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‘We’re all scratching our heads’: Sacramento Music Festival organizers seek right mix to attract bigger crowds

Sights and jazzy sounds from Sacramento Music Festival 2017

A parade and various performances kick off a weekend of music at the 2017 Sacramento Music Festival in Old Town Sacramento on May 27, 2017.
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A parade and various performances kick off a weekend of music at the 2017 Sacramento Music Festival in Old Town Sacramento on May 27, 2017.

The Sacramento Music Festival took a gamble that returning to its Dixieland jazz roots might pay off – but this year’s raw attendance numbers reveal the four-day festival is still struggling to attract a larger audience.

This year, about 20,650 people headed to Old Sacramento last weekend to enjoy the festival, according to Ann Bouchard, Sacramento Music Festival spokeswoman. Last year, about 22,000 attended the festival, part of a trend of declining attendance since 2002.

The decrease comes after the festival placed a greater emphasis on its jazz heritage this year, after several years of working to bring in more mainstream genres and headlining artists.

“We were offering not just jazz, but country swing, blues, and we’re all scratching our heads,” wondering how to increase attendance, said Dennis Speciale, president of the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society, which organizes the annual festival. “We thought this would open it up for younger crowds to come, and it seems to be working.”

The festival still included a variety of rock, African Caribbean and Latin music, but some attendees did notice that there were more smaller-name artists and fewer country and pop bands. In addition, featured bands – bands that play several sets over the course of the festival – were emphasized to encourage attendees to come multiple days.

The shift in strategy was spurred by a survey of 1,500 attendees from the 2016 Sacramento Music Festival, which revealed that most came to the festival for the experience, rather than the headliners.

“The core audience that has gone to that event is a Dixieland audience – that’s exactly what they’re going to say they want,” said Mike Testa, chief operating officer of Visit Sacramento. “It’s not additional people but returning people” going to the festival.

Held every Memorial Day weekend since 1974, the event was formerly known as the Old Sacramento Dixieland Jazz Jubilee but changed its name to the Sacramento Music Festival in 2010 to start attracting a wider audience amid declining ticket sales. At its peak, the jubilee had more than 85,000 attendees in the mid-1980s.

Part of the reason the Sacramento Music Festival may be struggling to draw those same big numbers could be the growing competition of quality music festivals throughout California.

Almost 200,000 people from around the world go to Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Southern California each year in April. Closer to Sacramento, BottleRock Napa Valley is also held on Memorial Day weekend but boasted Foo Fighters, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Maroon 5 as headliners this year.

“In general, high-end bands come for hundreds of thousands of dollars (and) you can expect to draw those people in,” Testa said. “With $2,500 or $25,000 bands, you’re not gonna bring that draw.”

Even the free summer Friday night Concerts in the Park events at Cesar Chavez Plaza are rivaling the Sacramento Music Festival in terms of its popularity among younger music fans, Testa said.

“These things are really good for our economy,” Testa said, mentioning the Sacramento-based Aftershock Festival in October, which generates more than $5 million of local economic impact. “It also brings prestige to Sacramento. It’s cool that we’ve got this wide net cast of music festivals here.”

Bouchard said an official report with final attendance numbers will be complete Monday.

Despite the slight decline, Speciale said that the festival intends to stick with the strategy of focusing on its traditional musical offerings in anticipation for next year’s 45th anniversary.

“It’s kind of a high-water mark,” Speciale said. “I’m going to take a consensus (among society members) of what were our favorite bands of the last 40 years and go from there.”

Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks: 916-321-1418, @ayoonhendricks

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