"Why Can't It Be More Like Jazzfest?" Rick Mitchell Debunks The Top 10 Gripes He's Overheard About Houston's iFest

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A couple of days ago, Houston International Festival Director of Performing Arts Rick Mitchell emailed Rocks Off and asked us if we'd mind reprinting something he wrote for the blog on iFest's Web site. (That's what all the cool kids call it.) We were happy to help, because it was a nice diversion from SXSW, we always like what Rick comes up with for Rocks Off, and to be quite honest, we're fond of iFest - it reminds us a little of SXSW (bringing artists from all over the world), Austin City Limits (spreading them over several stages in close proximity) and neither (that backdrop of the downtown skyline is hard to beat). Mitchell came up with a list of rebuttals to the ten most common complaints he's heard about iFest in his decade or so of working there. Reading them over, it seems like most of them come from people aren't quite clear on how important the festival's educational and cultural components are, or whose expectations are based more on their experiences at other music festivals and not iFest. But he'll get to that. Rick, the floor is yours.

Look, we know it's not for everyone. People who don't like big crowds, or who are sensitive to exposure to the sun (or its alternative, which we don't mention around here), or who prefer to encounter artistic expressions in quiet museums and concert halls might not have that great of a time at our loud, sprawling outdoor festival. But we also hear criticism from people who apparently have formed an opinion without actually attending the festival, at least not recently, or who paid a quick visit and only skimmed the surface of what iFest has to offer. Here is our response to some of these complaints.

1. Why can't it be free like it used to be? If you poll the American public, they will tell you again and again that they want more government services and lower taxes. This is why our government is $12 trillion dollars in debt. As a non-profit educational foundation, we don't work that way. When iFest was free, it was a great street party with plenty of cool stuff to see and listen to. But we did not have the caliber of music headliners or the elaborate Living Museum that we have now. We are now considered one of the premier music and culture festivals in the country. Also, back then, the city was not charging us for services such as police overtime and parks clean-up. Frankly, I suspect this complaint is heard most often from people who could easily afford the low admission charge if they wanted to. But just for the record, we give out hundreds of free passes every year to genuinely disadvantaged people who otherwise could not attend. 2. It's all about selling beer. No, it isn't. We take our multicultural educational mission seriously. True, we stay open until 10 pm on Saturdays and we book acts on our main stages that we hope will draw large crowds of music fans, some of whom may choose to enjoy a beer or two. But you don't have to step over drunks passed out on the grass like you do at many outdoor music festivals and concerts. We pride ourselves on maintaining a family-friendly environment, with a special zone for kids (sponsored by Target), a Living Museum full of educational and cultural exhibits (sponsored by Chevron), family-oriented advance ticket packages and discount tickets for kids. And this is not to mention the Teacher's Curriculum Guide, based on the festival's international theme and distributed free of charge to 1500 area schools. 3. Why can't it be more like Jazzfest? Hey, in some ways, we'd like to be more like Jazzfest, which is in my opinion the best music festival in America. But for that to happen, Houston would have to be more like New Orleans, which ain't gonna happen anytime soon, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. (For one thing, flood water here drains off naturally...) Our music programming holds up pretty well next to Jazzfest. We don't get the pop, rock and R&B superstars, but many of our headliners also headline at Jazzfest, and we present much more world music, and our smaller music stages do for regional Gulf Coast music what Jazzfest has done for New Orleans music. One more thing - if we really were going to become more like Jazzfest, we should have stayed at Reliant Stadium, which has the open spaces and corresponding lack of shade that they have at the racetrack in New Orleans. I seem to recall that everybody was pretty happy when we moved back to downtown's cozier environs in 2005. 4. Why isn't there more jazz? When I first started consulting on the programming for iFest, I thought the same thing. In 2002, we booked David Murray, one of the greatest living jazz saxophonists in the world, and he played to about 100 people, virtually none of which were the same jazz musicians and fans voicing this complaint. If the jazz community won't come out to support jazz, why should they expect anyone else to support it, especially when there is so much else going on at all the other stages? That said, we continue to present jazz when it makes sense. Two years ago, the Cotton Club - which featured local jazz and blues artists paying tribute to the greats of African-American music - was a big hit. Last year, we had South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela, and this year we have the legendary Latin jazz pianist Eddie Palmieri. 5. The food is too expensive. You people need to take this up with the vendors, who set their own prices, with the exception of the festival-run beverage booths. True, some of the food choices aren't cheap. There is no such thing as a free lunch. But I guarantee you that a $10 food allowance at iFest will get you a lot farther than it will at any of our taxpayer-supported sports palaces, and there is much more variety to choose from, including samplings from some of the city's finest ethnic restaurants. 6. There are too many commercial sponsors. Uh, let me remind you. This is not France, where the arts is heavily subsidized by multiple layers of government. This is Houston, Texas, a bastion of free-market capitalism in a free-market capitalist country. We appreciate the support we get from the Houston Arts Alliance and non-profit foundations such as the Houston Endowment. But we also take pride in the fact that this support amounts to only a small fraction of our overall budget, and that corporate sponsors such as Target, Chevron, HEB, Roomstoor and Silver Eagle Distributors feel that it is in their own enlightened self-interest to invest their marketing dollars with us. The financial support we get from these sponsors is what allows us to keep the cover charge so low. 7. There used to be more music. Not really. Last year the festival had 12 stages, all of which featured live music, and six of which were devoted exclusively to music programming. In recent years, we've added a Cultural stage (sponsored by HEB) that mixes quieter music offerings with cooking demonstrations, literary readings and other cultural expressions, and a Houston stage (sponsored by Chron.com) that features top local bands. While budget constraints are an ever-present reality in a business where the weather can be the difference between black and red ink, the only thing that has changed about our programming philosophy is that we are now booking bigger-name headliners on the World Stage in Sam Houston Park. 8. It used to be more international. How so? If anything, iFest is doing a better job than ever at representing the honored nation or region with respect and integrity. Since 2005, the Living Museum in Upper Sam Houston Park has developed into a destination zone within the festival, with its eye-catching array cultural and educational exhibits and demonstrations. We still seek and receive backing from the governments of the honored nation or region, but we also maintain an active outreach program to members of the local community with ties to the honored nation and region, and beyond that, to representatives from all of Houston's multiplicity of international communities. More than any other annual event, iFest celebrates Houston's wonderful international diversity. That has not changed, and it never will. 9. It's just a big street party. Yes, it is. The more people in the street, the more we like it. But iFest is also so much more than that - it is a world music festival contained within the larger circle of an international culture festival. Our audience consists of both hardcore music lovers running from stage to stage to catch as much as possible and moms with kids in strollers looking for some family-friendly diversion on a Sunday afternoon. We do not program to the lowest common denominator. We are an arts organization. But it's this general market mix that has made us successful over the years, and unique to Houston. 10. It's not cool. This would depend on your definition of cool. If cool for you means dancing to a throbbing techno beat in a nightclub at 3 a.m., then right, we are not cool. But if cool for you means presenting non-mainstream art, including music and dance from all over the world that would otherwise never make it to Houston, and doing it in a mainstream, family-friendly context with a low admission charge and kids-free discounts, plus great food and interesting arts and crafts markets, then we are just about the coolest thing in town. Not convinced? Come see for yourself (advance tickets are on sale now at www.ifest.org), and if you still have complaints, let us know after this year's festival. The only thing I ask is that you spend enough time at the festival to really understand what is going on. Follow iFest on Twitter here.

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