The Ottawa Jazz Festival is introducing a new premium seating area at the front of Confederation Park, meaning that regular festival-goers will be pushed further back from the stage.
The new Platinum reserved seating will cost $65 per night, and replace a ticket to a particular night's show. Gold and bronze pass holders will not have free access to the area, and will not get a discount on the price. According to Festival executive producer Catherine O'Grady, a maximum of 80 seats will be sold for any one evening: four rows of 20 seats each. The seats will be placed immediately alongside the barrier in front of the stage; they will be roped off from the rest of the park, and Festival volunteers will ensure that only Platinum ticket-holders sit there.
The actual effect of the seating will vary per show. As of Friday, O'Grady said, 74 of the 80 seats for Dave Brubeck's show on July 3 had sold, and she expected the remaining seats to go quickly. For other nights, as few as four seats have been sold. Only enough seats will be put out each night to accommodate the tickets sold by 5 p.m. that night.
The main market for these seats is older jazz fans, who didn't want to come early and wait in line, or carry a folding chair, and "can't handle the crowds any more", she said. The seating was introduced in response to requests from some of the festival's regular clientele, she said.
The main reason for Platinum seating was that the Festival needed to make money, O'Grady said. "It's part of a complicated revenue strategy. The majority of passholders resist a big increase, but we can't do the work we're doing and only charge what we're charging." She said she couldn't estimate how much money the seating would raise.
The festival's net operating surplus for 2009 was $159,352. That was the third year in a row (and 11th of the last 13) that the festival has shown a surplus.
Other festivals: some yes to premium seating, most no except indoors
O'Grady said every other festival has special seating: "we're 25 years behind other festivals". The Ottawa Bluesfest sells an Empire Grill Clubhouse passport (at more than double the cost of a regular passport) that provides better seats, plus premium per-night outdoor seating at $100 or $150 a night. The Ottawa Jazz Festival has sold premium seating for its winter concerts in Dominion Chalmers United Church.
However, the Ottawa Folk Festival has no premium seating, and the Tulip Festival, which previously had premium seating in its Celebridée series, has discontinued it. And when Ottawa Jazz Scene checked other Canadian jazz festivals, the only examples we could find of premium prices was in large indoor concert halls, such as in Place des Arts in Montreal or the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto, which were only a minority of concerts.
The Platinum seats must be purchased in advance either in the park, by calling the Festival office, or on the Festival website.
The $65 includes the use of a standard camp chair. The chairs will be placed close together ("we want all chairs in the park close together") and will not be protected from the weather. When asked, O'Grady said she thought there would still be room for audience members to put up umbrellas. She said the festival had measured and checked sight-lines, and the seats should not block the view of the rest of the audience.
And the reaction: wait and see
When Ottawa Jazz Scene asked several regular Ottawa Jazz Festival-goers about the Platinum seating, they either hadn't heard about it at all, or didn't know any of the details.
Jazz fan Owen Munn has been attending the festival for at least 20 years. Munn said he and his wife Elizabeth both have Gold Passes, but if the weather is nice, they prefer sitting in lawn chairs nearer the stage. "We can see the expressions on the musicians' faces. There's an atmosphere being up front."
Sitting close up, they can "hear the actual sound as opposed to what's coming through the PA". And being a drummer himself, he said, he liked being able to watch drummers closely to see what they're actually doing – instead of hoping the camera might focus on them. "I like to see the action."
Munn's reaction to the Platinum seating was "mixed": he could understand the need for revenue, but he expected that people who like to sit up front might be upset. He didn't think the change would affect him personally a lot.
Charles O'Brien has been going to the Festival for the last 15 years. While he also has a Gold Pass, he sits "as close to the stage as possible" in good weather.
"I like the contact with the musicians. I can hear stuff that the crowd can't: the banter back and forth. It's a little more personal. If I could sit on the stage, I would."
O'Brien said he would reserve judgment until he saw how the Platinum seating rolled out. "I have a feeling it's going to be another headache for the jazz officials who are going to have to enforce that." But since he figured Festival organizers had thought of the ramifications, "I'm willing to let it develop and see what the outcome is".
He said he didn't think it would affect his view from behind the Platinum rows. "The sight-lines [in the park] are always pretty good."
Both O'Brien and Munn said they would definitely not be buying Platinum seats.