Date: May 10,2006
It was a study in contrasts for two of the biggest music festivals in America. While Coachella, held near Palm Springs, Calif., was as robust as ever, gaining its most commercial exposure to date thanks to the last minute addition of mainstream superstar Madonna to the bill, the organizers of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival were simply hoping that they'd be able to get their event out of the blocks this year.
But both soared to new heights, with Coachella packing in a sold-out 60,000 capacity crowd on April 29 and 30, which, at $85 a pop would have grossed more than $5 million. Jazz Fest received a shot in the arm from such superstars as Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon during its six-day run, April 28-30 and May 5-7, during which more than 250,000 packed in to hear music and celebrate the musical and gustatory legacy of a New Orleans that is still digging out from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
The independent music-friendly Coachella, which takes place on the Empire Polo Fields in Indio, has long been a destination for fans of college rock, who were not disappointed this year thanks to sets by such favorites as Depeche Mode, Daft Punk, Franz Ferdinand, Sigur Ros, TV on the Radio, Massive Attack and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
But fans who checked out a set by the disco-revival act Scissor Sisters may have heard the announcement from the band's singer that this year's Coachella might have been the last at the scenic polo fields. Goldenvoice co-founder Paul Tollett said don't believe the hype. “Everything is fine,” he said. “We announced a multi-year deal that will keep us there for a while.” That's a good thing, since the 2006 edition of the festival had the biggest attendance to date for Coachella and left Tollett feeling warm and fuzzy about the event.
“I think it went really well,” he said. “I think it was the most eclectic of all the bills we've had and that's exciting. I think people nowadays like all different kinds of music, even more so than six years ago when we started. So when you're booking five stages, you really have to have all different kinds of music.” While Madonna certainly earned a fair share of publicity for the fest due to her first-ever festival gig, Tollett said it didn't distract fans from other sets and integrated well into the mood and flow of the rest of the festival.
Because of the intense preparation Goldenvoice (now owned by AEG Live) puts into the event – including having back-up generator and sound systems on hand in case anything breaks down – Tollett said there were few surprises this year. Among the glitches this year were some gate issues, which Tollett said would be solved next year by adding more gates to allow the flow of fans into the venue to be smoother. Goldenvoice is still in the debrief phase and hasn't yet started talking about booking next year's event.
A series of four geodesic dome tents featuring art installations, was a big hit that is likely to return in the future, he said. The tents, created by Los Angeles-based The Do Lab, were each keyed to a season and featured artwork curated by Goldenvoice's staff.
There were no new food or beverage items introduced this year and grosses for concessions and merch were not available at press time. Tollett said he also did not yet have a handle on the age or gender demographics of the show, but given the eclectic draw of the bill, he expected them to be fairly wide-ranging. What he did know is that the 60,000 attendees who crammed in for each day at $85 a head was a record for Coachella, one that might stand if he had his way.
“It's more than we've ever done before, but I thought it was a bit too many,” Tollett said. “At least for the setup we have now. I would probably look to bring it back down, though we're not sure how we're going to set it up for next year yet. It's a balance, because the number of tickets you sell helps decide what talent you get. And another element is that in the years since we've gone from 40,000 to a bigger number, each band's performances have gotten better because they have a bigger crowd and that's exciting to them. There's some balance there to make sure you can pay the bills and make sure it's a good experience for each person.”
The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival featured plenty of local talent, such as Beausoleil, the Meters and C.J. Chenier, as well as shot-in-the-arm sets from Springsteen, Jimmy Buffett, Dave Matthews, Simon, Bob Dylan, Keith Urban and Elvis Costello. But all the talent in the world wasn't going to fix the one big problem event co-promoter AEG Live had: was there even going to be a Jazz Fest?
“As recently as January, we still weren't sure we were going to be able to do it,” said AEG President and CEO Randy Phillips. “We weren't sure there was an infrastructure there: hotel rooms, enough flights into the city. I'm not talking about booking talent. We always knew superstars would rise to the occasion and help revive New Orleans. We were worried about infrastructure and at that point the risk was unacceptable to me.”
Phillips said he faced the 'gut-wrenching' possibility of cutting short the 37-year history of the event. Ideas were tossed around, including doing a small event for a few thousand people in a park in the city just to say there was a Jazz Fest. And then Phillips was introduced to Arthur Pulitzer, the former president of the Jazz and Heritage Foundation. When Pulitzer heard that Jazz Fest might not happen this year, Phillips said he became very concerned and single-handedly secured a $1.7 million title sponsorship from Shell Oil that helped green light the event.
Though retail and concession per caps and ticket grosses were not yet available at press time, Phillips said 'everything went right and it was probably the greatest Jazz Fest in 37 years.' He credited the people at the venue, Churchill Downs, for putting $500,000 into new sod and updates, as well as local police, the local hotel association and airlines for banding together to help make the event successful. “We got as many rooms back on-line as possible and the airlines got 55 to 70 percent of available flights back on-line,” he said.
“I never saw such love and care and concern applied toward an event and that's not me waxing poetic. Jazz Fest means so much to so many people and everyone banded together and we were rewarded with the greatest Jazz Fest ever,” Phillips said. Despite going down to six days from last year's seven, Phillips said attendance was up 15 percent to around 250,000 (which at $40 a ticket would put the gross at near $10 million), while food, beverage and merchandise sales were also up around the same amount.
“Sometimes no change is change,” said Phillips. “When you go to Jazz Fest it's about the culture of New Orleans. It isn't fast food or Slurpees, but vendors who've been doing it for 25 years selling jambalaya and po' boys.” Phillips said the audience gender mix continued to be around 50-50 thanks to the number of couples and families.
With few snafus, Phillips said plans are to go back to a seven-day schedule for 2007. “If we did 15 percent more in six days with a third less hotel rooms and a third less flights, I think we can go back to seven next year,” he said. “This year, people improvised and went to Baton Rouge. If one thing was different from last year, it's that a lot of people came from within driving distance. The fact that it happened and was so successful boggles the imagination given how devastated the neighborhoods of New Orleans are. I felt that we almost got over the hump this year in terms of the importance of what playing this event means for the industry.”
For that reason, Phillips said AEG expected it would be even easier to lure talent next year. In fact, he thinks major acts will begin planning their tours around the dates of the festival in the future.
Interviewed for this story: Paul Tollett (323) 930-7100; Randy Phillips, (323) 930-5705