Building a better concert
Third in a series
With the future of Sonoma Jazz Plus hanging in the balance, with a campaign underway to raise $500,000 to guarantee the annual music festival's future, and with questions about the level of community commitment ready to support it, part of the behind-the-scenes conversation about the event has focused on the experience itself.
Is it good enough musically? Is the big, expensive tent necessary? Does the patron experience - gourmet food and wine, exclusive entre, free booze - meet the expectations of people who spend $350 to $500 a night to enjoy it?
And are general admissions ticket holders, who spend $50 to see John Fogarty or the Gipsy Kings, getting their money's worth?
The patron question has two sides to it, and the first one is central to the festival's future. In Sonoma, as in Aspen-Snowmass, Colo., where the mother festivals are held, patrons get the best goodies not just because of the goodies, but because they help underwrite the cost of the festival for people who can't afford to be patrons.
As festival executive director Jim Horowitz says, "A limited number of patrons actually subsidize the festival for others ... We had some resentment in Aspen regarding patrons - they were formerly called VIPs - and it was a hot issue for quite a while."
But that resentment has waned as people came to understand that, without the patrons there's no festival.
The bottom line, according to Horowitz, "It's a nonprofit corporation. The gate can't carry it alone."
But that doesn't mean the Sonoma festival experience shouldn't be improved on. "The gate is down $100,000. Numbers don't lie," says Horowitz. "People like Crosby, Stills & Nash better than John Fogerty."
Selling more tickets may mean "pushing the talent budget back up here," Horowitz suggests.
But pushing up the talent budget may also be connected to pushing up the food budget and Horowitz says he's exploring the concept of recruiting a celebrity chef. Why?
Feedback Horowitz gets indicates, he says, "We may need to sex this up a bit. I'm talking about a real star chef to put an imprimatur on the event."
And that could mean, Horowitz says with the next breath, "Handling the food on both sides of the fence. We want John Q. Public to have great food too."
Most of these ideas seem to collide with the chicken-egg dilemma of how to afford the investment that may increase the revenue when there's no money in reserve.
In preparation for the 2011 Sonoma Jazz Plus festival, Horowitz announced a deal with AEG Live, the world's second-largest live entertainment and concert promotion company. One benefit of working with AEG was expected to be the possibility of getting better prices on top acts and bringing in more corporate sponsorship through the company's national network of corporate connections.
But concert planning usually starts at least six months ahead of time and for 2011 the AEG partnership didn't have time to bear fruit. Finding financial footing by mid-August, Horowitz says, would provide the opportunity to make full use of AEG's resources for the 2012 festival, lock in acts before the end of the year and then get a solid jump on ticket sales.
But critics who question the very economic premise of the festival ask why a down-sized concert couldn't be produced without the giant tent and the enormous costs of putting it up and taking it down.
Horowitz answers that, in the larger scheme of things, the tent isn't all that expensive.
"The cost is about $60,000. That's not a lot of money and it gives you a weather-impregnable event. And that's the total production cost, building an entire city, the labor. It's not a game-changing cost-savings if you eliminate the tent."
That, of course, leads to the weather question. Holding an open air concert in the month of June used to be a safe bet in California. No more. This June was wetter than January and a rained out Jazz Plus night would mean a financial bath.
So what about moving the date to a safer drier month?
"June, July and August were already gone," in terms of non-conflicting dates, said Horowitz. "You have either May or September." And September in Sonoma is also full of conflicting events. Bottom line, Horowitz insisted, "You wouldn't save a quarter million dollars if you tore the tent down. Not even close."
A better idea, he insists, is a better show. "We've got to come up with a barn-burning show next year ... And we think the food element needs to be buffed up."
Pose the question of democratizing the festival by opening up an adjacent field to free viewing on a big screen, and Horowitz counters that the screen "would cost $20,000. I'd be more inclined to put up a fence and charge a reasonable amount for people to come in and sit on the grass. Or maybe finding a way to make that music free - maybe a sponsor."
Ideas for improving the festival experience continue to percolate, but from Horowitz's perspective the harsh reality remains. The festival has expenses that have to be covered and Jazz Aspen-Snowmass, the ship and de facto banker can't carry any more loss.
Next: What does Sonoma Jazz Plus really do for Sonoma and who cares if it leaves?