Guest Column: Live music festivals are a viable entity

By Steve Jones
President, Crossroads Blues Society

The demise of the On the Waterfront festival has a lot of people around town wondering if live music festivals in the Rockford area are dead. The Rockin’ Rib Fest became the Stars and Guitars Rib Fest, and it passed away after its 2008 event. The 1999 and 2000 Rockford Blues Festivals were also short-lived.

These three events had two common denominators — one is that they all featured live music, and the second is that they were mostly held at Davis Park, which is controlled by the Rockford Park District/Rockford Area Venues and Entertainment Authority (RAVE), BMO Harris Bank Center and the City of Rockford.

Before I go on, let me also state that I personally have nothing against the Park District/RAVE, the BMO Harris Bank Center and its ownership and management group, or the City of Rockford. The problem I have is that to utilize THE prime location in downtown Rockford to host a music event requires the user to turn over food and beverage rights to Centerplate, the food beverage provider for Davis Park and BMO Harris Bank Center.

This results in paying fairly high fees and going through a huge paperwork nightmare to use these (or any) public lands.

Alternative arrangements can be made, but even they place the promoting organization in the position where they are paying out or losing a significant amount of the revenue from the site.

Couple the loss of revenue with the costs of putting on an event, and it is no wonder events at Davis Park are either short-lived or eventually fail.

Take, for example, what the RAVE proposed for Waterfront (as reported by Jeff Kolkey in the Rockford Register Star on Feb. 14, 2012). Waterfront was asked to contract with RAVE to:

1. Pay $6,000 in rental fees for Davis Park;

2. Utilize RAVE ticketing services and give25 percent of ticket revenue to RAVE;

3. Pay Centerplate $500 a day for the rights to sell food and concessions in the park;

4. Allow Centerplate to sell all beverages, including alcohol, in the park, with the Waterfront festival getting only a 25 percent cut; and

5. Put up signs only at times and in places they would not interfere with other RAVE events and their sponsors (who included LaMonica Beverages, Pepsi, U.S. Cellular and Comcast).

The Centerplate agreement pre-dates RAVE; this has been going on for a good number of years.

What all this means is that the alliance between the City of Rockford, the Rockford Park District/RAVE and the BMO Harris Bank Center is set up to allow those organizations to turn a profit, no matter what happens to the promoter of the Davis Park event.

While none of us wants tax dollars to have to bail out every event held at Davis Park, why do these public and private entities have to have such a stranglehold on the cash-flows at the site?

Also reported in the same Rockford Register Star article referenced above was this: “Tax records indicate that although the street festival brings in more than $1.2 million in revenue and ticket sales each year, it has run operating deficits for several years, including a $39,263 deficit in 2010 and a $76,449 shortfall in 2009.”

Waterfront basically took a 3.2 percent and 6.4 percent loss those years. Those sorts of numbers should not end the life of a venerable institution that has served the community well. Could that all have been fixed by adjusting the agreements or getting some help from the city/RAVE/Park District? I think so.

The city has huge revenues from taxes on meals, hotels, food, beverage and other shopping done in Rockford by Waterfront patrons. Do those revenues exceed those amounts? It’s very likely they do.

One also has to look at $1.2 million per year of revenue that is gone that does not go into paying for a great entertainment event that supported a myriad of civic and nonprofit groups because the city and Park District/RAVE are too short-sighted and cash hungry to allow Waterfront to continue.

Beer and beverage sales are a huge profit source for a festival. The average fest-goer consumes about three beverages a day at a festival. We all know what beer costs, so when you sell that beer for $4, $5 or $6 (or even more), it is not rocket science to figure out that the profits on beer can cover your losses very quickly. Getting none (or, at best, only 25 percent of that) hurts a promoter.

This same economic structure hurt every event Davis Park ever hosted. The Rockin’ Rib Fest may have had its problems, but the Machesney Park Mall events were manageable and would allow the promoter to turn a profit.

We started our Byron Crossroads Blues Festival in 2010, and are deep into planning our new Field of Blues Festival; we wanted to hold events in Davis Park, but it’s not possible. This cost structure drove our club to host blues festivals in nearby Byron the past three years — only 11 miles from Rockford airport, where we turned a decent profit each year there and expect our fourth year in 2013 to be equally successful. We are starting a new festival June 22 in the newly-renamed Aviators (formerly RiverHawks) Stadium, and expect that to be profitable.

We want live music to prosper in Rockford. So, thanks to the ability to use private property for our festival, we will have a Rockford-area blues festival. It won’t cost a lot ($10 advanced tickets, $15 at the door), and both Crossroads and the Aviators will benefit from this.

Crossroads has had limited funding over the years, but in the last 10 years, we have managed to raise enough money to host 110 Blues in the Schools programs at no cost to area schools. More than 33,000 students and more than 2,300 teachers and school administrators have attended these programs. We’re all volunteers, but we know what we are doing, and we know how to manage our money and our costs while providing a great community service.

It would be great to use Davis Park to host our blues festival, but it’s impossible to even break even, given the constraints. It is sad that Rockford’s city fathers have created a situation like this, but the reality is that they have created a situation where only they themselves can use Davis Park; it is only affordable for their own uses. Meantime, the rest of us will have to stay creative and do what we need to do and serve the public in alternate locations. In this case, in the great venue of Aviators Stadium in Loves Park, along with our continuing festival in downtown Byron. The city fathers in both cities have been quite happy to work with us, and we look forward to a long and prosperous relationship with them and the Aviators.

Steve Jones is the president of Crossroads Blues Society. He has lived in the Rockford area for 16 years, moving here after retiring as a Navy Commander in nuclear submarines. Originally from New York City, Steve has been a music fan since his youth. He and his wife and family all love music and attend live music shows as often as possible. Crossroads is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit staffed entirely by volunteers who work to raise funds to conduct Blues in the Schools programs; since May 2002, they have done 108 programs for more than 32,000 area students.

From the June 19-25, 2013, issue

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