Sacramento Music Festival canceled after 44 years

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.

After 44 years, the final note has been played for the Sacramento Music Festival.

The Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society announced the annual jubilee’s cancellation in a Facebook post Monday morning, ending years of speculation about its economic viability amid falling turnout.

Previously known as the Old Sacramento Dixieland Jazz Jubilee, the festival had been held in Old Sacramento each Memorial Day weekend since 1974.

At its peak in the mid-1980s, the festival drew more than 85,000 people and included performers in Old Sacramento, Cal Expo and other locations around the city. Festival attendance steadily declined since 2002, and the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society’s efforts to broaden the festival’s appeal and drum up community support achieved mixed results.

Organizers changed the festival’s name in 2011 to encompass other musical genres that had been added to the event over the years, including rock, country, blues and other styles. Recent iterations of the festival featured crowd-pleasing acts such as Collective Soul, Los Lobos and Tower of Power, but the event and its organizer struggled to maintain a sturdy financial footing.

The Society in 2014 issued an emergency plea to members and volunteers to donate money, stating it had an $80,000 shortfall in its yearly operating budget. The organization’s requests for financial support raised $60,000 from community members. Still, the group was forced to lay off staffers.

At the time, Visit Sacramento CEO Mike Testa, who then was vice president of the City Convention and Visitors Bureau, said festival organizers hadn’t provided adequate answers about what caused the deficit. The convention bureau had helped market the Sacramento Music Festival, and Testa said the 2014 event turned a $42,000 profit.

According to tax records, the festival in 2002 brought in $2.7 million, but by 2010, revenue had dropped to $1.3 million. In 2012, the festival brought in $681,954. In 2015, the last year for which the organization’s tax records are posted, it earned $425,131.

The Society shifted gears again for its 2017 event, ditching its more mainstream music approach and going back to its jazz roots. The move came after a survey of 1,500 attendees from the 2016 festival that provided insights about listening habits at the event. The results: 1,450 fewer people came out this year than in 2016, when 22,000 people attended.

“Really, this last festival, we were hoping for a better turnout,” said Lyle Van Horn, who has served on the Society’s board of directors for 31 years. “With everything that was going on, and the competition during Memorial Day weekend, we decided we couldn’t sustain the festival at the level of what we had, and what people had grown accustomed to.”

The Old Sacramento Dixieland Jazz Jubilee (later called the Sacramento Jazz Festival and Jubilee) used to be the only game in town for Sacramentans who wanted to celebrate the beginning of summer with music, Van Horn said.

But as time went on, other Memorial Day festivals such as BottleRock in Napa popped up and poached younger concertgoers, even as the Sacramento Music Festival was booking contemporary artists such as Mat Kearney and Trombone Shorty. When people did show up for a hot headliner, Van Horn said, they didn’t come early to see other bands and spend money at concession stands.

“We weren’t in the mainstream focus of the younger crowd, and we needed to try to get out to where they would pay more attention to us,” Van Horn said. “We just didn’t attract that first-time festivalgoer like we would expect to.”

Other traditional music organizations have struggled in Sacramento in recent years. The Sacramento Philharmonic and The Sacramento Opera both were on the verge of closure before merging in 2013, and were forced to cancel their fall seasons the following year after their combined budget shrunk to a fraction of its heyday mark.

Jaycob Bytel, acting communications director for Mayor Darrell Steinberg, said Sacramento would miss the jubilee but was fortunate to have other artistic showcases.

“The mayor is saddened to see this festival close down, but doesn’t think it’s a referendum on the region’s love and desire and commitment to more culture,” Bytel said. “There are high times and low times, and, unfortunately, years of diminishing attendance made it too difficult for the festival to continue.”

The Sacramento Music Festival had been selling advance tickets for its 2018 event. Van Horn said that those who have purchased tickets may get a refund, but that could depend on the organization’s debts and other outstanding financial commitments.

Benjy Egel: 916-321-1052, @BenjyEgel