The Festivals Are Over, Now Get Back to Work!

French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest 2010 have come and gone, and some surprising trends have emerged.

For years and years, Jazz Fest measured its success by its attendance. There used to be a chart on the wall of the press trailer that showed the numbers of Jazz Fest attendees every year, and for many a year, it rose and rose. The best year, according to the Times-Picayune, was in 2001, when 160,000 people crowded the Jazz Fest to hear Dave Matthews and Mystikal. Of course, 9/11 changed all that, and numbers decreased after the New York catastrophe, and just as we started to recover, Katrina hit.

Without partnering with AEG Live and Shell Oil, we might have seen the demise of the Festival as we know it. Both entities pumped a lot of money into the Jazz Fest. Although the Festival’s booking policies have included big-name acts for a long time—to attract more ticket buyers—this year the strategy apparently didn’t work as well as in the past because the Jazz Fest was the most uncrowded I’ve seen it in many years. I never had to wait in line for more than a minute for anything, even a softshell crab po-boy!

Of course, a smaller crowd could have something to do with the exorbitant $60 per day ticket price, an increase of about 20% over last year. Local folks just don’t have that kind of money, and this year I know lots of local people who stayed home because they couldn’t afford to go. The ticket prices, I think, are paying for the big acts, and profit is flowing back into AEG’s coffers. It’s a shame that the Jazz Fest isn’t all locally-operated any more: AEG is corporate, and corporations need to be fed profits.  You can also see this strategy at work with the creation of three high-priced levels of “ultra premium” Jazz Fest experience, such as the “Big Chief” tickets. Frankly, I really don’t want to sit in a bleacher overlooking the crowds. That’s not Jazz Fest for me. But apparently there are enough people who can pay the price to hang with the elite. It also annoys me that the hardcore fans who flock to the front of the stage now are barricaded behind the rich folks who can pay the price to get into the section in front of the stage.

Then again, there could be another strategy: sell tickets for more money and cut the crowds. There’s a point where your ticket price is going to negatively affect your attendance, and maybe Jazz Fest has reached that point.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Jazz Fest. There’s just nothing like it anywhere. It’s not just the music and the food; it’s the people, the camaraderie, the artwork. I can relate to the financial problems of putting on such a huge event. I don’t like it that crowded. But those $60 tickets are just insane. If the Festival keeps raising the ticket prices and adding more super-premium tickets, the little guys are in danger of being crowded out of the experience. But, frankly, I don’t think that will happen.

Which brings me to French Quarter Festival. There’s been a huge upturn over the past three years for French Quarter Fest. While FQF can only estimate its attendance (as there are no ticket sales), it’s quite easy to observe that this Festival is becoming so big and so crowded that it may discourage attendees. The Riverfront Woldenberg Park and Jackson Square are literally dangerously crowded. And huge crowds of people always detract from a festival’s positive experiences. Once upon a time, FQF was small; then it grew to Jackson Square, then to Woldenberg Park, then to the Mint. And it’s still crowded and getting more so every year. Have said this before (oh, so many times!). The FQF footprint needs to be expanded, perhaps down Frenchmen Street to Washington Square Park, or even to Armstrong Park. There’s absolutely no reason why either of these locations can’t host a stage or two, and food booths, and possibly even craftspeople. I believe for its survival and growth that FQF needs to seriously consider these options. I also believe that the residents on the Armstrong Park side will oppose expansion into the park—they don’t want any music on that side of the Quarter. Period. I’ve heard people say that’s it’s too far to walk from the Riverfront to Armstrong Park. But if at least two large stages were placed in Armstrong, and there was a shuttle that ran around the Quarter, it would not only alleviate the crowding on the Riverfront, it would also allow people to see more of the city. And of course, echoing my blog from a couple of weeks back, the City of New Orleans needs to step up to the place and allocate some of its resources (police, sanitation, perhaps staging and sound, or helping to finance musician fees) to the FQF in the future. The city has always supported Jazz Fest, but never French Quarter Festival in a big way, for some bizarre reason. Maybe because the Jazz Fest has had an international reputation, and they’ve certainly made more PR “noise” than the FQF. But times have changed: French Quarter Fest now is noticeably larger than Jazz Fest in terms of attendance (over 500,000 went to this year’s three-day event); FQF has a serious economic impact on the city’s hotel and French Quarter businesses, and demographics that rival the Jazz Fest’s.

We should dub April “Festival Month” in New Orleans. And capitalize on it. Not just with one fest, but with two big ones, both of which the city needs to support equally. It’s good for both festivals and it’s good for the city.