Wade on Birmingham

Festival fixer-upper


city stages

City Stages is broke and broken — and has been for years. Can the downtown music festival be fixed?

In a new partnership, festival organizers have teamed with Catalyst, a grassroots Birmingham organization of young professionals, to raise $1 million by 2007. That amount would wipe out the more than $800,000 debt and restart a rainy day fund.

The effort, Sustain City Stages, faces a huge challenge: Erase a growing debt that the city’s biggest festival itself has been unable to overcome while developing a plan for growth, or as the name suggests, sustainability.

To that end, the two groups will hold a town hall from 5:30 to 7 tonight at the Birmingham Public Library, 2100 Park Place.

We offer a few questions that deserve answers.

city stages 2006

• What is the true economic impact of the festival?

The Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau estimated for 2005 that 130,000 attendees would pay an average of $30 a ticket for a total of $3.9 million. But the actual ticket revenue for that year was below $1.1 million.

Ticket sales represented more than half of the festival’s revenue income in 2005. Nearly a fourth ($489,000) came from sponsors.

So if the bureau’s estimates are nearly four times the actual revenue, how accurate is its most conservative economic impact figure of nearly $9.6 million annually?

• What’s a realistic projection of ticket sales?

Maybe the visitors bureau has trouble getting the numbers right, but what about the festival planners? They had counted on selling 14,500 day passes this year, at $28 each. Given a strong lineup and good weather, not to mention 17 previous years’ experience, that $406,000 total would seem a reachable goal.

But the projections were off — by a third. The event sold about 10,000 day passes, raising around $280,000.

If planners can’t make educated guesses about ticket revenues, where else are they falling short in financial planning?

• Are organizers realistic about the festival’s economic and sentimental value to the community?

The festival has made apples-to-oranges comparisons with other city music festivals over the years, but perhaps the most egregious one is the current claim. The Web site says, “Your City Stages weekend pass costs LESS THAN HALF as much as comparable festivals, like San Diego’s Street Scene ($135 for a two-day event).”

By the way, it’s actually $115 for a two-day pass at Street Scene, but yes, a City Stages $40 three-day pass is less than half in cost.

But are the festivals “comparable”? Street Scene’s 2006 lineup included Kanye West, AFI, Social Distortion, Wu Tang Clan, Tool, Snoop Dogg, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, My Chemical Romance, Sean Paul, Bloc Party, Queens of the Stone Age, Bad Religion, Yellowcard, G. Love and Special Sauce, The Shins and New York Dolls.

City Stages’ 2006 lineup included Hank Williams Jr. Yellowcard, Snoop Dogg, Los Lonely Boys, John Hiatt, Puddle of Mudd, Cameo, Morris Day, the Beach Boys, the Allman Brothers and (unofficially) Taylor Hicks.

San Diego would seem to have the much stronger bill, not surprising considering its relative size to Birmingham.

Beyond that, organizers cite a rigged survey aimed more at inflating the measurement of public goodwill rather than assess citizen opinion of a civic event. Polling only festival attendees would tend to tilt results positively. How much weight does it carry to know that 96 percent of respondents/festival goers think the festival is “important to the overall quality of life in Birmingham”?

On the surface, it would seem organizers have a huge blind spot in measuring the festival’s value, both to the community and against other cultural events.

• What else should City Stages explain?

For starters:

  • Who are the sponsors promising 2-to-1 dollar matches, up to $600,000 (or $666,000)?
  • Is it realistic to expect $300,000 from the city, county and state governments annually, when only $90,000 came from the city in 2005? Should taxpayers be expected to continue to fund a festival that has had nearly 20 years to break even?
  • If that $300,000 doesn’t come from public dollars, where will it come from — or what will be cut?
  • What are the “sacred cows,” specifically, in putting on the festival? The site lists four from the articles of incorporation, but then goes on to add more: three-day minimum, acts beyond a handful of headliners, site based on Linn Park. Is this a sustainable model, or wishful thinking?
  • Given the festival’s poor track record for transparency, accountability and financial management, why should citizens continue to devote their time and resources?
  • And most important, what is the long-term plan for making the festival sustainable if and when the debt is paid?

City Stages has been as effective at delivering straight talk as it has at delivering the festival on budget. Not only does the festival face an uncertain future, it faces many questions before answering the big ones: how to survive and how to remain relevant.

• • •

Complete City Stages 2006 coverage.

19 Yips for “Festival fixer-upper”

  1. Dre
    Tuesday, November 28, 2006, 8:00 am

    Wade, I would suggest attending the meeting and posing one or more of your questions directly to them. They have been quite forthcoming when asked those questions so far by interested parties.

    These blogs are our sounding boards, but we should see how these points hold up against a large group. I will be slightly late to the event this evening due to an unforeseen appt., but I’ll be interested in hearing what people have to ask, and what they have as an answer.

  2. Jennifer
    Tuesday, November 28, 2006, 8:17 am

    Very interesting points and great questions to be asking. I would love to keep City Stages, but the reality is that I haven’t actually gone to one since Iggy Pop played. Or maybe Run-DMC/Jurassic 5. I can’t remember. Either way, it’s been a very long time.

  3. Dystopos
    Tuesday, November 28, 2006, 8:52 am

    These are good questions, should be answered. I do think the civic value of the festival is high. I don’t agree with the idea of having “sacred cows” other than making it “Birmingham’s World-Class Music Festival”. I can’t make the meeting tonight, so here are my suggestions:

    Emphasize three or four niches in which this festival truly can be world class – stuff that other festivals don’t do. Stuff that true believers board airplanes for. The Shape-Note thing is the right idea. I think merging the Magic City Blues Festival and the Birmingham Improv Festival into City Stages would be smart. I think the ASO should have a few performances with different performers. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to let Bottletree book a stage.

    But here’s the thing, having Taylor and Snoop on the same stage was absolutely unique to Birmingham last year. Creating unique mash-ups should be a serious goal of City Stages planners. Suzy Fan might not come to Birmingham for a run-of-the-mill Indigo Girls set, but if you set up the Indigo Girls to play on stage WITH a Lucinda Williams or a k.d.lang, all of a sudden you’ve got people buzzing.

    And how about this… instead of one three-day weekend a year, you do a monthly one-day festival through the summer. The BMA’s Art on the Rocks has been successful with that format. Imagine that with 20 times the number of acts, and sold by subscription as well as by day passes.

    It’s evident the festival needs a shot in the arm. It’s evident to me that it’s worth making the effort. Maybe these ideas are worth considering.

  4. Wade
    Tuesday, November 28, 2006, 11:03 am

    Dre: Given the fact that my neutral comment was unceremoniously censored from the Catalyst blog today, I have strong doubts that an open discussion is likely to take place. I’ll let someone else spend their breath asking these same old questions.

    Jennifer: Yours is a common story. People love the festival in theory, but not enough to actually go.

    Dystopos: I agree with you on the no sacred cows approach. Given the uneven tactics the festival has taken with fund-raising and programming, it’s hard to see if organizers can integrate creative solutions. I’ll also voice the one solution no one else seems willing to entertain: Let the festival end with dignity, rather than bleed to death.

  5. Dre’s Ramblings
    Tuesday, November 28, 2006, 2:15 pm

    […] The questions and points brought up by Wade and others throughout the blogosphere are valid and need to be taken into account along with the numerous suggestions that are bound to be floating around out there, spoken and unspoken, for this festival. How do you make City Stages unique without making it seem to be like all of the other festivals in the area or the country? One thing to point out is that the fact that we even have a festival like this is unique as many cities are either mothballing the concept or they’re trying to revamp the festival to fit in to their changing demographic. […]

  6. Dre
    Tuesday, November 28, 2006, 2:16 pm

    Hey, my links and comments are never posted to the Catalyst blog anymore either . I think it’s par for the course. I will ask you to visit my post for today to see what I found out. Seems to me that we need to give everyone the benefit of the doubt on this one. Even after converting it to apples to apples, we need to ask if we are part of the problem.

  7. Curtis
    Tuesday, November 28, 2006, 3:03 pm

    I am the one you should be complaining to about your comment on the Catalyst blog. All comments are approved by me personally, save for the blatant spam. It is not my full-time focus to moderate the comments, usually looking once or twice a week . Please don’t hold Catatlyst responsible for my tardiness.

  8. Wade
    Tuesday, November 28, 2006, 3:33 pm

    Curtis: I’m not complaining — merely observing that this morning, the comment did post (or appeared to), then disappeared, then reappeared. Probably just a glitch.

  9. Wade
    Tuesday, November 28, 2006, 5:06 pm

    Dre: “we need to ask if we are part of the problem.”

    Let’s see: I buy my tickets every year. I support the vendors and the acts. I tell my friends about the lineup. And I challenge misstatements and misleading statements from the festival organizers.

    Nope, not part of the problem.

    They get the benefit of the doubt when they stop being cute and start getting real. But after having witnessed the missteps for years, I think nothing short of complete overhaul of management will turn it around. What corporation hangs on to leaders who lose money by the truckload year after year?

  10. Dre
    Tuesday, November 28, 2006, 9:10 pm

    The comment was a general comment and not a personal attack. That is the purpose of allowing comments on a site, to engage in conversation and debate (at least that’s what I’ve always thought).

    You do get rid of the guys in charge if they are not able to keep the house in order. I have some additional opinions based on what I heard at the event that I’m getting ready to post now since the library wouldn’t recognize my Airport card.

    And I buy mine too. I complain about things going on too. We (as a city – to be clear) need to look at what we can do to make the things that we want happen, instead of expecting them (insert problem here) to read our minds. Demanding the best in par for the course. (I think I’ll use that in the post too 🙂

  11. Wade
    Tuesday, November 28, 2006, 9:26 pm

    Well, to imply that fans are part of the problem is ridiculous. People shouldn’t blindly support the festival just because it’s been marketed as a “good thing.” They’re smart enough to decide how and when to spend their hard-earned cash.

    The responsibility (and the credit) lies solely with the organizers. Blaming the public for the mistakes of City Stages is wrong, plain wrong.

    I know how to work hard and get things done. Does the festival know how to right itself without expecting a neverending handout?

  12. Curtis
    Thursday, November 30, 2006, 9:08 am

    Here’s the rub… this NEEDS to be a city festival, NOT a set of music performances. Expand the concept of “stages” to include performance art, community dance troupes, etc. Give away free booth space (since City Stages isn’t paying rent on the sidewalks) to every non-profit in Birmingham. Invite any art vendor that otherwise exhibits at Artwalk or others in town. Basically, expand the offerings beyond music… build a world-class event AROUND MUSIC. Redefine and expand.

    There — I said it.

  13. Shadowhelm
    Friday, December 1, 2006, 7:37 am

    Curtis: The problem with City Stages is revenue. The festival does not take in as much money as it spends. I think this is clear. People are not coming to the festival in enough numbers to sustain it over the long term. There are really only a few options to fix this problem. Raise prices enough to cover expenses, attract more customers, or reduce the costs of the production. That is pretty much it when it comes to the money issue.

    What I don’t see is how adding all the things you suggest to add will attract one more PAYING customer to the festival. I know I am not going to pay a dollar to visit booths from Birmingham area non-profits, art vendors, performance artists, etc. There are plenty of other FREE and well run events in the Birmingham area that offer these same experiences. We have the Magic City Art Connection as well as the Bluff Park Art show just to name a few.

    While I understand and respect what you are trying to accomplish, your suggestion does not seem to solve the revenue problem. It does not address the fact that a large portion of the people who might come to City Stages have avoided it in recent years because of things like a weak lineup, poor stage layout, and uninspiring promotion.

    I want City Stages to continue. I have great memories from past years and I have found some great new music at the festival, but as a customer I do not see a compelling reason to attend the event these days. It just isn’t worth the hassle to drive downtown, find somewhere to park, pay the admission and deal with the crowds only to be given a mediocre product.

  14. Dre
    Friday, December 1, 2006, 8:51 am

    Shadowhelm, that’s what I was trying to say with regards to the customers.

    It IS the ORGANIZER’S responsibility to provide a better product. If and when that better product is delivered, then it is up to us, as customers, to decide whether or not we want to support it. At that point it becomes the public’s decision whether or not they want the festival by voting with their wallet. Higher prices will hopefully dictate a stronger lineup. Otherwise, the vote will be a fairly obvious choice to make.

    I apologize if I did not make that point clear in my post on the issue.

    I will say that aside from the free space to non-profits that most of the things Curtis mentioned may bring people back to the festival, as many of these things were there before in its early days when the problems had not gotten so bad. Any reason to get any supporter of any of these groups to come out and see what’s going on (so long as it’s not on a free ticket) provides another opportunity to make money. Whether it works or not remains to be seen, but aren’t we just trying to brainstorm ideas anyway?

  15. Shadowhelm
    Friday, December 1, 2006, 10:12 am


    Your point was clear to me. IF the product is good then it is the responsibility of the community to support it. And I support higher prices with a MUCH stronger lineup. My issue is with the idea of adding more ancillary stuff to the festival. The bands bring in the people, not the booths. The booths create an atmosphere, but they are a secondary concern. I find it VERY unlikely adding those things will save the festival. A much more radical approach is needed.

    Yes, brainstorming is a worthwhile pursuit, but it seems like adding stages or booths is just covering up the problem. It is like trying to polish a turd. No matter how shiny you get the thing it still smells awful. Address the lineup and the ticket prices first and then create the atmosphere.

    Now, where I see Curtis’s ideas being more effective is within a Birmingham City Festival where music is just one part of the event. You could then significantly drop the number of stages, book three or four strong acts and fill the rest of the lineup with local and regional acts. Make the festival less about music and more about a general city celebration. Would this draw customers? I don’t know. Nevertheless, this kind of event is not part of City Stages’ scope. City Stages has always been about music. Music is what the fans want and the programming has been poor lately which has resulted in the loss of revenue.

    Find me someone that said they did not go to City Stages because there weren’t enough art exhibitions. I bet it will be hard to find that guy.

  16. J. Matthew Cobb
    Saturday, December 30, 2006, 5:43 am

    Wow. Thanks for pointing me to this page regarding the deeper details on City Stages. I will definitely post this as a link from my online letter regargding City Stages’ issues. Once again, thank you for introducing me to your blog and also posting your comment. Means a lot.

  17. Wade
    Saturday, December 30, 2006, 11:35 am

    Folks should read J. Matthew’s post on how City Stages has abandoned gospel music.

    You invest in bringing big acts to City Stages on rock and pop stages, and sometimes in R&B/hip-hop, but the failure of focusing on big drawing cards to the former gospel stage is a sign that it’s not about there being great talent here. Instead it’s about putting the money where you feel it needs to be. And gospel music is one of those areas that you fail to fully endorse.

    I refuse to support CityStages now…and I really hope that the Greater Birmingham community, particularly those who really love and support gospel music, will stand with me. We hope you will get the message and learn from your current consequences.

  18. Wade on Birmingham
    Sunday, April 8, 2007, 7:31 am

    The only executive director of Catalyst ever

    The progressive young professional group known as Catalyst will progress without a leader.

    Cherie Fields, executive director for the past 12 months, will step down Thursday. She plans to continue serving on the advisory board. Meanwhile, the organizat…

  19. Wade on Birmingham
    Tuesday, June 12, 2007, 9:02 am

    City Stages 2007: Why I’m staying away

    I’ve been a faithful City Stages fan for years, at least 15 or so. Most of the last 10 years, I’ve paid for my tickets and happily headed downtown for three days of music and fellowship.
    I dare say I’ve spent more supporting the festival than mos…

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