No denying it: the 2012 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell was an outstanding success. Great weather, good music, big-drawing performers, and huge crowds equals big dollars. This year’s fest was probably the biggest and best ever (at this writing attendance numbers haven’t been released, and one can only guess on the revenue they made as those figures are never made public). According to 2010 figures, the festival pulled in over $24 million. I’d speculate that that figure may have topped $30 million in 2012.
The problem is, I felt really shut out of enjoying Jazz Fest music this year at the bigger stages.
I don’t know what the latest demographics of the festival are (they’re never made known to anyone but sponsors), but based on observation, it seems to me that your 45 to 54 age group are probably the demo that the festival is going after, based on its booking policies (Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, the Eagles) with the 55+ demo being almost as large. This latter group are the hard-core Jazz Festers who literally have made the event what it is today, in terms of growth, size and music orientation. It is the demo of the original producers, Quint Davis and his mentor, George Wein, after all.
It’s also significant to note that these two demographics, particularly the older one, are the people who have the money it takes to attend an event that has a $50 to $60 ticket, plus the disposable income to travel to New Orleans, stay in a hotel, buy the expensive food and artwork that the festival presents to the public, and blow some more dough eating in local restaurants and shopping in local retail stores.
Thus, the city has got to love the Jazz Fest market: they’re older, they don’t get drunk and stupid, and they appreciate the music and finer cultural aspects of the city. More importantly, they spend money here. A lot of money. Ask any restaurateur or retailer in the city who is a more lucrative crowd for the big events in the city—hint, it’s not Mardi Gras.
The producers have been able to devise all sorts of ways to capitalize on the Jazz Festers’ wealth and devotion to the event. In the past few years, they’ve also been able to come up with ways to cater to the wealthier demos by establishing “classes” of Jazz Fest ticketing to make attendees feel special and privileged (In my experience with the Jazz Fest over the years, the “I’m behind the police barricade and you’re not” mentality has always permeated the event, so in some ways there’s always been sort of an elitist mentality; who you know and all that crap). The revenue from the addition of the “Big Chief,” “Grand Marshal” and “Krewe of Jazz Fest” tickets now are slowly but surely creating a wider and wider class divide amongst attendees.
This year’s Jazz Fest must have really raked in the dollars; all these elite ticket categories were sold out weeks before the festival. Without including ticket fees, Big Chief tickets go for $2,050 for both weekends; Grand Marshal, $1,400; and Krewe of Jazz Fest, $1,000.
Big Chief ticketholders get to sit on shaded bleachers and enjoy a cleaner private porta-potty. Grand Marshal ticket holders get into the so-called “Golden Circle,” which means you get to stand right in front of the stage—but no seating. The Krewe only gets seating at the Acura Stage (probably for dilettantes who should be going to an arena show for the band and who really don’t care about the other music at the Fest).
This year, the Grand Marshal Golden Circle space effectively wiped out the entire handicapped seating area from both the Acura and Gentilly Stages. It also reduced the guest areas to a mere sliver of what they used to be. To accommodate handicapped people (in wheelchairs, on mobility scooters, crutches, blind, etc.), the festival moved the handicapped seating area to a small platform near the Big Chief seating, with access that wasn’t exactly easy.
I heard about this the first weekend from a woman on a mobility scooter who told me she had spent her ticket money to see Tom Petty, but she not only couldn’t get into the handicapped area that’s been there for years, but she couldn’t access the newly designated spot because of the massive crowds. So basically, she was totally out of luck. And boy, was she upset.
Most of our readers know that I was handicapped when I was in my late 20s due to a car accident; the older I’ve gotten, the worse the damage. So I was upset when I tried to get my mobility scooter into the Gentilly Stage handicapped area to catch some of Bonnie Raitt near the beginning of her set, and myself, a blind guy and a few other handicapped people were turned away because the area was full. The woman working the entrance politely apologized and told us to go out into the crowd and try to find a place (!). Listen, babe—when you’re on crutches, in a wheelchair or on a mobility scooter, or you’re blind, that ain’t happening. You’re just screwed. My old friend Bonnie wasn’t in the cards for me this year.
The Jazz Fest seemed to have made a lot of progress accommodating disabled individuals in past years, but this new policy was, in my opinion, really unfair to the handicapped. It certainly reduced the size of the area available for those who can’t physically muscle their way to the front of the stage to see an act they love. Remember, too, that most handicapped people can’t stand up; they are sitting and can’t see the stage from the crowd, so they need to be up front.
This new policy also absolutely favors the wealthy ticketholders who could afford to pay mega-bucks for the Golden Circle. In other words, the handicapped area was 86’ed by the elite ticketholders—remember, those tickets sold out weeks before the festival.
Shame on the Jazz Fest for doing this.
I have a suggestion: the only way we disabled will be able to enjoy the festival in the future may be to buy an expensive “Big Gimp” ticket, which if it’s anything like the Grand Marshal ticket, will set us back at least $1,400, with a premium, as the producers will have to figure out a way to get the disableds’ chairs and vehicles into the so-called Golden Circle. Certainly the organizers know that with the aging of baby boomers, there are bound to be a lot more of the hardcore festers who are going to need a little extra help getting around in the next five to 10 years. I just hope the disabled among us have the money to spend.
How ‘bout it, Jazz Fest? Can we buy an accessible Big Gimp ticket next year so we can enjoy the festival, same as our richer friends?