One of the truly watershed moments for this fledgling newspaper came in its sixth issue when — for reasons I’m still not sure I understand — we were allowed to serve as BayFest’s “official guide.”
I think we were just there at the right time and place to land this sweet gig. Besides the glory of getting to be in the room with all the big boys at the sponsor party and listen to Bill Withers — of cell phone, not R&B, fame — perform his annual poetic kickoff of the festivities, the imprimatur of BayFest also helped us nail down a massive $4,239 in advertising sales that issue. Where did we spend it all?
Lagniappe was never the “official” guide again, but for every year of this rag’s existence, the BayFest guide has been our biggest issue. The festival has always had a Semoon Chang-like multiplier effect on our business. It’s possible that’s one of the reasons I’ve always thought the festival was important — I know firsthand it was a business driver. Plenty of others around town felt the same.
And now that our 20-year-old city music festival is calling it quits, you’re not going to hear me trashing what BayFest was as a festival. I will always maintain anyone who bought a ticket got waaaaay more than their money’s worth. To have access to an entire weekend of music for under $50 was amazing. And generally that ticket price came with the most spectacular weather of the year. For free!
So why is BayFest gone if it was so great? The carnival food was too disgusting? Motley Crüe was so bad the festival could never recover? Too many people in the VIP parking garage?
The obvious answer is simple — they just didn’t sell enough tickets. Weather played a role sometimes, I’m sure. And maybe sometimes the lineup wasn’t sexy enough. That probably became especially true as the years rolled on and we all became spoiled by the explosion of really cool “boutique” music festivals across the country and region.
Some have blamed the city’s current administration for less-than-enthusiastic support, but the city was still pumping in $98,000 in cash a year and more than $200,000 of in-kind services. Along with the $200,000 from the county, BayFest was set to again pick up roughly half a million bucks in taxpayer support this year and next.
When I’m sitting around chewing the fat at Griffith’s Service Station, people constantly compared BayFest to the Hangout Festival in Gulf Shores, but it’s a bad comparison. No one ever mentioned Hangout costs 10 times what BayFest did, they just complained BayFest needed cooler acts. Even when BayFest had some of those or other great acts, though, people didn’t go see them. I’ll never forget feeling embarrassed watching the legendary Willie Nelson with about 20 other people at his stage. Wow.
Some businesses in the downtown entertainment industry even have a nonchalant attitude about whether BayFest comes or goes. “Yeah, I do a little more business, but not enough for me to care about,” is an attitude expressed by more than a few. That said, now that BayFest is RIP, many downtown businesses — particularly those involved in giving our over-served visitors a place to sleep it off — are looking at a big hole in the budget.
Even as other city music festivals crashed and burned, it seemed for a while BayFest might have the mojo to survive. But that mojo crumbled when from 2011-2013 it lost about $2 million.
The writing has been on the wall for a while, it’s just nobody was reading it. I’d have written this column sooner if it had not been for a $3.7 million shot in the arm the fest got from BP in 2013 as one of the ways they tried to say “sorry.”
So even as BF was swirling the bowl financially, it suddenly ended up with the most money it ever had in the bank, finishing 2013 with $2.7 million.
Organizers tried to make a move last year designed to stave the bleeding, jacking up ticket prices to $80. But the results were bad, sales plummeted and it was another losing year.
That still should have left BayFest heading into this year with a pretty sweet wad of cash — somewhere above $2 million if the simple math I picked up at Gautier Elementary still applies — but BayFest Board President Bobby Bostwick obviously came into the year as nervous as Donald Trump’s hairdo during raccoon mating season.
We all know what happened then: In March Bostwick hastily announced BayFest would be leaving downtown and heading to The Grounds. But before we could all wrap our heads around whether it was a good or bad thing, Bostwick reversed course and said it was staying downtown and BayFest and The Grounds were both pointing fingers at one another concerning how it all went down.
The Grounds’ Director Scott Tindle told Lagniappe this past week an agreement to partner with BayFest had been struck, but when they asked to see the music festival’s books the deal died. Tindle also said Bostwick told him he was going into this year’s fest expecting to lose hundreds of thousands again. Bostwick was dismissive of Tindle’s comments but didn’t want to speak further about the issue.
Still, the show was supposed go on, until last week. The Grounds flap and an uninspiring lineup led to dismal ticket sales, and Bostwick says he didn’t want the festival going under owing everyone money, so he pulled the plug.
Bostwick has made it pretty clear he thinks there should have been more taxpayer support for the festival, and I’m sure there are some in the City Council who were ready to pump more money into this sinking ship.
So what now? It looks like a smaller new festival will quickly spring up to take BayFest’s place — a testament to exactly how important this big weekend in early fall is to many downtown merchants. Meanwhile down at BayFest central, Bostwick’s still kind of bunkered up, and if everyone’s calculations are correct, bunkered up with a lot of money.
Over the years BayFest has been a big time for a lot of us. The (not) VIP section was the easiest ticket in town. Board members and elected officials have enjoyed plenty of good times as well. But now that it’s over, the people on the board need to step in and help make sure what money is left goes to pay debts and then back to the taxpayers who supported BayFest for 20 years. No one deserves “golden parachutes” or extra salary — it’s been obvious this was coming for a long time.
Let’s hope the end of BayFest is clean and opens the door to something new that can grow. After 20 years BayFest has run its course, but for the most part it was a good show and a good time, and God knows I’ll miss that VIP parking garage.