Thank You SABC flops; Joy of Jazz pleases – but, really, what’s the point of mega-concerts?

There was more than a little schadenfreude in how the press reported the ‘Thank You SABC’ mega-concert flop last weekend at Orlando Stadium. After a very late start, a very small crowd enjoyed a bill that fell very far short of what had been advertised. Several artists reported non-payment, and the promoter still sits under an investigative cloud after another monster concert in tribute to Miriam Makeba similarly flopped. Who was responsible? The buck is bouncing around like a springbok after the first rains.

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The ‘Thank You SABC’ concert scene at Orlando Stadium

Joy of Jazz, and many Arts Alive concerts – including Jazz on the Lake – have seen somewhat healthier crowds, despite September being a month overcrowded with mega-events. Meanwhile, July’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown reported ticket sales of 220 000-plus across the week, and the Cape Town International Jazz Festival always sells out its available 30 000-plus day and weekend passes well ahead. (In both these latter cases, the figures include corporate and sponsor freebies, sometimes for people who never even turn up.)

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Manenberg Stage, Cape Town International Jazz Festival

South Africans seem to like their big festivals.

Sometimes, it’s hard to see why. You get 40+ minutes (if you’re lucky, and scheduling is on-track) of an artist who might play two or even three sets in a club. Apart from a few civilised oases, like the Rosie’s venue in Cape Town, festival sound quality is almost always worse than what you’ll find in a club where, even if engineering and acoustics are dodgy, you can at least get closer to the artists. Comfort levels are always worse. Crowds are often more interested in the noise they can make, the alcohol they can glug, or the selfies they can take, than in listening to the artists. Drinks? Overpriced! Catering? At best, it provides adequate fuel for the waits between acts and the treks between stages or to toilets. For people who are more interested in engaging with challenging music than being noticed, big festivals are often frustrating, not fun – and many jazz fans fall into that category.

There’s a perennial opinion piece that gets written about festivals wearing the label ‘jazz’. “It’s not fair,” the piece whines. “The stages are full of people who are not jazz artists.” We surely don’t need to rehearse that tired argument again. It is obvious that no multi-stage, multi-day festival themed around a single genre of music – except, in this country, possibly gospel – could hope to fill a monster venue, or cover the now punitive costs of international artists’ airfares, through fans of that one genre alone. Especially in South Africa, where our fan niches are much smaller than in a larger-population country, and where many in those fan niches are people who lack the income for bread, never mind tickets.

And let’s remember that same business model is what supports the simultaneous (albeit fleeting) visits of multiple overseas artists – if that’s what we want.

Let’s ask some other questions instead. What should jazz festivals be for? And is it only possible to achieve those aims in a mega-stadium or convention centre?

The best answer I’ve ever read to that first question came from commentator Tony Marcus ( http://www.factmag.com/2012/03/25/whats-the-point-of-festivals/1/ ). I drew on that piece for a 2014 review in TheCon (http://www.theconmag.co.za/2014/09/30/selfies-with-a-sax/ ), and I’ll repeat my summary here:

What festivals are for, might at first glance seem obvious: staging music.

Scratch the skin of that, though, and one layer down are the business models: to make money for promoters and artists (almost always in that order); to provide that chimerical beast, “exposure”; and, in this digital age, to offer a unique experience not accessible via download. Scratch the skin of “experience” and we get to bringing together a like-minded community of artists and listeners around a broadly-defined music genre. Scrape away at “community” and here’s Marcus’s great quote: “The festival has always been a litmus or metaphor for the limits of freedom.”

So, jazz festivals should be places where music fans are free to come together to appreciate jazz – without too many limits set by their lack of cash, or by the pressure to buy a sponsor’s booze, or by the snobbish aura of the venue. They should be places where musicians are free to make the music they choose, unmediated by purely money-making concerns. Big festivals are often the antithesis of freedom: they police jazz sociality to make it fit pre-set commercial parameters.

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Sandton: current location of Joy of Jazz

That’s not an argument for all festivals offering completely free entry. That, as we’ve seen at a plethora of party-political music bashes, makes musicians wholly dependent on certain paymasters, while even fans with money in their pockets are lulled to forget that making music is precious labour deserving recompense.

But it would be nice to see more concessionary entry for people without money – and especially for the young, because they are the paying audiences of the future. Brazil, Italy and a few other countries are now introducing ‘cultural coupons’ for the youth, or for people on low incomes, to be spent on things like going to a gig.

It would also be nice if entry fees could be kept affordable for those on moderate incomes. Two day-passes for this year’s Joy of Jazz cost R1 500 – perhaps not unreasonable in relation to what expenses must be, but more than a week’s earnings for even many working Joburgers.

It would be extra-nice if those notions of ‘freedom’ and ‘community’ facilitated more interactions between South African and visiting artists, more audience Q&As, debates, spontaneous creative projects – not just huge crowds herded into uncomfortable enclosures far from a stage to consume a musical product…

Let’s face it, none of that is going to happen if the organisers must fill a massive stadium or convention centre to pay their bills.

But such festivals do exist. Look, for example, at New York’s Vision Festival (http://www.brooklynvegan.com/nycs-vision-festival-2016-lineup-schedule-tickets/ ), which has now stayed alive into its third decade. It covers experimental music and other arts genres, over a week. It’s had many homes: this year, it was held in a church. Its 2016 jazz voices included the Sun Ra Arkestra, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Grimes, Michelle Rosewoman…the kinds of presences many of us would love to see more prominently at jazz festivals here. Done in South Africa, a Vision-type festival might let us engage with our homegrown jazz intellectuals, rather than merely baying for another encore. And while overseas guests would be fewer – but not impossible; there are support devices such as crowd-funding – perhaps their visits could be more carefully curated, with greater opportunities for creative sharing.

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Wadada Leo Smith: the kind of creative import SA jazz fans crave

Rather than whingeing about our existing behemoth bashes, shouldn’t we leave them to be what their business model makes them and start looking at ways to make smaller, better events happen – real festivals, that support jazz community, interaction and creative freedom?

•Come to the Orbit on Sunday September 25th at 6pm, to join a panel of festival fundis, insiders and outsider critics, in discussing this topic – followed by some music that demonstrates alternative possibilities too.

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