Wednesday, January 31, 2007

FP comments on The Festival Network

The plans of the newly formed Festival Network to create a large portfolio of "best of breed" festivals that takes advantage of economies of scale marks a important milestone in the development of the music festival industry.

It also raises a possible cause for concern that a business that has been largely characterized by small operators motivated by their love of the music could be moving in the direction of corporate management that is in it for the money.

I don't think that's the case with The Festival Network. My interviews this week with CEO Chris Shields and George Wein, chairman of the company's Festival Productions division, revealed an seemingly sincere concern for preserving the joys of the festival-going experience (see related posts).

Shields spoke convincingly of his intention to keep commercial sponsorship to an "appropriate" level. For example, he said that new events produced by the company would be less likely to be named for a corporate sponsor, moving in the opposite direction from several of the company's existing events that are named for a Japanese electronics manufacturer and an all-American purveyor of deep-fried dough.

While some festival attendees might prefer an entirely corporate-free zone at their favorite events, I'm not in that camp. The income generated by corporate sponsorship is a major factor in improving the quality of production and keeping ticket prices affordable. Those are things that all festival-goers should appreciate.

On the other hand, I've definitely seen festivals that go too far in allowing the intrusion of corporate marketing to affect the culture of the festival. If we want to see commercial logos festooning every part of an event, we'd go to NASCAR.

And while there is good reason to hope that The Festival Network will tread lightly as it applies increased business discipline to the festival management business, it may help to open the door for other companies who would have fewer scruples about exploiting the community to make a buck.

Thankfully, mom and pop festivals run purely for the love of presenting great music to an appreciative audience are always going to be with us. But it seems inevitable that big companies producing multiple festivals is a trend that is going to accelerate, and especially at the highest profile events.

We'll keep an eye on this issue in the festival seasons ahead and continue advocating for an ethic of festival management where the commerce serves the art and not the other way around.

George Wein reflects on 50 years in the festival business

As George Wein, the father of the modern music festival, moves on to a new chapter in his storied career, he paused to reflect on his accomplishments in an interview with Festival Preview.

Wein said he started off as a jazz pianist in college playing with future jazzmen Max Kaminsky and Pee Wee Russell, and moved to the business side of the business as a young man. "I realized I had a better head for being a promoter than a producer, so I started a club, and then I had a chance to do a festival.

"I didn't know anything about festivals at the time. Other than county fairs, there was nothing like it at the time. I knew one thing--that i wanted to hear as much jazz as i could all the time."

He said he wanted to duplicate the experience of jazz listening one could get by wandering all night from club to club on 52nd Street in New York. "That's what I tried to do when I put Newport together for the first time, and all these years later, that is still what I am doing."

As festivals became established and proliferated, they began to have an important impact on tourism, on raising awareness for the music, and creating work for musicians. They also have had a great influence on music education, he said.

"I don't like to claim credit for [the impacts of festivals] except it all went on in relationship to what we were doing. On the other hand, these things would have happened anyway. If I hadn't created a festival, someone else would have. It is just that I happened to have the opportunity to do it the first time."

Jazz festivals were also a huge hit in Europe in the '50s and '60s. Wein recalled bringing jazz tours to Europe featuring greats like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman and Sarah Vaughan. "We would go from London to Amsterdam to Brussels to Copenhagen to Stockholm to Berlin, literally holding a festival in every major city in Europe. Those were incredible days," he said.

Wein's 2003 autobiography Myself Among Othersrecounts his many memories from his long career.

"I wrote the book to catalog some of these things and make them a part of the history, but it's what you are doing now that counts. And I hope to still be doing things for the next few years," he said.

Looking ahead
At 81, Wein has visions of expanding the business, creating new festivals and opening new markets. But he recognized that at his stage of life, he needed a partner with deep pockets.

He was impressed with the sincerity and vision of Chris Shields and Shoreline Media. "These people have money, they are very respectful of my legacy, and they want the legacy to grow. Also, I'm proud enough to feel that they need me and I can help them."

So he is looking forward to new challenges. "Absolutely, there is room for the company to grow. There are areas that need festivals and there are festival concepts that can be created.

"I have been a very blessed person, even surviving all the bad days I've had--and I had a lot. I had riots and I was in debt. As I said in the book, I have never been poor but I've been broke."

After concluding the deal for the sale of his company, that's one experience he probably won't have again.

The Festival Network sets course to open new markets

The new company that emerged from the acquisition by Shoreline Media of George Wein's Festival Productions Inc. intends to launch new festivals in the U.S. and overseas and is also on the lookout for existing festivals to acquire.

"The goal is to unite many best-of-breed festivals under one corporate whole," said Chris Shields, CEO of The Festival Network, in an interview with Festival Preview. "The key factor that we look for is a unique location. Sophisticated programming and the entire festival experience follows from that," he said.

Shields said that Wein began the "festival era" in 1954 with the first Newport Jazz Festival. "By locating the festival in a unique location, Newport, he had something intangible in the name even before he brought in the terrific music."

Festival Productions currently produces a sizable list of major festivals, including the JVC Jazz Festivals, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Essence Festival, and Newport Folk Festival, among others. Under the deal, these will continue to be managed as a division within the new company, headed by Wein and including his existing management team.

In a separate interview (see related item), Wein told Festival Preview that he is impressed with the sincerity and vision of Chris Shields and Shoreline Media. "These people have money, they are very respectful of my legacy, and they want the legacy to grow," he said.

Shields said that loyal patrons of Festival Productions events will see very few changes. "There will be a subtle enhancement of the overall production aesthetic and feel." Besides improving the live experience, such attention to sound, lighting, and stage production will be reflected in the quality of content that is offered for sale in the festival "aftermarket," he added.

Shoreline Media was formed in 2004 by Shields and Joseph Stanislaw, formerly the founder and chief executive of Cambridge Energy Research.

Shields, 36, studied jazz theory at Berklee and began his career as a musician. He has been involved in the festival production for 10 years, including a brief stint working for Wein at Festival Productions and later running his own Nectarfest in Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard and directing Bell Atlantic Jazz Festivals in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington.

Shoreline Media has produced musical events for the Olympic Games, and will do so for future Olympics at least until 2012. The Olympics deal is an indicator of the company's interest in tie-ins to sporting events and other entertainment forms. Shields said that the company's main focus would be on music festivals, but noted that sports programming captures more than 60 percent of overall sponsorship dollars.

Combining many festivals under one banner provides economies of scale in production, purchasing and programming and bring advantages in appealing to sponsors, Shields said. The audience for high-end festivals is an attractive demographic for advertisers, especially during a vacation experience when they are looking for new experiences, he added.

Finding a balance
However, the company is especially sensitive to the danger of over-commercializing festivals, "which are really all about the personal experience," Shields said. He said the aim is to keep a delicate balance of "helping corporate brands be appropriately affiliated" without letting branding run amok.

While Festival Productions sold naming rights to some of its events, such as the Dunkin' Donuts Newport Folk Festival, Shields said that new festivals the company would launch "are more likely to emphasize the location of the event in their names."

While giving nothing away as to possible new events, Shields said "there are locations in the U.S. that should have festivals and don't." He also said the company would be active in international markets. As for domestic acquisitions, he said "there are very few we would consider acquiring, but there are some. Talks with several of them have already begun, and we expect to have announcements to make in the coming months."

Such deals might take the form of an acquisition with the existing ownership retained for managing the event. In rare cases, the company might seek to affiliate with an events that don't fit the company's business model, because of their non-profit status, for example.

While Shields is most focused on resort destinations, he says the location model can apply to city festivals as well, especially by finding unusual locations for the concerts. Also, while While Festival Productions' greatest strength has been in jazz, Shields said all kinds of "sophisticated music" would be offered, especially "mergings of different styles. We really appreciate where artists are stretching their limits and playing into other genres."

The Festival Network deal come together in a series of discussions between Shields and Wein beginning in the spring of 2006. As the year went along and Wein became more comfortable that the company would respect his legacy, the talks intensified and were concluded in early January.

Shields said that he is thrilled to be working with Wein again. "George is the man who brought music out of the smoky clubs to these beautiful locations. if you look at the great festivals that have lasted thorught the ages, almost all of them follow the example of George Wein and Newport. We are excited to be his partner, to grow with him and learn from him."