Updated December 5, 2018
Latest news as of March 13: Our story on who's appearing at the 2019 Ottawa Jazz Festival and the full 2019 Ottawa Jazz Festival Line-up and prices

Fewer concerts on fewer days at fewer venues – that will be the 2019 Ottawa Jazz Festival.

©Brett Delmage, 2018
Listeners were unhappy to be sitting on the unpleasantly hot concrete ice pad with the sun in their eyes at the new City Hall location for the Ottawa Jazz Festival in 2018. The festival expects to have to remain in the City Hall grounds in 2019, eventually returning to Confederation Park only after construction work there is completed.   ©Brett Delmage, 2018

The festival lost nearly $200,000 this year, primarily because of lower ticket sales. As a result, it will have a “smaller, more focused” programming budget next summer, president John Freamo told the festival's annual general meeting Tuesday.

“Programming is by far the biggest expense and biggest financial risk for the festival. We will still present some big-name concerts and many world-class jazz artists, but we'll scale back somewhat on the number of different series and venues.”

He said the festival would also “scale back a little bit on some of the series that happen simultaneously” – based on patron feedback over the past few years where some don't like not being able to attend a concert because another is happening at the same time and “they can't be at both places at once”. This year, the festival had five series which all began in the 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. timeframe.

The exact reductions are still to be determined, Freamo said, depending on previous commitments and which artists are touring.

The festival's website had shown the summer festival running from Thursday, June 20 to Monday, July 1, 2019. Festival programming manager Petr Cancura said it would now start on Friday, June 21. It may also go dark for a Monday or Tuesday in the middle of the festival, as Bluesfest does.

Cancura said the places to be cut first will be “things that cost us the most”: for example, concerts on certain days like Sundays at the National Arts Centre that require paying staff double time.

“There might not be an actual series missing, but some of them might be thinned out where we know that the production costs are just too excessive, as well as thinning out the number of days that we do.”

Freamo said the reductions are “a necessary evil this year. We can't avoid what the financial outcome was this year and we certainly can't afford too many consecutive years of that level of loss without it presenting a risk to the festival.”

The jazz festival will likely remain in the grounds of Ottawa City Hall again in 2019, Freamo said. It was forced to move there in 2018 from its long-term home in Confederation Park, because the construction of the city's Combined Sewage Storage Tunnel (CSST) required an access point in the park right where the festival's main stage and back stage are normally located. The festival is not expecting that work to be completed in time for next June.

In response to inquiries by OttawaJazzScene.ca, the CSST project team said November 26 that "based on the latest information received from the contractor, reinstatement of Confederation Park is anticipated in the fall of 2019.  Until then, we’ll continue to work closely with the park owner, as well as the area Councillor and the City of Ottawa’s Events Central Unit, to mitigate any impacts of this necessary construction."

But the City Hall site plan will change substantially next year. Freamo said the layout this year was flawed, and there would be “numerous improvements” in 2019 “to improve the audience experience”. He noted that he had been a long-time volunteer at Bluesfest when it was moving sites every few years; “I came up with a rule of thumb that it used to take Bluesfest about three years of being at a new site to iron out the ideal site plan.”

Festival executive producer Catherine O'Grady said she hoped to avoid the situation where people could stand in the walkway to City Hall and listen to main stage acts without paying. The city had required that the festival leave that walkway open as a condition of using the site, she said.

She said the festival had received a number of emailed complaints about the site layout at City Hall – “They came once and didn't want to come back” – although others liked the new layout. Some liked the fact that there was a hard surface underneath, avoiding muddy conditions – “of course this was the year there was no rain!” Freamo noted that in the “oppressively hot” conditions in 2018, “the Main Stage having that concrete pad instead of the grass and trees with the shade made it all that more inhospitable for a large portion of our usual audience.”

Treasurer Jean Vanderzon told the meeting that the 2018 loss of $198,577 was the largest in the previous 16 years. O'Grady said it was the largest she remembered since 1996, the year she started with the festival.

The festival had small surpluses in 2016 and 2017 ($3,449 and $30,390), and losses in 2014 and 2015 ($140,603 and $123,265), leading to a total reported net loss in the past five fiscal years of $428,606.

No statement of Assets and Liabilities was presented in the annual report distributed to members at the meeting.

An analyis of the Ottawa Jazz Festival's box office revenues from 2014 to 2018
The Ottawa Jazz Festival lost almost $200,000 in 2018 and in three of the last five years. Ticket sales have trended downwards.

Vanderzon attributed most of the loss to fewer “day-of” ticket sales. While advance ticket and pass sales were strong, she said, once the festival opened “jazz fans didn't show up in the numbers anticipated or the quantities required needed to turn a profit”. She said there was no clear explanation for the loss of walk-up traffic. Possible speculations she mentioned included fans disliking the new site and not returning after one night; or federal civil servants being more cautious with their spending because of the uncertainties caused by the federal Phoenix payroll imbroglio; or people being less willing to attend because they were worn out by the many Canada 150 events in 2017 and decided to “kick back” in 2018.

That meant that ticket revenues were down $180,000 compared to 2016.

Unlike the outdoor shows, Vanderzon said, the festival's indoor shows at the National Arts Centre and at the First Baptist Church did generate the revenues expected. “They worked well. That tends to be a steady crowd of people that come year after year particularly to see the avant-garde and the special series.” O'Grady noted, however, that the ticket revenue for indoor shows doesn't pay their full costs. No AGM financial statement that the festival has issued in the past five years has separately reported indoor and outdoor, or jazz and non-jazz programming, revenues and expenses.

Other factors contributing to the deficit included the last-minute cancellation of his summer tour by electronic music artist St-Germain, due to an unforeseen medical condition. That “should have been a big draw for a certain age group”, Vanderzon said; instead the festival was forced to issue refunds totaling $35,000 to people who had bought tickets for that evening, since the replacement artist “didn't draw the crowd that we hoped”.

In addition, when Jerry Granelli unexpectedly became ill and had to cancel his Charlie Brown Christmas show in December, 2017, the festival lost all its anticipated profits from a sell-out house. This reduced revenues by $35,000, Vanderzon said, and also incurred venue cancellation fees and ticket refund fees.

Nevertheless, she said, “the show will go on”. The festival does have money in the bank and continuing commitments for grants and sponsorships, sufficient to continue. It will present its Winter Jazz Festival next February, Granelli's Charlie Brown Christmas show will return in December, and it will run a benefit concert next March.

“I don't want us to be overwhelmed by the loss,” O'Grady said. “God knows I've spent enough time weeping about it for all of us. We've thought about what we can do, we've taken measures, we've been very thoughtful and considerate about how to get out of it. We have a lot of experience amongst all of us. We've already had a very high-level strategic planning meeting. Next year will be better. It has to be. I insist!”

She noted that the festival had received a special commendation from the Canada Council for the Arts for its Play North series this year. Other 2018 highlights she mentioned included the the 24-hour Jazz Ramble in May; the very popular Ontario Stage in Confederation Park offering free local jazz shows during the day and early evening; and the cross-Canada Jazz Youth Summit band having Herbie Hancock listen to their concert and offer commentary.

The financial results and changes to the 2019 festival were the only substantive issues raised in the very low-key hour-long meeting, which attracted only 16 festival volunteers (the festival's voting members), plus board members and staff.

Two of the new festival board members elected for the first time in 2017 resigned in the middle of their first year for personal reasons. Two new members, Deborah Ferrigan and Matt Mersereau, were elected to the festival board at this meeting, along with several returning members. Both Ferrigan and Mersereau are accountants (CPAs) with experience in the not-for-profit sector; Ferrigan was previously a festival volunteer for 10 years.

Updated November 26 to include new time estimates from the CSST project team on the timeline for reinstating Confederation Park.

Updated December 5 to remove the copy of the the Ottawa Jazz Festival's 2018 financial summary at the request of the festival. It has been replaced with an analysis of festival box office revenues. Read: How we responded to Ottawa Jazz Festival's request to unpublish their financial statement 

Previous Ottawa Jazz Festival annual general meeting report

2018 Ottawa Jazz Festival programming