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Ottawa Jazz Festival loses money in 2014, needs new home in 2016

The Ottawa Jazz Festival has not yet found a new location for thousands of jazz fans to hear music outdoors in 2016.

And to add to its difficulties, the festival lost money this year, despite record ticket sales.

Where will 10,500 jazz fans go when the Ottawa Jazz Festival is kicked out of Confederation Park in 2016? ©Brett Delmage, 2010At the festival's annual general meeting November 19, executive director Catherine O'Grady confirmed that the National Capital Commission (NCC) will be completely renovating Confederation Park in 2016, in coordination with major sewer work by the City of Ottawa.

The NCC told the festival last spring that the park – the festival's primary location – would be closed in 2015, but has now pushed the work back a year.

O'Grady said she continues to negotiate with the NCC to find an alternative location for the festival's outdoor shows in 2016. “They do feel a kind of commitment to us to try and house us because we're grandfathered into everything the NCC does,” she said.

The festival expects to return to Confederation Park in 2017, Canada's 150th anniversary.

She said the festival is trying to stay downtown. She had been pushing for Major's Hill Park (behind the Chateau Laurier), which would allow the festival to continue offering shows at Festival Plaza and the National Arts Centre, but had not been able to yet obtain agreement from the NCC. The federal government reorganization in 2013, in which the NCC's cultural and special event programming was reallocated to the Department of Canadian Heritage, has “complicated the negotiations” as well, she said, because the NCC's mandate no longer includes festivals.

The festival had looked at relocating to the newly-renovated Lansdowne Park. However, renting the front lawn there would be “extremely expensive”, necessary infrastructure was not present, and Lansdowne is much nearer to residential areas in Glebe than Confederation Park is to residences downtown, raising noise issues, she said.

O'Grady said she had meetings lined up with the NCC and expected to have news “soon after Christmas”.

She was responding to a question from a festival volunteer, one of the few raised at the quiet and uneventful AGM, which attracted about 20 volunteers out of 590, plus 10 of the 11 festival board members, and lasted less than one hour. (The festival's volunteers are its voting members.)

A big box office jump, but an even steeper increase in costs

Festival treasurer Jean Vanderzon revealed that the festival lost $140,603 in 2014, despite substantially increased revenues from both the winter and summer festivals. Last year, it had a profit of $120,834. The loss exceeded the City of Ottawa operating grant to the festival of $135K.

Box office revenue from the summer jazz festival was at an all-time high of $1.04 million, up 18% from 2013. The three-day winter jazz festival raised $69,727, up 38% from 2013, but not as high as its 2011 revenue of $74,333. Total revenues, including alcohol sales, grants and sponsorship, and advertising, were up 6% over 2013.

Ticket and pass prices were up again this year. Gold passes increased by 3.7% to $310. bronze passes by 2.7% to $190, and youth passes by 5.8% to $90. In 2013, bronze passes increased by 6% and youth passes by 8%.

But the combined cost of musicians for the two festivals was also up substantially – to $1.5M, an increase of 33%. Vanderzon noted that “costs are going up much more steeply than we can increase ticket sales.”

Vanderzon attributed the 2014 loss to a sharp increase in the cost of the U.S. dollar, which occurred after the Festival had signed contracts in that currency with non-Canadian musicians. She also noted that the festival had been unexpectedly forced to pay for additional on-site policing for the first time , and that the festival received fewer donated rooms for artists from local hotels this year.

In addition, the festival moved to a new commercial ticket processing and scanning system this year, which cost more than $42K. In 2013, when ticketing was handled by volunteers, it cost less than $1000.

Vanderzon said the festival lost money in five of the last ten years, and made money in five, averaging about $5000 per year in net profit over the last decade.

One source of revenue which was down substantially was individual donations from jazz fans (noted as “Memberships” on the festival's balance sheet). This year, it was just over $20K, down from $25K the year before. It has been consistently decreasing over the last five years, from $47K in 2010.

Attendance up only 1.5%, despite sunny weather

Surprisingly, however, the increased box office revenues did not reflect a large corresponding increase in attendance especially given the generally good weather (Vanderzon said that only one outdoor headliner, Daniel Lanois, was affected by rain). The festival reported that attendance was up by only 1.5%, to 305,500. The festival had previously claimed that large attendance at non-jazz events would bring in new listeners to jazz shows.

O'Grady said that Earth, Wind, and Fire attracted the largest audience, followed by Aretha Franklin. She noted in her report that “virtually every show, in every venue, was sold out completely!”

The festival attracted approximately equal numbers of male and female listeners. 73.7% had post-secondary education or above; 65% had incomes above $75K. One-third of the listeners were aged 55 to 64; one-third were from 35 to 54; and 17.5% were aged 18 to 34. Almost 80% of the listeners were from the local area.

A music festival, rather than a jazz festival?

Outgoing festival president Louise Meagher began her report by saying that the festival's mission was to present a “well-attended, sustainable, high-quality music festival” – rather than a jazz festival. In her report, O'Grady singled out the new evening programming at the Laurier Avenue Canadian Music Stage, supported by a grant from the Ontario Music Development Fund, whose 10 artists included only two jazz/improvised music groups; the remainder were indie-pop.

Nor was there any discussion about the festival not providing a replacement for the Rideau Centre stage in 2014 while the Rideau Centre was disrupted by construction. That resulted in a loss of approximately one-half of the performance opportunities for local jazz musicians at the festival.

O'Grady did praise the “integrity we preserved with the jazz artists in the Studio and the Fourth Stage” and noted that those shows were “completely sold out. They were packed to the rafters every single show.”

The NAC Fourth Stage seats approximately 180 listeners and the Studio seats 300. Confederation Park has held as many as 10,500 listeners: for example for the Dave Brubeck Quartet and the NAC Orchestra in 2010.

In response to a question from the audience, O'Grady clarified the relationship between the Ottawa Children's Festival and the Jazz Festival, which share some staff (including herself) and facilities. The Jazz Festival's financial statement noted that the Children's Festival paid it $15,000 for these services. The Children's Festival “pays a share of the rent, but they're completely different organizations. They have completely different boards of directors, different charitable numbers,” O'Grady said.

    – Alayne McGregor (with files from Brett Delmage)

Full disclosure: Alayne McGregor is a 25-year volunteer with the Ottawa Jazz Festival, in the Souvenirs (T-shirts) area.

See coverage of past Ottawa Jazz Festival AGMs: