Jazz Fest striving to compete in growing festival circuit

Forty-five years ago, the gathering of a few hundred music lovers at Congo Square by the Municipal Auditorium for the inaugural New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was a novel idea. The addition of food and art sales and the relocation to an open field at the Fair Grounds made it state-of-the-art.

In the nearly half-century since then, the world around Jazz Fest, which begins Friday, has evolved. The pioneering event is now just one of several hundred music festivals taking place around the country this year. The number has mushroomed, mostly within the past decade, against a backdrop of shrinking album sales and a greater desire by artists to hit the road on tour.

Jazz Fest is not the biggest or highest-grossing of these. It may not even be the most widely known, especially among younger music fans.

And the festival has found itself having to balance its desire to remain rooted in New Orleans against the need to adapt to the ever-changing festival scene it helped to create, Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis said.

“We have to ensure that the festival doesn’t wander, waiver or fall out of style,” said Davis, chief executive officer of Festival Productions Inc. “Because New Orleans has a culture. It’s not rooted in pop fads. It’s not going in and out of style. It’s timeless.”

Outside the city, the festivals that command the most attention — such as the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif.; the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Texas; Lollapalooza in Chicago; and the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn. — are all younger than Jazz Fest. But by many measures, including attendance and public attention, they have displaced the veteran.

Last year, Coachella ticket sales totaled $67 million, making it the highest-grossing festival in the world. Austin City Limits Music Festival came in second, with $32 million. Bonnaroo, an on-site camping festival about an hour south of Nashville, often sells out before the lineup is announced.

“Jazz Fest is not in the same category,” said Gary Bongiovanni, president and chief executive officer of Pollstar, which tracks the concert industry.

When the festival boom began, many promoters carved out distinct niches for their events. Coachella, for instance, was known for presenting alternative and rock music. Bonnaroo booked jam bands. Their lineups now are more diverse musically but also more similar to each other and to other festivals. Bands with mass appeal often play many festivals in a year, on a tour schedule that can also include arenas and amphitheaters.

“Everybody’s chasing the same acts,” Bongiovanni said. “Some of the festivals, they are giant talent magnets. A lot of people want to play those fests from the very beginning. And they’ll pencil them in.”

That includes Jazz Fest.

The indie-rock band Arcade Fire, for instance, will play at Coachella this weekend before it comes to New Orleans on May 4 to precede Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue on the Acura Stage. The band also will play festivals in Spain, Portugal, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Italy and Canada as well as traditional concerts as part of its “Reflektor” tour.

Meanwhile, the New York-based rock band Vampire Weekend, which will headline the Samsung Galaxy Stage on April 27, played both Coachella and Austin City Limits last year.

Davis said the inclusion of such popular bands in Jazz Fest is a nod to the changing festival landscape.

“We have to adapt along the way because you have newer groups coming along,” Davis said. “We’ve had to adapt our music diversity to really match the diversity of what’s going on.”

In that regard, Jazz Fest is not unlike the hundreds of other festivals across the nation. To remain relevant requires doing what everyone else is doing. But the result risks oversaturating a crowded market. Some festivals already are struggling with how to grow or even how to sustain themselves.

The Sasquatch! Festival in Washington, for instance, had planned to expand to two weekends this year, with one weekend of music in May and the other over the Fourth of July. But the festival canceled the second weekend, even though performers had been announced, citing a lack of support for the July dates.

“It’s more competitive. So you know you have to develop a brand,” said Stephen Rehage, the founder and producer of the 15-year-old Voodoo Music and Arts Experience, which takes place at City Park in the fall. “It can’t just be artist-driven. There has to be a soul to it. To get a unique package that not everyone is doing, it takes some creativity.”

The rapper Jay-Z, for instance, has served himself up as a brand. He announced this month that his Made In America festival, which features a variety of music genres, is expanding to a second site in Los Angeles this summer. The festival launched in Philadelphia last year.

“I think Jazz Fest, in particular, understood (branding) before there was even any discussion about it,” said Mike Kappus, whose California company, the Rosebud Agency, booked shows for acts including Trombone Shorty, Meshell Ndegeocello, Allen Toussaint, Charlie Watts and Mavis Staples for 37 years. “I don’t think Jazz Fest is as much at risk because Jazz Fest has really got its hardcore fans around the country and the world. I think people are pretty convinced to go there as much as they can.”

About 85 percent of the acts that perform at Jazz Fest are from New Orleans or Louisiana, Davis said.

“It was really important to us to have the kind of festival that wouldn’t turn into a pop festival because we needed the money,” he said. “Yes, we’ve gotten bigger, but we still want to be as charming as we always were.”