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A tough time for Ottawa Jazz Festival in 2015/16, members told at annual meeting

Ottawa Jazz Festival members got three pieces of bad news at their annual general meeting Wednesday: another deficit, a sharp drop in attendance, and the loss of an important stage location.

“It's not been a good week, let's put it that way,” said festival executive director Catherine O'Grady.

The day before the AGM, O'Grady was told by National Arts Centre staff that the NAC Fourth Stage would not be available for the 2016 or 2017 jazz festivals, because the NAC's renovation schedule has been moved up. “It is a surprise because we'd been assured all along that the renovations would begin after the [2016] festival was finished.”

Each summer, the festival has presented two to three concerts each day in its Improv Invitational series at the Fourth Stage. O'Grady told the AGM that the festival had already made offers to 18 groups that it had expected to present in that stage. She said she hadn't yet had time to determine an alternative location, but “we'll figure it out; we always do.”

The festival will still be able to use the NAC Studio. She said the festival will also put some groups in the 897-seat NAC Theatre in 2016 as an experiment, which could have the side-effect of avoiding “disappointment” for Bronze Pass holders who were shut out in previous years when the 300-seat Studio sold out.

The festival attracted over 274,000 listeners this summer, a 10% drop from 305,500 in 2014, according to the financial reports presented to the meeting. Box office revenue for the summer festival was down by 15%: from $1,038,763 in 2014 to $882,434 in 2015.

A poll of OttawaJazzScene.ca subscribers before the festival indicated that slightly more than half who responded were not happy with the amount of jazz at the 2015 festival, although they were still enthusiastic about specific groups. Half of those who responded were not buying a pass for this festival, but instead were buying individual tickets to shows. The prevalence of non-jazz in the Concert Under the Stars and other series was the most consistent criticism; fewer than half the artists in Concert Under the Stars played jazz.

The weather wasn't a factor: according to Environment Canada, only two days from June 18 to 30 had significant rain in Ottawa, and the high temperatures were mostly in the comfortable low to mid-20s. Treasurer Jean Vanderzon noted that 2015 was still the second-highest box office revenue on the festival's history.

Ticket revenue from the festival's winter season was up in 2015: from $69,727 to $76,548. This amount has tripled since the first winter festival in 2012.

Second deficit in two years

The festival ran a deficit of $123,265 in 2015. It also posted a deficit in 2014, of $140,603. Over the last five years, it's posted two surpluses and three deficits. President Gavin McLintock said that the loss would not “endanger the health of the festival”, but the board was reviewing its strategies and operations to reduce this risk.

One factor leading to the deficit, McLintock said, was the increased cost of performers. Artist fees were down slightly from 2014, but still up 30% from 2013. Vanderzon said that fees were rising faster than the cost of living, and faster than the festival could increase ticket prices. A particular problem, she said, is that many groups are paid in US dollars – including some Canadian groups represented by US agents.

Exchange rate a serious problem

The festival was adversely affected by the decline in the Canadian dollar, as it was in 2014. Although it did hedge this year by stockpiling American dollars, Vanderzon said, the exchange rate went from 9 cents at the beginning of the fiscal year to 28 cents at the end, averaging 20 cents on the dollar over the whole year.

“By buying U.S. dollars ahead of time we certainly saved ourselves a lot of money. That's going to be very difficult this coming year because the rates have continued to fall. The dollar continues to fall and artists are going to continue to get more expensive.”

Expenses were up 5% overall this year, with notable increases in facilities and equipment (6%), wages (4%), and beer, wine, and concessions (23%). Beer, wine, and concessions revenue was down 7% compared to last year, while corporate sponsorships (including from embassies), and government grants increased by 11.5% and 8% respectively. Advertising revenue almost doubled over 2014, but was only one-quarter of what it was in 2011. Revenue was up by 1% overall.

In her report, O'Grady highlighted jazz. She noted that two spotlight series introduced in 2015, celebrating jazz from the European Union and from South Africa, were new to Canada. The Focus France series was consistently sold out, she said, and the Improv Invitational series was “fully attended each and every night”.

Back in Confederation Park in 2016, but with more renovation issues?

She reiterated that the National Capital Commission (NCC) had assured her that the festival will be able to use Confederation Park in 2016 and 2017, and any sewer work in that area would be undertaken between festivals, as previously reported by OttawaJazzScene.ca.

On the other hand, O'Grady said, the festival may also be facing problems outside from the National Arts Centre renovations. She learned Tuesday that the staging area for the renovations, including construction trailers, will be behind Confederation Park, on Queen Elizabeth Driveway. This would make it “completely impossible” for the festival to bring its equipment into and out of Confederation Park.

O'Grady said she would be meeting with the NCC next week to explain these problems. “This is just not going to happen.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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