Free Fest-O-Nomics

There’s no doubt festivals have become a sweet spot for the concert industry during these tough economic times. Where else can fans dozens of acts for a relatively modest ticket price?

Still, sometimes cost can outweigh the cost-effectiveness of big fests and in that case it’s important to note there are still plenty of economical festival options.

A 2010 report by the National Endowment for the Arts found that besides the handful of fests commanding top dollar for tickets every year, there are many times more festivals are free. Of 312 music festivals that responded to the NEA survey, 42 percent charged nothing and an additional 14 percent charged $10 or less for a ticket.

But how do those festivals survive without charging for tickets? And how do they secure the venues or talent or advertising to draw the crowds?

Take the Stern Grove festival in San Francisco. Founded during the Great Depression, the fest has remained free in the 74 years since its inception.

Executive director Steven Haines explained that while Stern Grove drew roughly 75,000 concertgoers during last year’s summer festival series, the nonprofit team organizing the event constantly battles public misperceptions about the value and quality of a free concert series.

“There’s a lot of misunderstandings,” he told Pollstar. “How do we really operate? And how do we fund ourselves? Since we’re free, people think we must not pay the musicians or the staff. It’s actually quite the opposite.”

This year’s lineup at Stern Grove includes Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Neko Case and The English Beat, in addition to the more traditional performances by San Francisco’s symphony, ballet and opera.

In-kind corporate donations and foundations provide the majority of the funding that makes those performances possible.

The in-kind donations, or donated goods and services, range from donated wine to water, hotel and airline sponsorships, media and advertising support. Private and community foundations including San Francisco’s Grants for the Arts/Hotel Tax Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, AT&T and Wells Fargo are just a few that provide support to the festival.

“The San Francisco Bay Area is very fortunate to have phenomenal community and private foundations that really support all aspects of life here – especially cultural arts,” Haines said.

Other cities may lack the foundational support, and free fests in those regions have found different ways to make ends meet.
The Grand Performances festival in Los Angeles receives a majority of its funding every year from earned income from the city, thanks in part to a vestige of former Mayor Tom Bradley’s administration, executive director Michael Alexander told Pollstar.

“This is all backed from a city concept that this is part of what they needed to do to revitalize downtown Los Angeles,” Alexander said.

Los Angeles decided 30 years ago that there was a gap in the community for performing arts, he explained. As part of a downtown redevelopment project, the city leased land to developers for office towers, a hotel, apartments and a museum with a public plaza in the center of the buildings. Part of the 99-year lease agreement for the buildings includes a forced contribution to Grand Performances’ free performing arts program, generating more than $850,000 annually for the summer series.

The annual income stream has helped Grand Performances, which drew 55,000 concertgoers last summer, keep afloat without major support from foundations.

“[Los Angeles] doesn’t have the kinds of corporate headquarters, the kinds of foundations that create a vibrant philanthropic community supporting the arts,” Alexander said. “We’re not a corporate headquarters city, we’re not getting the Microsoft Presents or the Target Presents … or some of the other corporations that are often using sponsorships as a way to show a certain kind of community spirit.”

Grand Performances aims for both genre- and ethnic-diverse programming and concerts over the years have included Ozomatli, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Kinky and Dengue Fever, as well as performances by modern dance troupes and theatre companies.
Another free festival aiming for diversity is New York City’s SummerStage.

Executive director David Rivel told Pollstar SummerStage aims to be “the New York festival for all New Yorkers.”

The festival averages 100 performances per season and drew 268,000 people to shows in Central Park and throughout the five boroughs of the city last year. The fest is able to take on the task of representing the various ethnic communities of NYC with funding from a steady stream of earned revenue, he said.

For starters, SummerStage has a beautiful space in the middle of Central Park, and its contract with the city allows it to rent the venue out on days it’s not in use by the festival. ABC’s “Good Morning America” rents the site for live broadcasts every Friday morning and the space is also rented out for concerts, corporate and cultural events, bringing in about $2 million annually.

Six ticketed benefit concerts each year bring an additional $300,000 to $400,000 for the festival, and corporate sponsorships also help. But one source that SummerStage does not receive much funding from, contrary to common belief, is government grants.

“I think that most people who come to these festivals assume that because they’re on public land and they’re free that the government supports them and the reality is that that’s not the case,” Rivel said.

However, even without much government support, SummerStage has grown year over year with public support and Rivel said he’s also seeing other free festivals pop up in the city.

The climate is similar in San Francisco, where audience numbers continue to grow, and in the Los Angeles area, where new free festivals have sprouted.

Alexander said free festivals play an important role in exposing all types of people to new music at a time when “the economics of this business sometimes has a limiting affect on who can participate.

“People are not only questioning how they’re going to spend their discretionary time but their discretionary dollars,” he said. “We offer middle-class folks an opportunity to discover an art form by only risking their time and not their dollars.”