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Local music festivals struggle for footing: Is there any such thing as a consistent money-maker?

June 11, 2007

The humidity and mercury are rising as a slew of summer music festivals tune up.

There's bluegrass in Brown County, jazz in Military Park. But all the music events-even those with years of history-struggle to break even. Blame uncertain weather, large price tags and fickle fans.

"As a general rule, only very large pop music festivals make money," said Christopher Hunt, a professor at Indiana University's arts administration program. "Smaller festivals of every kind-jazz, pop, classical-almost always lose a good deal."

Local event leaders want to beef up corporate sponsorships to help foot the bill, while others are looking for a longerterm solution like city support.

Indy Jazz Fest has been on a financial roller coaster since it was founded in 1999. Since the American Pianists Association Inc. took over in 2003, organizers tried to cover the festival's entire $1.3 million budget through sponsorships. The idea was to use money from ticket sales to set up a cash reserve and eventually an endowment.

"To realize our dream for the Indy Jazz Fest, we need to have stable financing," said APA President Helen Small.

But that hasn't materialized. Sponsorships for this year's event were about $150,000 short two weeks before the event.

Other music genres also are struggling.

The Midwest Music Summit, which hosted hundreds of rock and alternative bands over three days last summer, is on hiatus this year. Founder Josh Baker said organizers have always scrambled to put the $250,000 event together, and he wanted a break to do more prep work to line up sponsors for 2008.

Baker said he started the event in 2001 because he loves live music and thought it could turn a profit-but that hasn't panned out.

The summit lost $50,000 in 2005, when events included a music-product trade show that was expensive to set up. Other years-including 2006-it made a couple grand. The lion's share of revenue comes from sponsorships.

"All we do is chase dollars," he said.

After running into some hurdles last year, organizers are again applying for not-for-profit status. If that goes through, he thinks the summit could line up more corporate donors.

Even events with decades of history, like the Bill Monroe Memorial Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival, don't have the answer. The 41-year-old Brown County event still can't count on turning a profit, said Gaby Zimmerman, marketing director for the music park and campground.

She said the campground spends $130,000 to line up performers each year and then waits on the weather to see if the festival will break even.

Smaller Indianapolis events that go after a quirkier crowd also start from scratch each year despite impressive attendance growth. Take Oranje, a oneday music and art party held each fall. The audience has grown from about 700 people in 2002 to 2,000 last year, but cofounder Ryan Hickey still has to work hard to put together his $50,000 budget.

"Your average businessperson thinks we're crazy for the amount of time we put into it for really no return," he said, though the event usually breaks even.

Similar events in other cities have found a funding solution in the form of government backing. Chicago, for example, has a city department dedicated to planning events like the free, three-day Chicago Jazz Festival. Money comes from a portion of the city's hotel tax and some of the revenue from food sales at events. The department also houses a staff of six who work year-round to line up event sponsors.

That's the kind of scenario Indy Jazz Fest's Small dreams about. Such an investment could pay off for the city, she said.

"We hope that ... the city comes around to the same point [with music festivals] here that they're at with sports to where they will invest in the health of the events and institutions," she said.

Jenny Guimont, director of the Indianapolis Cultural Development Commission, said no one's asked for such a system yet, but she called that kind of ongoing support "a dream."

Despite the difficulties, more music festival offerings are in the works.

Rob Mason, president of locally based Monolith Entertainment Group LLC, is organizing the city's first heavy-metal festival slated for Sept. 22.

"A good festival will mean I break even," he said. "Honestly, the only reason to do this is if you have a passion for what you're doing."
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