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.

  • Cleophus

    JF ticket prices have gone thru the roof, far outpacing inflation. Still a bargain compared to other similar festivals, but the rapid constant increases in price every year are turning me away from JazzFest.

    Another couple of possible reasons for decreased attendance: 1) Bad weather Friday and the threat of bad weather Saturday kept people away. 2) The huge digestive disease convention that was booked at the same time as 2nd weekend took up a TON of rooms in town and JF goers got shut out.

  • royboy

    i was one of those out of townwers who attended jazz fest.$60.00 is a lot in one sense, not a lot in see 3-4 big acts a day isn't alot, but when i pull out my $6.00 tickets it can go see 1 big act for a few hundred dollars for maybe an hour and a half, and look at jazz fest as a serious bargain….i went to french quarter festival last year for the irst time and loved it, and not because it was free.great louisiana artists,local and otherwise.great food,great because it was all over the quarter…the thing i liked the most was one could walk away from it all and come back later, which i did all 3 days,jazz fest keeps you there unless you have a brass what to do?? the powers that be know people will pay,they're not going to lower prices,and i guess they're not going to reimberce us if they cancel a day due to weather.i know less of my friends and family attended due to price…i buy my tickets when they first go on sale at the lowest price,and dickmemaster still tacks on stupid fees…i will come to your great city as long as it exists,hopefully the rest of my life,will jazz fest price itself out? it's the greatest festival in the greatest city in the world!!!!! i've had friends come down for jazz fest and not o to the fest,and have had a great time anyway….i'll see ya at the flagpole next year

  • nola lola

    the “big dollar” tickets (big chief, and grand marshall access) have not only seperated the the masses into the haves and have nots, but has also shoved wheelchair access so far to tthe side, and the space is much smaller, that the experience is not as positve as it used to be. as a disabled fest goer, i find it harder to get around both FQF and jazz fest. i pay alot of money on my tickets, and i spend alot more money on food, crafts, and the such (hoping to help the little guy). however the experience of the music is marred for me by the dwindling access in front of the stage.

  • A few thoughts.

    On FQF, it's certainly crowded – too crowded – but the actual attendance numbers FQFI releases are comically inflated. 500K over three days? Does anyone really believe that there are more than twice as many people at Woldenburg, Jackson Square, and the Mint than at the entire Fairgrounds on a Jazzfest Saturday?

    I do like the idea of adding more stages. It's already a mile from the Aquarium to the Mint; Armstrong Park is no further than that.

    As far as Jazzfest, if you didn't wait in line, you must not have been there on 2nd Saturday. The port-o-let lines were a dozen people deep, at least the ones remotely near Acura. Most of the food lines looked equally daunting (though they no doubt move quicker). I attend Fest every day every year, and I'd guess that 2nd Saturday was the most crowded single day since K.

    Finally, I agree that it's a shame that the Grand Marshal area pushes back the GA fan from the stage. But I'm less bothered by the VIP stands for Krewe of JF and Big Chief. Those are relatively unobtrusive, and no doubt bring in a lot of money that would otherwise have to come from elsewhere. If you asked those locals who struggle with ticket prices is they'd rather pay $60 and have the VIP stands behind them, or pay $70 and have the stands eliminated, I'll bet the cheaper price would be the choice, for sure.

  • EasyDog

    The weather definitely cut down on the number of locals who showed up. There's also anecdotal evidence that some folks stayed away because they were so upset by the disaster in the Gulf that they wanted nothing to do with a festival underwritten by Big Oil. To me, that seems rather like cutting off one's nose to spite one's face, but I get where they're coming from. The oil spill cast such a pall of doom over everything, it was hard to really get into enjoying Fest.

    • BillyP

      I agree that a 20% increase in tickets prices in one year is very substantial, I completely disagree with JVR that $60 is an expensive price to pay for 7+ hours of outstanding entertainment. Hornets games, Saints games, Eric Clapton concert, etc etc etc. I get way more “bang for my buck” @ Jazz Fest than I do @ other entertainment events. Plus, this is the year 2010 & Jazz Fest in no longer the only kid on the block. Jazz Fest is still the by far, the best value in the Music Festival Business

      I go out to see live music in NOLA on average, 3x a month. I think that there are currently too many FREE music events/festivals in NOLA which ultimate depletes the value of going too see live music in the clubs.

  • stevekean

    I love the fest but this out-of-towner thinks $60 for locals is ridiculous. I'd like to see the fest get backs to its roots. Having local artists like Trombone Shorty, Sonny Landreth, Astral Project, Allan Toussaint and Irma Thomas (just to name a few) play early and saving the late gigs for acts that are have no tie to the region and who generally seen their better days is an insult to the remarkable talent of Louisiana. Oh, and $5 for a 12 oz. can of Miller Lite?

    But I'll be back next year

  • Harry J. Lagonegro II

    I Think You could help by suggesting WWOZ SPLIT THEIR Brass Pass and let people Buy a pass for either weekend!Lots of people can not afford to spend 2 weekends at the Jazz Fest!They would gladly pay $225.00 for either week.
    Why have the Dixie Chicks never been invited?May be I missed that year.PLEASE QUINT STAGGER THE ACTS BETTER SO WE CAN SEE RADS AND B.B. KING !
    EVERY ACT WAS GREAT & PEPPERED WI SUPRISE EXTRA FOLKS DR. J& ALAN T. AT LEVON HELM,VOICE OF THE WETLANDS AWESOME TAD B.& CO.Evryone Played great and the Big Chief Experience Does Suck!!!!!!!!! Harry J. Lagonegro II ELMIRA NY (Mark Twains Deathplace!)

  • Gallivan Burwell

    While I adore Jazz Fest, attending every day, every year, I found this one well short of heart-in-my-throat moments. (Think Springsteen's Katrina catharsis in 2006 when there wasn't a dry eye in the house, or any of YOUR personal epiphanies at whatever stage). For me, this year, there was Jeff Beck, frail looking Levon Helm dancing like a old tomcat, swinging like mad, bowing to his audience, not a lot more. The arrival of the Chouval Bwa carousel reminded of the International themed events that brought us moments like Johnny Clegg performing his Zulu dance, and Fusi Mousalo (?) singing of the murdered comrades against apartheid “drifting away like wind.” Instead we get Simon & F'n Garfunkel providing a wet blanket to a packed, muddy field. And (no disrespect intended to Camille, etc.) – who books B.B. KING! into the blues tent & puts the Radiators on the Gentilly stage?

    Something needs to happen to renew & reinvigorate the Jazz Fest experience, and turning it into Coachella or Bonnaroo isn't going to do it.

    I'm a Brass-Pass guy, though the $50 increase in that ducat made it a struggle this year, though supporting WWOZ and a dry place to sit & visit made it well worth the higher-than-gate-price ticket cost.

    And I do love my soft-shell crabs. Judging by the smell of heavy oil in the air today, I might have enjoyed my last one for a long, long while.