Music News & Reviews

Sacramento Music Festival drew bigger crowd this year, organizers say

Aretha Collins of New Mexico, left, dances with Nellie Pierce of Sacramento during the annual Sacramento Music Festival in Old Sacramento on Saturday.
Aretha Collins of New Mexico, left, dances with Nellie Pierce of Sacramento during the annual Sacramento Music Festival in Old Sacramento on Saturday. rbenton@sacbee.com

The Sacramento Music Festival and the inaugural First Festival both reported strong attendance on Memorial Day weekend – suggesting there are enough fans to go around.

In Old Sacramento, the four-day Sacramento Music Festival sold about 25,000 tickets, said Mike Testa, chief operating officer with the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau, which provided booking and advertising services. He said he expects the 42-year-old festival to post a profit.

Across the river in West Sacramento, the newly minted First Festival performed well enough on Saturday to come back next year. Organizers had said they needed to sell 1,000 tickets to break even but sold 2,300.

Friday’s Sacramento Music Festival headliner, the Bay Area’s Tower of Power, sold out its performance at the 3,500-person Turntable on the Green venue. The Latin-tinged San Francisco rock band MALO sold out its performance on Sunday at the Firehouse lot venue, which holds roughly 1,500.

The other headliner, 1990s alternative rock band Everclear, did not draw well, Testa said.

While walk-up ticket business remained flat throughout the festival, pre-sales of tickets were strong this year, he said. Vendors said they saw good foot traffic this year.

“This was our third highest year, sales-wise,” said Susan Barnhart, owner of the What’s Popping popcorn business, which operated on Front Street during the festival. Barnhart has been selling popcorn items at the festival for 14 years and credits the balmy weather as a factor in the weekend’s brisk business.

The Sacramento Music Festival increased its revenue stream this year by raising ticket prices and operating without a paid staff, Testa said. Last year, ticket prices were $45 for one day and $110 for a four-day pass. This year, prices were raised to $55 for a one-day pass and $125 for a four-day pass.

The Music Festival is the most recent incarnation of the former Sacramento Jazz Festival and Jubilee. The festival changed its name several years ago in an effort to move the focus away from its traditional Dixieland and jazz origins in order to draw a broader audience.

The idea was to retain some trademark jazz offerings while expanding wide-ranging music offerings that include reggae, rock, country and American roots music. The shift followed a steady slide in attendance since 2002, when revenue was $2.7 million. The festival made a $42,000 profit in 2014, but that didn’t stop organizers from issuing a desperate plea for funds last summer to cover unpaid expenses.

This year, strong hotel occupancy suggests that the rebranding effort may be succeeding. The downtown Holiday Inn and the Embassy Suites sold out the three days of the festival, said Testa.

The 125-room Marriott Courtyard and the 75-room Fairfield Inn hotels at Cal Expo also did brisk business, said Doug Warren, general manager of both hotels. Both hotels sold out Saturday and Sunday. Warren cited the music festival as the reason for the sellouts.

“This was first year that the music fest actually impacted us and sold us out,” said Warren.

He said the weekend’s strong sales at his hotels bring to mind the days when the festival drew large crowds in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “I can remember when the festival was a blackout weekend where the impact was huge, but after around 2003 that really started to wane,” Warren said.

Organizers of the fledgling First Festival in West Sacramento said they were pleased with the reception they received Saturday. The one-day festival, which focused on local talent, was conceived by co-founders Danielle Vincent and Ashley Rastad.

On Saturday, 18 artists performed. Tickets sold for $15 ahead of time and $20 at the door. Vincent said First Festival will turn a tiny profit.

She plans to hold another festival in 2016, but said she will avoid scheduling it on the same day as the much larger Sacramento Music Festival.

“I definitely think we would have seen a significant jump in our attendance if it were not done on the same weekend,” Vincent said.

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