When you live in New Orleans, and New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival time rolls around, the question you hear in coffeeshop queues all around town isn't "You going to JazzFest?"
It's "What days you going to JazzFest?"
On the one hand, it's patently unfair to compare the brand new HullabaLOU to one of the nation's most important-- probably the most important-- historic, and respected music festivals. JazzFest just turned 40 years old this year. It features seven days of music, from 11am - 7pm over the course of two weekends, on twelve music stages or tents. JazzFest loves the "Heritage" part of its official name, and this is reflected not only in the music and the culture of the festival, but also in the hundreds of local food vendors, and its often museum-worthy collection of juried crafts booths.
In 2001, JazzFest broke all of its own attendance records and clocked more than 650,000 fest-goers for the seven days including one day that busted the 160,000 single-day record. But even on a mediocre JazzFest day, it still pulls more than the nearly 79,000 bodies who went through the turnstiles at Churchill this entire weekend.
On the other hand, it's really hard for this JazzFest veteran to not draw comparisons. First of all, there's no shaking the fact that both festivals occur on Churchill Downs properties. And as I pointed out in an old post when HullabaLOU was first announced: Churchill is actually two acres larger than the Fair Grounds property that hosts JazzFest. Secondly, it was impossible to be a JazzFester and not cast your eye around the HullabaLOU layout and offerings and not say, "well, somebody went to JazzFest and got some good ideas."
And finally, and most importantly, JazzFest invented this wheel, HullabaLOU Festival; your learning curve should be really, really short. Your sister property has been doing this for forty years and kicking ass. HullabaLOU was a great little festival this year, take a lesson from one of New Orleans's favorite (well, sometimes reviled) transplants, and "kick it up a notch" next year.
Let's talk ticket prices, shall we? When both Forecastle Festival and HullabaLOU announced their pricing structures for tickets this year, I thought the organizers of both festivals had lost their bloody minds.
I didn't go to Forecastle and don't feel like I missed much (I am long on the record for being allergic to "jam bands"), but I will say this: $150 for a 3-day pass or $70 day-of one-day passes comes surprisingly close to the cost of attending Bonnaroo-- but with no camping (and all the facilities needed to support three days of 75,000 campers), no seventeen-plus hours of music a day, and not a single act that even touched a "stadium caliber" headliner in the entire three days of Forecastle Festival.
I'm of two minds about HullabaLOU's ticket pricing right now. General Admission tickets were $75 in advance-- a price that nearly made me choke on my latte when I read it. And frankly, I still think the ticket price was the single biggest misstep in an otherwise well-conceived and -executed festival. But I can see the other side of the coin, and it is this:
Let's be realistic, folks. If Kenny Chesney and his sexy tractor ever come to the KFC Yum Bucket to play a show, you better bet you'll be paying nigh-$75 for the crappy seats. And if you're a Chesney fan-- and who knew there were SO many rabid Kenny Chesney fans?-- you'll cough up those bucks happily. And while I was in the Media Center watching Kenny Chesney fans go wild, my 60 year-old aunt and uncle were tailgating before a Bon Jovi concert in Massachusetts-- a show that cost between $67-$335, before TicketMaster surcharges, if you could get tickets. And for $75 at HullabaLOU, you got a stadium caliber headliner and seven additional hours of music. So, there's that.
On the other hand, and this is a big Mickey-Mouse-sized hand, if you cast a critical eye over the crowds attending each day of HullabaLOU, you would see that the type of crowd was largely dictated by the headliner that day. We had Bon Jovi fans Friday, Chesney fans Saturday, and DMB fans Sunday. And those fans were getting a heck of a deal: a stadium show plus some really fantastic minor-to-mid-major music in the seven hours before the act they were really there to see.
Charging $75 a day for tickets will, without a doubt, keep HullabaLOU from being a local cultural powerhouse. Your average Joe & Jane are not going to shell out $75 to "check it out." They're just not. $75 a day makes HullabaLOU an event that you plan in advance for, an event that makes you weigh the pros and cons of spending that kind of green. And the purpose of going to a music festival isn't to see one act-- it's to sample from the buffet of offerings, see people you wouldn't normally see, discover new acts you'll come to love.
I am not enough of a Bon Jovi, Chesney, or DMB fan to pay $75 to see them in a stadium. If I had been left to my own devices, there was no one day of HullabaLOU that would have been worth $75 to me-- even though I adored the Day Three line-up-- and certainly the 66 acts featured weren't worth a three-day pass for me.
People lost their noggins this year when day-of JazzFest ticket prices jumped $10 from $50 to $60. But you could still get them in advance for $45. Attendance levels did, indeed, sag-- no one can ever really say why, but I would think $60 is a cut-off for spontaneous JazzFesting for a lot of people. Those days of drawing 160,000 fans were back in the day of $25 JazzFest tickets. Back in the day when I would wake up on a JazzFest morning and say to myself, "Well, there's really no one I'm dying to see today, but it's a beautiful day, so I might as well hit the Fest." (or... "I'm really in the mood for some Crawfish Monica, so I might as well hit the Fest"... or... "I really regret not buying those beautiful earrings yesterday, so I should snag them today before someone else does.")
JazzFest invented the wheel and perfected it. If they keep inflating the ticket prices, the air is going to come out of them there tires really fast. If Churchill Downs Entertainment wants the people of Louisville to be asking "What day you hitting HullabaLOU?" come July 2011, they have to cut their prices. Otherwise the crowds will always be dictated by the pull of the mainstage headliner.