Festivals Search For Upside To Shutdown

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Saxophonist Nubya Garcia performs at the 2018 Melbourne Jazz Festival, one of many large-scale events pivoting online because of the pandemic.

(Photo: Kim Densham)

As Jazzfest Passau in Germany plans to continue outdoor events and Portugal’s Jazz em Agosto adapts to its circumstances—perhaps marking an important moment in the pandemic—other music programmers and organizations across the world still are trying to chart a path forward for performers.

“Obviously, we’d been monitoring things for some time. And you could sort of see, just based on our typical programming cycle, things weren’t gonna come together,” Hadley Agrez, CEO of the Melbourne Jazz Festival, said in May. “We were starting to lose some headline artists from overseas, based on concerns about traveling alone. So, we saw the writing on the wall, to some extent, which gave us a little bit more time to prep alternative models.”

After speaking with local stakeholders, in both government and the private sector, Agrez, like so many other festival execs, turned to a digital model, streaming remote sets by Gretchen Parlato and Mark Guiliana, among others. But since the churn of running a festival ostensibly is a year-round endeavor, planning for 2021 now could prove to be logistically difficult.

“It’s good to have alternative plans and even think about next year, with potential international travel problems. I guess now, we have to have two versions of the festival ready at any time,” Agrez said, describing a scenario where only musicians from Australia and New Zealand perform during next year’s fest. “But that’s quite exhausting.”

The situation, though, has untethered the Melbourne festival from a one-time imperative.

“It potentially frees us up to take more risks with programming. And that’s a really interesting adjustment from the programming side of things—not being quite so beholden to, ‘I’ve got a pack out 2,000 seats tonight,’” Agrez said. “That’s been a positive, and if that carries over, that’d be a great result.”

Reaching well beyond the jazz genre, Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, regularly hosts dance, theater and opera. And on March 24, the event was canceled.

“The sad thing is, it didn’t take nearly as much time as it took to put it all together,” Nicole Taney, director of artistic planning and operations, said about dismantling the festival. “We had meetings, basically every day for a week-and-a-half, as the news was coming in and things were feeling more and more real.”

Maintaining visibility for another year without holding public events also necessitated Spoleto to turn to streaming options, with talks by artists like Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran, and a performance by Linda May Han Oh and Fabian Almazan. But, sharing Agrez’s positive perspective on things, Taney sees an upside to the cancellation, even as the wait for 2021 seems like an interminable expanse.

“The Omar opera, that has been a labor of love that we’ve been working on since 2017, and it was an idea that I had. And to be able to work with Rhiannon [Giddens] and to bring this man’s story to the stage is … . It’s going to be a bit longer, but it’s going to happen,” Taney said, detailing a work based on the 1831 autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, an Islamic scholar born in Africa and enslaved in the Carolinas. “It’s heartbreaking to not be able to do that. But I think it just gives us even more time to build out more programming around it and to really have some meaningful engagement. I’m trying to find the small silver linings, and this is one of them.”

Canceling the San Francisco Jazz Festival—and programming the SFJAZZ Center had planned for the foreseeable future—actually accelerated the implementation of a keystone platform for the Bay Area nonprofit, one that was years in the making.

The organization began streaming archival performances as part of its Fridays At Five series after the pandemic shuttered concert halls in the States. But the reason SFJAZZ was able to pivot so quickly from live to digital programming is because of a long-term plan to standup a video platform in order to diversify revenue. About 60 percent of SFJAZZ’s income is derived from ticket sales, Founder and Executive Artistic Director Randall Kline said.

“The whole conceit of our building is for an optimum live experience—from the performer side and the audience side,” he said, explaining the video offerings. “It’s working well, because we’ve had five years of trying to come up with shooting protocols and all the things that have gone into this. And now, we’ve got a chance to actually test it. So, this has been sort of the worst and the best thing—the hardest and the best thing.”

To watch the streams, a $5-per-month membership is required. And Kline said that adding a “digital tip jar” has helped generate an additional $10,000 per show, which SFJAZZ splits with featured performers. It seems like a great deal of money, but it doesn’t replace an entire season’s worth of income for the nonprofit or for the performers. Kline also said that employee layoffs at the nonprofit were planned, though he didn’t specify a number. Furloughs and reduced hours for staff are set to begin in July, as well, according to a follow-up email from the organization.

SFJAZZ employs about 60 full-time and 40 part-time people.

“The hardest part is how do we stay whole? How does the musician community stay whole through this? There’s just no work right now for anybody,” Kline said. “We’ve had to cancel hundreds of shows, and those hundreds of shows were tied into hundreds of other shows.”

A more robust video platform with additional features is slated to go live in the fall. The current offerings are just a slice of what’s to come, as SFJAZZ and the wider music community devise new ways to function—and create new ways of featuring noteworthy art. DB