For a number of years, actually since after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, the character of both the French Quarter Festival (FQF) and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (NOJHF) has changed.
Both festivals have increased in size and the number of musicians and bands booked. The FQF is still a free festival, but has added numerous stages and events, and attendance has skyrocketed. Almost all of the music at FQF is local, with a soupçon of international performers who also come to their music mecca, New Orleans, to get a chance to play in the music city of their dreams.
The NOJHF still showcases many hundreds of local bands and musicians, but since Katrina and the Jazz Fest’s affiliation with AEG, the character of the headliners has changed drastically. AEG is one of the world’s premier concert promoters, and it has mighty clout getting in bands who normally might perform in an arena (rather than at a festival). AEG also has mighty credibility in the music business worldwide and has lent its connections to make the NOJHF an event that has a broader appeal to (probably) a younger audience who may not be as interested in the kinds of music that the NOJHF originally presented.
The old-time Jazz Festers have bemoaned the change in talent booking, and every year they complain about it, but let me tell you: it’s never going back to what it was when the NOJHF appealed primarily to a local music-freak audience. It’s grown way, way beyond that.
The NOJHF is 50 years old this year. It’s progressed through almost three generations of festival-goers. It’s become legendary. The music offerings have changed a bit, but in the process the NOJHF has become a magnet for music industry people who come in from all over the world. I cannot tell you how many of these folks I’ve met and become friendly with in my 35 years of being involved in music activism and in the magazine. I’ve met festival and talent bookers, music management, music publishers, booking agents, club owners, you name it. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation wisely capitalized on this national and international interest by creating the Sync Up educational event during the Festival, since so many music biz professionals already travel to the city to attend the Festival.
But I believe whole-heartedly that the NOJHF’s fantastic success owes it to intense and targeted marketing. And when I say marketing, I mean there are serious dollars spent. The Jazz Fest is ticketed; the French Quarter Fest is not. The difference in revenues produced via ticket sales and major sponsorships is not even close. The NOJHF also owns the license to WWOZ, which now proclaims itself as the “Your Jazz and Heritage Station.” And of course, media (including OffBeat) covers NOJHF intensely. We basically promote it all year-round, but let it not be said that we haven’t also focused on FQF and so many other local festivals.
Frankly, I don’t really know if I’d want the FQF to balloon even bigger than it already has. The one-weekend event has become very crowded, to the point where stages have been added, and it’s become really difficult to traverse the French Quarter and particularly, the Riverfront where many of the stages are located.
But if the city is interested in creating a music industry here, I think the people who are involved in researching exactly what that industry should look like and how it can be developed should look seriously at getting more music industry folk to come to New Orleans during FQF. I can guarantee you that there are many, many of these people who have never experienced FQF because…well, not as many music biz people know about it. Maybe some marketing dollars pumped into FQF might be in order to achieve this.
There’s a great potential in attracting even more music industry types to New Orleans via FQF. There are plenty enough to go around. The idea is to expose them to New Orleans, and our music. Might as well take advantage of a good thing, eh?