Carla Pritchard’s experience in public relations and event management have equipped her to aid in the growth of the music and arts industry since graduating from UTC in 1987. She began her career with the Chattanooga Downtown Partnership (now River City Company), promoting downtown as a great place for merchants while launching events to draw people downtown at a time when Chattanooga City Center was not such a popular place to visit.
What made you want to work in events?
Carla: I didn’t know that I wanted to do events until I had the opportunity to do them with the Chattanooga Downtown Alliance. It showed me that public relations could mean doing more than just press releases and working in a corporate environment. I fell in love with all of the details and communication that was required to make partnerships and events successful showcases of what this city has to offer.
The music scene was different at that time. We had difficulty finding local talent. We had to issue press releases asking people to send us any information they had about musicians playing around town. It took time for people to make themselves known, but between that and the connections I was able to make with Allied Arts (now ArtsBuild), I was able to meet the visual and music artists. With a better knowledge and focus on who was capable of doing what in Chattanooga, we could find ways to incorporate them into the work of Allied Arts. Then I could carry that into my later work at Chattanooga Downtown Partnership. It’s been helpful growing from one thing to another to keep building and building.
What made you start Chattanooga Presents? Why did you see a need for it in the community?
Carla: At the time, Downtown Partnership was dissolved as River City Company evolved and changed with the times. I wanted to keep doing what I loved doing and what I felt like I had expertise in at the time, which was events.
I felt like I didn’t have any choice but to find a way to keep these events going. It never occurred to me to start my own business at the time. As it turned out, it was a good thing because we ended up finding ways to continue doing events that had become important traditions in the community. We became a for profit business at this time under the advisement of a couple of people, including Pete Cooper with the Community Foundation. He said that we didn’t have to function as a nonprofit; we could work under the title of an event production company. He told us to stop leaning on grants and subsidies and find a way to fund it. A lot of it fell into place pretty easily because we were able to maintain the funding source of sponsorship as a marketing opportunity rather than philanthropic. It was just a shift of mindset, really. We wanted to continue offering these events for free to the community; we didn’t want to change that. Can you imagine charging for Nightfall? Not only would that be a logical nightmare, but it just didn’t feel right. I’m thankful for those businesses and corporate partners that still understand the positive aspects their funding brings to the community and the association of it.
I use Nightfall as the flagship program although we do have a lot of events throughout the year but that one has been around for 30 seasons and was the pioneer back in the day to create positive reasons to come downtown and now it’s just one of many wonderful reasons for people to enjoy downtown and still enhance that energy and gathering point at the core of urban center.
Is that the most successful event that you host?
Carla: It depends on your definition of success, but Nightfall is my personal favorite. Some events make more money, some have been around longer, some have a higher attendance rate. They all have different things that add relevance. If you’re talking about financial success, then there may be other events that make more sense from a business standpoint. The ice rink is a good example of that. People don’t expect us to offer that for free, which is good, so we’re able to charge a ticket price. The ice rink is a great anchor for us as a winter activity event.
Pops on the River is the biggest one–day event that we’re involved with in terms of crowd size because we gather a crowd in one big space in Coolidge Park and across the river to hear and see the showcase that the Symphony puts on for us. This is actually the only time the Symphony plays for the public free of charge, so it’s a big deal, even if many people only come for the fireworks. It’s awesome that we have a symphony that supports community events like Pops on the River.
Another significant festival that we contribute to is the Three Sisters Bluegrass Festival, which we produce on behalf of the Fletcher Bright family. It’s their gift to the community, and what a gift is it! It pays tribute to Fletcher Bright himself, who is well known and respected in the bluegrass community with his talents and his business savvy. We love having that strong association with the event even though we don’t own it.
How have you seen the local music industry grow in the past 30 years?
Carla: It’s hard to overstate the growth that I’ve seen over the years. I can relate it to when we started adding the local component to Nightfall, probably a dozen years ago. We realized that we should always have a local opening act and it was kind of tough for a while because I wanted to make it a point not to book the same artists each year, but finding new acts was difficult.
Now, I’m floored by the talent that I’ve seen come through Road to Nightfall because it’s a large demographic of musicians and styles that many of us who are intimately involved in the industry like Barrett Taylor and Jonathan Susman have never heard of before. That is mind blowing. I feel like it’s so much easier now to find new artists that are of high enough quality to showcase at public things like Nightfall. I’m also glad that artists feel like they can come to us and showcase their talents. I think it’s all growing and supporting each other at the right time.
What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue music professionally?
Carla: It’s going to be hard for me to speak to that because Chattanooga Presents can only offer so much based on our events. I think what SoundCorps is doing contributes to helping musicians understand what is required to make this their full time career. People may know that they have a love of music but that may be as far as it goes. In terms of understanding how to market themselves and get themselves booked, there is a lot to learn. With a support system in place, people need to understand what is involved in creating a business and take advantage of the services that are offered through SoundCorps.
The good thing is that we’re super close to other major cities and markets and that there are other resources for them to use. I hear people say that they’ve been to Nashville and it’s harder there than anywhere, and the same goes for Austin. It’s just impossible to make a living as a professional musician in those cities because there’s so much competition and the professionals don’t feel appreciated there.
Chattanooga is well positioned geographically. The Chattanooga Convention and Visitor’s Bureau has helped highlight what the music industry could mean to our economy and tourism business. That’s a big step and they can be supportive in a lot of ways. Everything seems to be coming together as Chattanooga grows, attracts more talent, and becomes more culturally vibrant.
Photo credit: Carla Pritchard's Linked In Page