mistakes being made, there were still lessons which could be learned by Asbury Park, and other cities looking to develop their own music tourism trade.

Most notably, Osborn described the plight of The Cavern. The club where the Beatles first made their mark was closed in 1973, and the basement eventually filled in. What stands today is a facsimile of the club, an irreplaceable loss to the music world. Despite this, The Cavern, rebuilt in 1984, had 180,000 paying customers last year, and is still a popular attraction.

The demolition of The Cavern reflected the state of Beatles-related tourism in Liverpool in the 1970s. While there were ad hoc events and tours in the area through the decade, the first official tour guide wasn't published until 1979. When fans realized that a Beatles reunion was impossible with the death of John Lennon in 1980, interest in the history of the band grew and soon Liverpool christened itself "The Birthplace of the Beatles". Last year 600,000 people visited Liverpool due to the Beatles, and added 27 million pounds to the local economy.

The Beatles helped to revitalize Liverpool by bringing tourists to the area. Fans had always visited Liverpool to try and locate pieces of Beatles history, but often left disappointed due to the city's lack of attention and recognition for John, Paul, George and Ringo. Now, "Beatles tourists become ambassadors for the city", said Osborn.

Much of Osborn's efforts, and his presentation, focused on "20, Forthlin Road", the childhood home of Paul McCartney and his family, which has been purchased and restored by the National Trust. In addition, Yoko Ono purchased John Lennon's home and turned it over the National Trust, as well as gave them a large endowment for the building's restoration. Osborn expressed gratitude to Ono for her work on behalf of the National Trust. He also explained that Sir Paul McCartney paid a touching visit to his old home, and authenticated the restoration of the building, including his old bedroom. McCartney stressed that the building was a home, with a family, and that it will always hold special memories for him.

While Liverpool still lacks a dedicated and coordinated effort to promote music tourism, it has had success in bringing in tourism dollars due to the incredible popularity of the band. An International Beatle Week Festival is held in the city each August, and "The Beatles Story" has become a popular tourism center and a base for the Beatles industry in Liverpool. Unfortunately, said Osborn, it is not always possible to wait for public sector money to become available, and that is still a challenge facing further development of the industry in this city on the west coast of England, as well as another on the east coast of New Jersey.

To conclude, Osborn paid tribute to those in attendance and the host city: "I wish Asbury Park every success. If you want it to happen, it's in your hands."

Concluding the morning's program, Powell stressed that she hoped Asbury Park would not duplicate some of the mistakes made by Liverpool, but could replicate some of its successes in developing a music tourism industry. She hoped that official ties between Liverpool and Asbury Park could be developed, and an ongoing relationship to promote each other's tourism effort created.

The meeting was attended by about 50 participants, in the main hall of the library. Afterwards, a bus tour was held highlighting some of the sites in Asbury Park and Belmar which would be of interest to tourists to the area.

"We must recognize music tourism as a viable product", said Powell. "We must preserve landmarks at all cost".

Matt Mrowicki

Matt Mrowicki founded Chorus and Verse in 2001. He is a rock star designer and technologist, Internet professional, content creator, and entrepreneur specializing in web development, IT consulting, branding, social media and online marketing.