Last month, when JVC announced it was dropping its sponsorship of jazz festivals, it was assumed most of those events would still happen under different names. But now it looks like the reality is there will be far fewer events for jazz fans this year.
The New York Times reports Festival Network, the company that produces the NYC, Chicago and Miami versions of the JVC Jazz Festival along with 14 other events around the world, is “suffering a financial crisis.”
At stake is one of the most celebrated legacies in Amerian music. Two years ago the impresario George Wein sold his company, Festival Productions, to a group led by Chris Shields, a charismatic entrepreneur who planned to transform Mr. Wein’s empire through aggressive growth. Now that plan has all but collapsed, as Mr. Shield’s company, Festival Network, has lost its top sponsor, as well as several signature festivals, delivering what many call a painful blow to jazz.
In an interview Mr. Shields, 38, largely blamed the economy for his company’s woes. “I’ll certainly take criticism for the robust growth plan,” he said. “It may have been too robust for the time. I think if we weren’t faced with this economy, we would be just fine.”
Or it could just be that Mr. Shields killed the golden goose. According to the Times, many people who have worked for and with the promoter – and are still waiting to be paid – accuse him of inexperience, overspending and overreaching.
“He was ambitious but perhaps overwhelmed with the realities of the New York market,” said Michael Dorf, who runs CityWinery and hired Mr. Shields for the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival in 2000. “There’s something that comes from cutting your teeth working day in and day out in New York concert promotion. I don’t think Chris had that experience level.”
JVC’s departure is one of a string of blunders that includes losing the contract for the Newport Jazz Festival and the Newport Folk Festival and nearly sinking Mali’s Festival in the Desert after reportedly agreeing to fund this year’s event and then failing to come up with the money.
Shield’s claims he invested $150,000 in the festival, but its founder, Manny Ansar, said that was way short of the more than $600,000 necessary. Fortunately the governments of Mali, Morocco and Burkina Faso stepped in to save the event.
The promoter told the Times he made moves like adding four new festivals last summer because he wanted to “create enough original and desired location-based festivals that the Fortune 500s of the world would look at that umbrella of festivals and say, ‘We want to come in and sponsor the entire body.’”
In other words, he was attempting to do with festivals what Wall Street companies like AIG did with the mortgage industry and achieved similar results.
And while it sucks that this means fewer summer events for jazz fans, what’s even worse is the serious loss of work for the musicians for whom these festivals are a major source of income, not to mention all the other people who make a living from them (festival staff, security, sound and lighting techs, concessions, etc.).
Shields vows to have his house in order by next year and says his “business plan can succeed.” Let’s hope so for the sake of everyone involved.
Read The New York Times’ complete coverage of Festival Network’s troubles and their impact on the jazz community here.