The Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival is one of the best Upstate success stories of the past decade. Last year’s 10th annual festival drew a record 182,000 people to downtown Rochester. The festival brings people of all ages and races together for a big 9-day party. It’s a wonderful thing for our city.
Festival organizers are holding a news conference Tuesday to detail what will be new this year. The footprint will be expanded onto a portion of Main Street, an acknowledgement Gibbs St. was getting way too crowded. We’ll also hear about the economic impact, an estimated $110 million since 2002. This year, businesses are organizing entire conferences around the Jazz Fest.
One measure of the festival’s success we will not hear about is how much money it’s making. RIJF LLC is a privately-held company. Revenue for music festivals comes from ticket sales, sponsorships and vendor sales. A spokeswoman wouldn’t say if the festival is profitable.
Before you say what RIJF LLC earns is none of our business, consider the fact the festival gets a lot of taxpayer dollars. At one point, the level of city support was $225,000. This year, it’s $175,000.
The festival doesn’t have to open its books to get that cash. Councilman Adam McFadden thinks that’s wrong, as some entities are required to hand over certain financial information in return for government support.
“It’s a great festival…I just thought when we’re giving them that much money, it makes sense,” McFadden said. “I don’t want us to be foolish in our due diligence.”
The $175,000 pays only for the cost of the free shows, including artists, stage, sound and lighting.
“We’ve reduced their money every year,” said Councilwoman Elaine Spaull, chair of council’s new arts committee. She said the payment could be scrutinized in the future. “One of things we’ve focused on is all the free stuff that they do. It’s very specifically for all of the free events.”
The city calls the $175,000 a sponsorship and monitors how the money is spent. It’s not concerned with how much money the promoters are making or whether they actually need the cash. As far as City Hall is concerned, the $175,000 is an investment with an enormous return in promotion for the city and tourism.
“Frankly we hope that the organizers make a lot of money as it will ensure the growth and resilience of the festival,” said spokesman Gary Walker in an email. He said the city’s support early on helped the festival explode.
If the city pulled the dollars, the festival could threaten to cancel the free shows and we’d all be really upset. The organizers do make money from the free shows from vendor sales. They could also try to get private sponsors to replace the city. But the Jazz Fest may now wield the same kind of power as a company promising to bring jobs in exchange for tax breaks.
When a festival has multiple sponsorships and sellout crowds, it’s worth at least asking if that level of taxpayer support is still needed. It doesn’t look like we’ll ever know.
Update following Jazz press conference: A couple more financial details about the festival: The county contributes $75,000. The festival organization has donated at least $44,000 to local political candidates and parties.
The festival started a 501(c)3 to continue its annual jazz scholarships to local students. The festival was getting offers from people who wanted to donate to the festival itself, an indication many people think it’s a nonprofit. Now people can donate to the charity.
Marc Iacona, a festival founder, said the government support is necessary for the free shows and pays for about half the cost. He said without the support, the free shows wouldn’t take place. At this point in the festival’s history, the public has come to expect quality free shows and he would like to expand the offerings in the future. He would not say whether he’s making substantial money from the festival.
Mayor Tom Richards told me (half-jokingly?) I wasn’t going to “spoil a good thing” by asking questions about the finances. He fully supports the city’s investment and won’t ask the festival to open its books.