N.O. Jazz Fest ticket pricing comes under scrutiny

Mary Stieffel hasn’t missed a day of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in about six years.

She also hasn’t bought a ticket to the event in all that time. Instead, she works as a volunteer, reaping the reward of two weekends of free entertainment.

“I would not ever, ever spend all that money,” said Stieffel, who works in broadcasting. “It’s just gotten to be too much money, money, money, in my opinion.”

After holding steady last year, the price of Jazz Fest tickets has inched up again this year.

Early birds were able to pick up $50 tickets. Advance tickets, on sale now, are $55 per day, excluding service fees. Latecomers and last-minute weather-watchers will have to pay $70 at the gate.

That’s up $5 across the board from last year, when the same tickets went for $45, $50 and $65, respectively.

“It’s just insulting to me,” Stieffel said. “I understand they need to make money. I want the musicians to be paid. But it’s too expensive.”

That sense of frustration is not lost on the nonprofit organization that owns the festival.

“We totally understand it,” said Don Marshall, executive director of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Foundation Inc. “And we all, of course, remember the old days when tickets were $5 or something. Of course, gas was 19 cents then.”

It cost $3 to attend Jazz Fest in 1971, the event’s second year, when it was still held in Congo Square and some artists performed without a stage or microphones.

The festival scene has changed dramatically since then, festival promoters and concert experts say.

There now are hundreds of music festivals nationwide. Many of them compete with one another for acts, meaning producers sometimes have to sweeten the pot to get in-demand artists to arrange their touring schedules to accommodate a particular festival, most of which have set dates.

“If you’re saying, ‘I need you July 2 in Austin, Texas,’ then the artist has to go to work to plan that,” said Mike Kappus, whose company, the Rosebud Agency, has booked festival acts for 37 years. “There’s a higher price.”

Festivals have also added amenities to make for more appealing environments. They are no longer just the grungy parties in open fields they were decades ago. Many provide more — and often cleaner — restroom facilities. Modern services like ATMs and cellphone-charging stations abound.

“You try to build an environment where people can be comfortable and enjoy the weekend with some comforts other than a (portable toilet) that’s been there more than three days,” said Stephen Rehage, founder and producer of the Voodoo Music and Arts Experience.

Marshall declined to say exactly how much it costs to produce Jazz Fest each year. He called it a “multimillion-dollar production.”

“The cost of everything has gone up,” he said. “The cost of musical acts has certainly increased.”

The foundation gives away 8,500 free tickets each year to nonprofits, churches and community groups to keep the event accessible to more of the community. Children’s tickets are $5.

Marshall said revenue generated by the festival helps to pay for four free festivals: the Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival, the Treme Creole Gumbo Festival, the Congo Square Rhythms Festival and the Louisiana Cajun-Zydeco Festival. About $500,000 also is put into a grant program that hands out money to nonprofit organizations, musicians and artists.

Despite the price increases, Jazz Fest remains less expensive than some other major music festivals.

The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which concluded its two-weekend run Sunday in Indio, Calif., charged $375 per weekend for a general admission festival pass that included admission and parking. That’s $125 per day.

Chicago’s Lollapalooza, whose August run is sold out, charged $100 for a one-day pass and $250 for a three-day pass, or about $83 per day.

Slidell resident Hodges Mercer said he didn’t think twice before spending $500 for all seven days of Jazz Fest. He spent the same amount last year on a single ticket to see the Rolling Stones in concert in Philadelphia.

He plans to spend three days drinking Abita beer and watching Santana, Eric Clapton and Lyle Lovett play. His wife will use the special-admission Brass Pass, purchased from WWOZ Radio, on the festival’s other four days.

“I still think it’s a good value,” he said. “I get an incredible assortment of musicians, musical types and musical experiences that I can’t get anywhere else.”