|The cost of the blues
|It takes a well-orchestrated effort to run the annual TD Kitchener Blues Festival, held each year the second weekend of August. A volunteer board manages 350-400 other volunteers. The key roles require a 12-month commitment, and the only rewards are the feeling of engagement with other people and the knowledge that they are giving back to the community. And, the fantastic music.
The festival, launched in 2000, has introduced this community to world-class blues icons, and attracts over 150,000 people. The festival operates with a cash budget of $1.1 million and close to $400,000 in in-kind sponsorship.
“The board has spent the last little while really trying to dramatically reduce our traditional overhead cost,” says Rob Barkshire, festival president. All staff salaried positions have been eliminated over the last two years.
“We want to direct our money to what we think is important,” adds Barkshire, “and what we clearly think is important is the product – what’s on the stage. We spend quite a lot of money to make sure the production value is there: the stages, the equipment, making sure it’s the ‘right stuff’ for the acts. These are Grammy award-winning musicians.”
The artists are paid, and artists cost money. Bringing the best musicians to the Kitchener stages is not a problem; the problem is finding the money to keep doing so. “We have problems raising cash,” says Barkshire, although the “sponsors are tremendous and many of them are multi-year – they come back to the table, they understand the value we bring to their brand.”
Bob Westhaver is board treasurer. “One misconception is that the Kitchener Blues Festival is solely funded by the City of Kitchener. I often have heard that in line, with people saying ‘Why would the City of Kitchener charge us this much for a beer?’ I’ve told people that this is not funded by the city of Kitchener, it’s a grass roots organization. We get our money from a number of sources including the people buying beverages. All the money is going back into supporting the festival.”
Blues Festival revenue breaks down like this: 35% from sponsorships; 24% from four grants (Celebrate Ontario, City of Kitchener, Canadian Heritage Federal Grant and Ontario Arts Council); 24% from beverage sales; 10% ticket sales (for the Thursday night fundraiser; all other events are free) 7% from other donations, silent auction and vendor fees.
Since all concerts except the opening night fundraiser are free, says Westhaver, “the money that we’re paying for performances and the gear around it, is coming from beer sales.” He notes that the Thursday evening concert features “premium acts in a small venue, good value” (VIP admission is $150 each ticket, general admission is $35).
The festival’s leaders are astonished at how the event has grown. “Eighteen years ago the festival was three hours long, what you call a pop-up event. Eighteen years later, it’s not that at all,” says Peter Beacock, director of operations. Today, “we have a group of people called our Safety partners, which is a big part of these operational expenses.”
The Blues Festival attracts thousands of people, and there will be drinking, probably pot smoking, and other activities. “Our job,” says Beacock, “is to let them have their fun and help them get home safely.”
Beacock adds, “It’s critically important; something happening would probably wipe out the festival. The planning and execution of things behind the scenes have been evolving over a number of years, and recently, a large percentage of what we’ve spent on the product, we’re spending on protecting the people that come to see the product.”
Barkshire adds, “Our costs continue to go up. The police send us a bill, the City sends us a bill. Planning and scrutiny has increased.” He notes that the goal is that the Festival be safe, and family-friendly.
He credits cooperative “partners” including EMS, St. John’s Ambulance, and the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario: “They’ve done a very good job in maintaining some stability in the costing.”
The expense break-down is enlightening: 38% for “operations” – portable toilets, tents, fencing, security; 36% for artists; 11%, production and staging; 7%, marketing; 4%, insurance; and 2% - bad debt, postage, paper, etc.
The organizers know that the audience is not concerned with about 64% of that budget. “We understand – people come for the artists,” says Barkshire. But putting on a world-class show requires sufficient income to cover all of the essential costs of producing such an iconic festival.