Wednesday, December 31, 2008

And what of the music festival scene, Newport and beyond?

Will there be jazz and folk festivals in Newport next summer, and JVC Jazz Festivals elsewhere in the world? If so, who will be producing them? Those are valid questions these days. Questions without firm answers as of this writing.

Dave Brubeck & George Wein, backstage 2006
Two years ago, festival impresario George Wein sold his very successful Festival Productions Inc. to a newcomer on the entertainment scene, Festival Network LLC, for a handsome sum. The new company, which hired Wein and some of his longtime staff as contract employees, had a greater mission beyond merely running the eight JVC-sponsored festivals across the U.S. and around the world and other FPI staples, including the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles.

The new mission was to also create a series of “destination festivals” in exotic resort locations to lure large numbers of music fans to places like Martha’s Vineyard off Cape Cod or the mountain resort town of Whistler, British Columbia. The theory being – if we build it, they will come. Festival Network also invested in enhanced equipment and amenities for the existing festivals, including the place where Wein started it all in 1954 with the Newport Jazz Festival in coastal Rhode Island.

In the overall scheme of things, spending money willy-nilly on frills in venues new and old, and ignoring the sage advice of Wein’s lower-level staff may have backfired. The high overhead, higher expectations, ever-increasing talent costs and modest-at-best turnouts at its ”destination” events, proved costly in more ways than one.

At the end of 2008, word was out that Festival Network had closed its New York office, either furloughed or laid off employees, and had terminated the contracts of its “contract employees.” Some Newport vendors reported they still are awaiting payment for festival services provided last August. Word was also out that Festival Network’s executives were trying to raise more capital for the company by reaching out to new investors.

What a challenge, given that initial investors may not be thrilled the way their money seemed to go out the door the way water flows down the gutters in a rainstorm. If Festival Network can save itself, it needs to do soon despite the mess in the world economy. It likely will have to scale back on the newer festivals and stick with the tried-and-true festivals that enjoy corporate sponsorship, such as the JVC events in New York, Newport, Los Angeles and Concord, Calif., Chicago, Miami, Paris and The Netherlands (home of the North Sea Jazz Festival), as well as The Newport Folk Festival, which ran in extravagant fashion in 2008 without having a title sponsor.

If Festival Network cannot save itself, one has to believe that George Wein, now 83, will find a way to marshal his loyalists, regain key festival ownership rights, and do his darnedest to make sure the major festivals continue to operate. It is difficult to think otherwise. Music festivals have been in his blood since 1954. Besides, the Newport Folk Festival began in 1959… and there is a 50th anniversary that is ripe for celebration this coming August.

1 comment:

  1. Ken,

    Thanks for posting this item. This really has been a shock to us in the jazz community. We can only hope that you're correct that George Wein and his long-time staffers will find a way out of this situation. There is so much history and tradition tied up in those events.

    Lee Mergner