Jazz Plus by the numbers
Second in a series
There is a debate unfolding quietly in Sonoma over the future of Jazz Plus, the annual big-name music festival, that is nominally about jazz and the money it makes or loses, and partly about what kind of future the city sees for itself.
For those with short memories, the festival opened in May 2005 to great fanfare, with a line-up of Tony Bennett, Diana Krall, Isaac Hayes and Steve Winwood. It was a rousing success and Jim Horowitz, co-founder and executive director of Aspen Jazz Snowmass - which helped birth and guided the Sonoma event - noted after the festival closed, "The best thing for me about the whole weekend was just to see what a fantastic audience there was here. From start to finish it was a pretty diverse age range. There was energy all weekend. We're coming back forever. If we're invited."
That enthusiasm persisted, even while some purists complained that Sonoma Jazz Plus was mostly plus with little jazz. But with headliners such as B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Harry Connick, Jr., Chris Isaac, Ziggy Marley and Lyle Lovett, the festival fired on enough musical cylinders to connect with a multi-aged, multi-ethnic audience. And purists had a Plaza full of additional venues during the accompanying Wine and Song weekend to satisfy almost every musical taste.
But Sonoma Jazz Plus carried some heavy financial baggage from its opening day, notably the commitment made to pour festival funds into music programs in the Sonoma Valley School District. That was the model employed by the Aspen festival and founders of Sonoma's event thought it would work here too.
Because the event was co-founded and underwritten by wealthy benefactors Jim and Stephanie Pugash, their personal resources ensured that shortfalls in festival revenue would be covered. But when Jim Pugash died unexpectedly in 2006, the whole equation changed and Pugash family support gradually waned.
At the same time, the U.S. economy fell off a cliff, patrons pulled out and, in some eyes, the quality of the program suffered. Doubts began to emerge about the festival's viability and murmurs were heard that Aspen was simply milking Sonoma.
That both organizations have IRS nonprofit status is sometimes lost in the conversation. And whispered suspicions about the festival's bottom line suggest a lack of public information and understanding. As MacArthur Place General Manager Bill Blum relates, "Every time I talk about how I love Jazz Plus, I get 'Somebody's making a lot of money off this.'"
But are they? Doing the numbers on the Sonoma festival reveals two things: top talent is expensive and so is producing a weather-safe venue. The cost of the putting on the festival has dropped over the last three years, as organizers have attempted to reduce expenses. But in 2009 total costs were $1,664,981 while in 2011 they dropped to $1,567,965. The cost of performers rose from $599,146 in 2009 to $637,000 in 2011. Production costs dropped almost $100,000 in 2011, going from $820,158 in 2010 to $725,865 this year.
Those costs do not include what the Aspen accountants call "corporate overhead," meaning the salaries and staff expenses of the mother organization.
According to the income and expense documents provided to the Index-Tribune by the Aspen office, no corporate overhead was charged in 2009 and 2010, years when the festival showed a gross profit to help cover the contributions to the school music programs.
But in 2011, the festival itself lost $186,571 and the Aspen accountants felt compelled by their own revenue issues to assess a corporate overhead cost of $151,600. That produced a gross loss for the festival of $338,171.
No one with any knowledge of the Sonoma and Aspen operations believes money is flowing from Sonoma into Aspen's coffers. To the contrary, financial records make clear the opposite is true; Aspen has been carrying Sonoma. And that is not a condition that Aspen is willing to continue.
The solution? In the long-term, Horowitz has said, Sonoma, like Aspen, will only succeed if there is a commitment from sponsors, patrons and the general public, perhaps in equal measure.
When Horowitz announced in June a campaign to raise $500,000 to ensure the festival's continued life, some Sonomans reacted in disbelief. Sonoma City Councilmember Steve Barbose said in an open meeting that he was "disheartened" by the request. He said he had just attended the annual Kate Wolf Festival in Laytonville at an outdoor venue where he heard Taj Mahal and Los Lobos without all the expensive infrastructure of Jazz Plus.
But Horowitz argues that patrons and sponsors who support Jazz Plus do so for the added benefit of the festival itself, and because it enhances the image, the ambience and the economy of Sonoma. The festival as conceived, and as originally produced, added a world-class attraction that can pay dividends long into the future, Horowitz insisted.
And regardless of whose pocket it has come from - the Pugash's or the festival's - more than $450,000 has gone into music education in the Valley, and $150,000 has gone to subsidize the Field of Dreams, which gets about $30,000 per festival on top of field repairs for any damage caused by the event.
It may be true, as Mark Twain has said, that "Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable." But the Jazz Plus numbers do not support the conclusion that Sonoma is being exploited, or that money underwriting the festival would flow into other pockets if the festival died.
More to the point, perhaps, is the larger question of how Sonoma Jazz Plus figures into Sonoma's long-term future as a tourist-oriented destination and whether the festival brings to the city enough economic and public relations cachet to justify its cost.
Next: The economic impact of Jazz Plus and suggestions for future festivals.