The Greatest Free Show

FQFNightMardi Gras has often been called the “Greatest Free Show on Earth,” and I don’t think anyone could possibly argue with that. A New Orleanian’s greatest pleasures is people- watching during Mardi Gras, whether it be girls gone wild in the Quarter, the St. Ann Street Parade, family costumes on St. Charles Avenue, marching bands—you get the picture (pun intended).

Having spent most of my life in New Orleans, I also know that everyone here is into “free” stuff. Come to think of it, maybe the obsession with free is another manifestation of the so-called Mardi Gras Mentality. Whatever.

Getting something free, though, may mean that you settle for lesser quality in what you receive. Products and services do cost money. Higher quality usually (but not always) means there’s a higher price tag attached.

In a city that’s historically been pretty poor, we always want free; this means it accessible to everyone whether they have money or not. But like it or not, someone has to pay.

For example, there’s a price tag attached to going to the Jazz Fest. But I think almost anyone could agree that the quality of the product is pretty high, and for the most part, it’s worth the cost of a ticket. The Jazz Fest has certainly capitalized on the desire of people to pay for an experience. In fact, the festival has added several layers of money to promote a more “exclusive” experience. And, of course, there are the sponsorships from entities like Shell, Acura, etc. What’s happened is that there’s an elite “class” now that experiences Jazz Fest in a way that the rest of us peons cannot—simply because we just don’t have the money.

I’m not dissing the festival here. They have used their money wisely, and I can even deal with the AEG acts that have crept in the lineup over the past 15 years or so. Elton John, the Who, Lady Gaga et all sell tickets. Tickets produce money, more tickets means potentially better sponsors, and so the circle continues.

The Jazz Fest doesn’t just sit on the money. They have a system where the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation routinely gives “free” back to the community in terms of community festivals, grants to local artists, musicians and events 9disclosure, the Jazz & Heritage Foundation helps support OffBeat’s Best of The Beat, every year), major educational resources and a lot more. It’s a system that works to benefit the community year-round and into the future.

You pay, but not only do you get a good experience, the community at large benefits as well in the long run.

The state of Louisiana is in dire straits because the prevailing party in state government refuses to raise any taxes. It’s part of the party platform. But it’s leaving Louisiana citizens in the dust. Terrible cuts to health care and education are what we are going to have to endure because services and products that were subsidized by the state must have a source of revenue. No taxes, no services…no education, lousy health care.

You need money to provide quality. Needless to say, the money has to be used wisely and managed well (I’m certainly not for government bloat) and efficiently used.

The French Quarter Festival (FQF) will announce its upcoming schedule on Thursday at its annual press conference. FQF has been a free festival since it started in 1985. It generates only a fraction of the revenue generated by the Jazz Fest (in 2012—latest information for both festivals to compare, FQF total revenue was $2,352,256 compared to the Jazz & Heritage Foundation’s $33,203,915), and is supported mostly via sponsors as well food,  beverage and merchandise sales. And it’s much bigger, population-wise, than Jazz Fest (remember, it’s a free festival).

This hampers FQF’s ability to pay talent and possibly to expand the footprint of the event. Moreover, FQF has limited ability to put major money back into the community. So, the question is: if you had to pay a ticket price to go to the French Quarter Festival, knowing you could hear the cream of the crop of local musicians, and that your money might be pumped back into the local cultural economy, would you do it?

Take our poll and let us know what you think.


  • NOLA native

    Would you pay a nominal entrance fee ($10 or under) to attend the annual French Quarter Festival? This is really more than a yes or no question. I would definitely pay for the talent. However, how would ‘entry’ to the event be managed? The beauty of FQF, to me as a local, is that I am not penned in to the race track. I can immerse myself in the crowd, or leave the throng at any time by walking into the Qtr or Marigny. I will still be participating, but have no limitation on where to re-enter the activities. Good luck with that! If we could’ve kept a lid on the FQF and had it remain the smaller locals’ festival, my enjoyment of the event would be increased. Why do festival promoters always want to “possibly to expand the footprint of the event”?

  • JohnInTucson

    I think there’s a place for events with free admission (sponsored and subsidized by vendors) and ticketed events (which are also sponsored and subsidized by vendors). We have personally sponsored stages at Satchmo SummerFest and French Quarter Fest. We used our sponsorship to help the artists get paid and to tout a New Orleans non-profit,, that is helping residents rebuild their homes in the Lower Ninth Ward. I would like to think that our small sponsorship constituted a win for all. We contribute to keeping admission free to the events, we help artists get paid, and we get to mention a cause we support. I agree with the previous comment that it’s not always necessary or desirable to increase the size of the footprint. Jan – your comment about the elite access to Jazz Fest explains one reason that it’s not necessary to always grow bigger. I’m not dissing Jazz Fest either. And I really appreciate the community support that is done with the Jazz and Heritage Foundation’s resources. But the contribution to the community made by ‘free’ events is also substantial in work for artists, business opportunities and exposure for vendors, and enrichment of the cultural life of the city. These events grow in their own way while keeping admission free – maybe not into many millions of dollars, but growth non the less. A good mix of events, small to large, free admission to ticketed, that’s what I find desirable.