Roughly 90% of the performers each year at the Baton Rouge Blues Festival are musicians who have personal ties to the Capital Region and surrounding area, including Henry Turner Jr., who returns to the festival again this year. Here, chairman Chris Brooks, left, and booking chair John Kaufman, center, pose with Turner at his local music venue, Henry Turner Jr.’s Listening Room. Photo by Brian Baiamonte
By ANNIE OURSO, MARCH 15, 2017
Greater Baton Rouge Business Report
Festival-goers have a pretty sweet deal in the Baton Rouge Blues Festival.
At what organizers boast is one of America’s oldest blues festivals, more than 50 performers annually take to four stages over two spring days in downtown Baton Rouge. While the festival has always been focused on highlighting the city’s rich swamp blues heritage and has a bevy of local talent, big name headliners like Dr. John and Buddy Guy have boosted the festival’s profile in recent years.
Perhaps best of all, the festival is free. Organizers—all of whom are volunteers—view the event as a gift to the city. But it doesn’t come cheap, and the return on the investment required to pull it off each year is measured more in terms of culture than currency.
“It takes a lot of money and business acumen to produce a festival of this size,” says festival chairman Chris Brooks. “It’s like running a small business.”
Produced by the Baton Rouge Blues Foundation and a committee of 21 volunteers, the Baton Rouge Blues Festival has an estimated annual operating budget of about $250,000. As expected, the biggest expense is booking performers. Brooks says musicians consume at least 35% of the budget. The staging, audio and visual aspects of a music festival also cost big bucks, while smaller expenses include production, tents, security and marketing.
So where does the money come from? Corporate sponsorships, which start at $1,000, and beverage sales bring in the most revenue. Combined, they provide about 65% of the festival’s budget, while a grant from the city supplies another 20%. Other sources of revenue include art and food vendor fees, VIP tickets and merchandise sales.
A major challenge for free music festivals is they can easily fall victim to their own success. As events like the Baton Rouge Blues Festival grow and gain additional attendees, expenses inevitably grow—and sometimes at a much faster pace than sponsorships and revenue. Gary Bongiovanni, editor of concert industry trade publication Pollstar, says all free festivals have limits that make sustaining growth a tricky endeavor.
“You have to be very creative to run a free festival,” Bongiovanni says. “They operate every year by their fingertips. It’s not an easy business.”