Jazz fest an artistic success, commercial failure 

Arnold Schwisberg still believes festival has potential to be among the best in the world


For three days, Jazz on the Mountain at Whistler event producer Arnold Schwisberg made the rounds of his music festival, attending events and Master Classes and talking to guests and musicians.

What he heard from jazz fans and musicians is that the JOMAW festival has the potential to rank among the top festivals in the world. That was confirmed for him at all the festival's free events, with crowds between 2,000 and 3,000 at free concerts.

But at the ticketed events at Whistler Olympic Plaza, turnout was crushingly low. Now Schwisberg wonders if the municipality, by providing so many free concerts as part of the Whistler Presents shows, has made it less likely that people will pay to see live music.

"It's pretty obvious that ticket sales were disappointing," said Schwisberg. "They were significantly lower than we expected and what we've determined as a team - and we still have more meetings this week on how to refine the formula going forward - is that up against the overall event strategy of the Resort Municipality of Whistler to offer free concerts at (Whistler Olympic Plaza) it's hard to sell something when people have been getting that thing for free for months."

Schwisberg said the RMOW has to take a hard look at its strategy and whether free concerts were bringing people to the community, because, he said, third party event producers like himself will stop bringing events to town. "I'm not telling tales out of school here," he said. "People think it's worth what they pay. So stop giving it away, please."

Whistler Presents was created to celebrate the opening of the Whistler Olympic Plaza, using the Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) funding granted by the province in lieu of changes to the hotel tax. There are no plans yet to make it into an annual free concert series.

Schwisberg believes that the B.C. Liquor Control and Licensing Branch's (LCLB) decision not to award a general licence to the Whistler Olympic Plaza grounds, one that would allow wine and spirits as well as beer, also had an impact on the festival. He's encouraged about the amount of support he's received, especially since it became a national story with a piece in the Globe and Mail.

"At the end of the day, very few people think that the (LCLB) made the correct decision, and that being said it's great to be right," he says. "At the end of the day it did affect us financially. Significantly. I've lost a great deal of money.

"And although we do plan for the festival to go forward, we do have to reconfigure it on the basis of its economic value, by reason of the (WOP) giving it away for free and for the liquor branch's denial of the licence on the terms of which it was filed."

Schwisberg also thinks that it will be a challenge to build a jazz culture in this region, compared to other festivals that have been running 30 to 50 years. There is no regular radio play for jazz in the region. The huge turnout for the live shows is encouraging, however, and Schwisberg says that will likely convert some people into jazz fans.

"One couple I talked to from Seattle - they looked like the Microsoft millionaire type - said they took the summer off to travel around the world and go to jazz festivals, and both agreed that there were three not to miss - Montreaux, which has been around 50 years; Montreal, which is coming into its 33rd year and Whistler. When I hear that kind of thing I know we've accomplished something remarkable."

Schwisberg also pointed to the success of the Master Class series, where three dozen students got to learn guitar techniques from some of the biggest names in jazz. Schwisberg opened up these sessions to the public, and said that Millennium Place was at least half full for every event. And when the students went on stage to play a concert at Village Square he said there were 2,000 people watching.

"To see so many people connecting with the music that these kids were playing was incredible," he said.

Schwisberg said he will meet with other producers and stakeholders, and should be able to announce in the next 30 to 45 days whether the festival will return. It will also depend on the municipality's approach to free concerts and whether the liquor licencing branch will support their application.

More community support could also help, said Schwisberg.

"(The municipal) strategy affects all event production in Whistler, and I think this community really has to ask municipal staff and elected officials, 'what's going on? What are we trying to achieve here? Is it to host a bunch of free parties or to establish Whistler as a cultural destination on an international scale?'

"You're not going to achieve the latter goal by giving it away for free, the two things are incompatible. So the community can help by asking some tough questions of the municipality."

If the event can cover its costs in the future, Schwisberg is confident that it can grow into the world-class event that musicians and the few who paid for tickets already believe it to be.

Schwisberg ought to know. The Toronto-based lawyer, jazz enthusiast and jazz record producer was part of the team that started the successful Montreal and Toronto jazz festivals.

"For a first-year event to have a profile like this with these production values, and the quality of the organization and just superlative programming, it's incredible. I've spoken to all of the musicians, and they believe that this festival is already among the top five it the world."



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