The sudden announcement that Pepsi Jammin' On Main won't happen this spring wasn't a surprise, but it still hurts.
Citing "hard times" due to rising talent fees, a reduction in sponsorship revenue and bad weather, Music and Events Management announced Jan. 18 that it's cancelled the 2005 music festival, which would have returned to Main Street downtown in May. The organization's CEO, Mike Smith, positions the shutdown as possibly just a hiatus but won't guarantee the event's return.
After 11 years, Jammin' On Main had become something of a milepost on Cincinnati's entertainment calendar. It was the unofficial start to summer, one of the first opportunities to get outside in short sleeves and hang out with crowds of people.
But the festival got knicked up here and there by unfortunate circumstances (the Seven Mary Three incident in 1996 and the post-riots cancellation in 2001), occasional lackluster lineups and some crappy weather, especially the last two years. If the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra hadn't stepped in after the 2001 mess and created Music and Events Management to run Jammin' On Main as well as other events, Jammin' wouldn't have made it this far.
But since the savior organization is a nonprofit with its own money woes and since the event management sidelight is supposed to provide a revenue boost, not a revenue drain, the Symphony decided to pull out now and see where the music festival game goes from here. It's a rough game even for grizzled veterans, according to Smith.
"The talent fees keep going up and the sponsorship revenue keeps going down, so the margins keep shrinking," he says. "There were a lot of people who said we should raise our ticket price to keep up, but we didn't want to.
We felt we filled the niche of a low-cost music event."
With the slim margins, Smith says, there wasn't much wiggle room for bad weather to cut down ticket sales, but that's what happened more often than not. He tried to outguess Mother Nature last year, moving Jammin' back from the traditional first weekend in May to the second — and wouldn't you know it, May 7-8 was gorgeous and May 14-15, the new Jammin' weekend, wasn't.
Still, last year's lineup was packed with must-see acts, from the Grammy Award heavyweights Los Lonely Boys to Jamie Cullum, Switchfoot and Melissa Auf Der Maur. Plus there were the familiar names like Blondie and REO Speedwagon and plenty of good local musicians.
That was the booking formula that people both loved and hated about Jammin' On Main. If you paid attention, for a $15 ticket (or less in the early years) you could have seen Jack Johnson, John Mayer, the Harlem Gospel Choir, Gomez, Ben Folds, Bela Fleck & Flecktones and lots more non-mainstream musical acts. Plus the top names in local original Rock, Folk, Blues and more.
On the other hand, cutting-edge music fans often turned up their noses at the headline acts like Journey, Joan Jett, Dennis DeYoung of Styx and Cheap Trick, who clearly were on the schedule to attract a more conservative crowd. It was almost like Jammin' didn't know if it wanted to be a Party in the Park or a South By Southwest — so it decided to be a little of both and ended up a lot of neither.
In the wake of this decision to cancel, Jammin' opens itself up to all those same criticisms again, and more. In a festival-mad city like Cincinnnati, why couldn't Jammin' leaders attract sizable enough crowds? Why couldn't they convince local and national cormpanies to buy enough sponsorships? Why did they tie themselves in with only one radio station, WEBN, which didn't play the non-mainstream music featured at Jammin'? Would a different organization other than the financially-strapped Symphony been better able to support Jammin' through the lean years?
And there will be those who see the cancellation as another indictment of downtown, another positive thing the city has chased away. Smith says people will believe what they want to believe, but he won't place blame on anyone.
"Listen, popular music acts have more places to play today in Cincinnati and other cities than ever before," he says. "There are more clubs and outdoor concert venues and festivals than ever, so they have more options. And so they charge more money because they can get away with it. And that left us with expense numbers that just didn't make sense."
Smith and his company face similar concerns with their other big event, Tall Stacks, which returns in October 2006 as a music and arts festival. But he reports that sponsorship interest is high for Tall Stacks and that he's optimistic about its success.
Smith wouldn't say if he thought Tall Stacks could eventually expand to an annual event and sort of fill the gap left by Jammin', but he's not discounting the idea either. Nor is he shutting the door on a different kind of Jammin' re-emerging in the future.
"Lollapalooza went gangbusters for its first few years and then hit a wall and took some time off," he says. "Then it came back and seemed to be as successful as before. Maybe Jammin' On Main can do the same thing."
Maybe Clear Channel Entertainment, which booked the Jammin' bands and hosts similar festivals in other cities, will take a shot at a music festival. Maybe an innovative grassroots organization will. Maybe you will.