Jazz Fest ditches Ticketmaster

June 4, 2007

Leaders of Indy Jazz Fest have ended a three-year relationship with Ticketmaster in hopes of making the three-day event more affordable--and driving up attendance in the process.

Two weeks before the annual music festival begins, donations and corporate sponsorships are running about $150,000 short of the $1.3 million budget. As in years past, ticket sales are expected to make up most of the difference.

So organizers are aiming to boost sales by eliminating the $8.50 Ticketmaster fee and offering an additional $5 discount on tickets purchased at Kroger, the title sponsor for this year's Jazz Fest.

"Ticketmaster wound up making a third of what we made," said Helen Small, president of the Indianapolis-based American Pianists Association Inc., which produces the festival. "For the amount of effort we put into the event, that just didn't seem fair. And it's not a good way to treat our customers."

Nor does it make sense for an event that has struggled to make ends meet over the years.

Bad weather and poor attendance conspired to sink Indy Jazz Fest's financial future in 2000 and 2001, and creditors forgave a good deal of unpaid debt before APA took over in 2003. Lilly Endowment Inc. also helped bail the festival out, making repeated annual six-figure grants.

Under Small's leadership, the festival had been moderately profitable--although she has declined to provide any financial details--until last year, when a major sponsor pulled out less than two months before the event, leaving a $270,000 shortfall.

The combination of extreme heat and periodic rain didn't help, dropping attendance to 14,500--its lowest level since the event was expanded to three days in 2004.

Organizers hope the lower costs this year will bring fans to Military Park June 15-17 to hear headliners including Al Green and Spyro Gyra.

Kroger pushed for a discount ticket option to keep the fest accessible, said company spokesman John Elliott. He declined to say how much the Cincinnati-based grocery chain donates to the event.

"Jazz Fest ... has always made an effort to be a diverse event and create cross-cultural opportunities," Elliott said. "It would increase those opportunities if the ticket price were ... accessible to a broader audience."

The company also wanted to make sure families with teen-agers could afford to attend, since the festival takes place over Father's Day weekend. Children under 14 are still free.

With the discount, advance tickets purchased at Kroger through June 14 cost $20 for one-day admission and $50 for a three-day pass.

Fans also can buy tickets online at www.indyjazzfest.net for $25 and $55. This is the first year the Web site has sold tickets, because Ticketmaster prohibited direct sales.

Tickets are available at the gate for $30.

Small said she's optimistic that the revenue lost from the $5 Kroger discount will be easily offset by higher overall ticket sales.

"Hopefully, it will be an incentive for more people to buy tickets," Small said. "It's important to make [Jazz Fest] affordable to the public."

Short on sponsorships

Small and others will be watching those ticket sales closely again this year given the $150,000 shortfall. Each year, APA has tried to line up sponsors to cover the entire budget before the event.

She said the event finished in the black in 2005, and leftover proceeds from ticket sales, food and merchandise became the foundation of last year's event.

But in 2006, a major sponsor backed out, leaving the festival dependent on ticket sales to cover the $270,000 shortfall. Then rain and humid weather hit, driving down attendance and sending the event into the red.

Small said it was a narrow margin, but declined to provide specific numbers.

Indy Jazz Fest is still recovering from the loss of a couple of large supporters, she said, but it has gained several new, smaller backers.

Although Small declined to name the sponsors that dropped out, some former local donors said they're redirecting their charitable giving to more strategic purposes.

Spokesmen for St. Vincent Health and Anthem Inc. confirmed they've ended their Jazz Fest sponsorships due to company decisions to focus their giving on health-related charities.

And the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute, which sponsored the 2005 event at a high enough level to merit having a stage named in its honor, cut funding altogether in 2006. Sponsorship has been reinstated at a lower level this year, institute spokeswoman Mica Perry said. She declined to disclose the exact amount the taxpayer-funded state agency has given the festival.

Other companies, on the other hand, have recently signed on as sponsors. Indianapolis-based REI Real Estate Services, for example, has committed to donating $10,000 per year for the next three years. Company President Mike Wells said the development firm has a record of backing cultural events, and Jazz Fest is a natural fit given its investments in area hotels.

"It brings a lot of people into the city and we want to encourage that," he said. "It gets us double bang for our buck."

Citizens Gas is another new sponsor--giving $10,000 to support the semifinal round of the jazz fellowship competition.

And the festival also has received a $10,000 grant from the Indianapolis Cultural Development Commission for advertising directed at ethnic minorities.

Jazz Fest is using that money to reach out to the local Japanese population with bilingual mail and e-mail advertising highlighting Japanese artist Hiromi. It also bought radio ad time and sent mailers and e-mail to Latinos hyping the group Yerba Buena.

Lineup and the weather

Jazz Fest leaders are proud of the lineup assembled for the 2007 event, including the Rev. Al Green, who also played the festival in 2000.

"The quality of acts this year is great," Wells said. "But I don't know if people are looking so much at the headliner versus going to hear solid musicians. They're looking for the overall experience."

Indeed, attendance often is influenced not so much by the headliners as by the weather. Last year, a strong lineup was foiled by rain interspersed with high temperatures and humidity.

Small said because many advance tickets are being sold through Kroger, she can't yet gauge how pre-sales are going. Usually about two-thirds of tickets are purchased in advance-but even those advance sales usually happen the week before the event, once people can gauge what the weather might be like.

It's sometimes hard for her to see Mother Nature hold so much prep work hostage, but Small is resigned to it.

The APA has purchased insurance to cover losses in the event of a rainout, and Small said she's not even checking the long-range forecasts.

"It doesn't do you any good," she said. "It just raises the blood pressure."

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