Too Much Free Music In Lafayette? Depends On Who's Listening

LAFAYETTE, LA (AP) — Free, live music is as much a part of Lafayette as the Cajundome and holiday traffic jams on Ambassador Caffery Parkway.

         Downtown Alive! and Festivals Acadiens et Créoles are among the pioneers that have made music events with no entry fee a Lafayette tradition for more than 40 years.

         But a growing throng of imitators have followed in their footsteps.

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         The free music may have hit a high note in October. The month had at least 21 dates and events in which music lovers could enjoy renowned musicians and not pay a dime.

         Festivals Acadiens featured three days of live music on six stages. When individual acts are considered, the festival provided more than 60 free performances.

         Has the abundance of free music in Lafayette become too much? Depends on who you ask.

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         Some see the free music as a local badge of honor that should be marketed worldwide. Others, like Festivals Acadiens organizer Pat Mould, have started to question the long-term impact on fans, artists and host organizations.

         Mould said a growing number of Festivals Acadiens patrons, armed with tents and ice chests, are not buying beverages, the prime festival money maker.

         He said when patrons were asked in surveys if they'd be willing to pay for admission or to reserve tent space on the festival grounds, most answered with a resounding "no."

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         Mould said a conversation between freebie organizers and fans is long overdue.

         "We've been our own worst enemies in perpetuating the free thing," said Mould. "Quite frankly, a (festival) pin is not a ticket. It's a souvenir of an event to have a remembrance of the great time you had.

         "We have to make the public understand they have a skin in the game."

         Downtown Alive! has been offering its free music series in the spring and fall since 1983. The event was sparked to bring people back to a decaying downtown area, hit hard by the arrival of two shopping malls, big-box stores and a declining oil economy.

         Downtown celebrated free music even more three years later when Festival International de Louisiane emerged as a celebration of French heritage. Drawing an estimated 400,000 people each year, the event now reigns as the largest outdoor, free Francophone event in the United States.

         Two-time Grammy winner Terrance Simien played one of the first DTA! shows and a recent Festival International. Simien said the free music offered at both have had good and bad effects.

         "People thought they were getting something special because they were getting free music," said Simien. "It's sad to see how it's devalued since then. You're just going to have one or two people into the music, where you used to have the whole audience captivated.

         "That and the artist fees are the same. I played the first Festival International and got paid the same this year as I did back then."

         Scott Feehan, president of Festival International, said more money has been allocated to artist fees for three years in a row. But Feehan adds since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, visas for international artists have become more expensive and difficult to obtain.

         IRS Central Withholding Agreements, taxes on non-resident alien entertainers and athletes, along with rising airfares, are also factors.

         "We are no longer able to book a group from overseas and split airfare with a festival in Houston the weekend before, then send them to another festival the weekend after," said Feehan. "It is getting harder and harder to bring in International acts."

         Kate Durio, director of marketing and events for Downtown Lafayette, said the financial struggle has been felt through competition at home. DTA! is actually a fundraiser for Downtown Lafayette, a nonprofit which uses beverage sales to help promote businesses and activities downtown.

         Other outdoor events on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, which have copied the free music model, have cut into DTA's crowds. Tight budgets sparked DTA! to shorten its season.

         Last year, DTA! teamed with Festivals Acadiens and Festival International in a GoFund Me campaign called "I Love Festivals." But the campaign, which is still active, has only raised $1,420, nine percent of its $15,000 goal.

         "We didn't expect it to be a huge revenue generator," said Durio. "But we did want to offer people a way to give more.

         "People think (Lafayette Consolidated Government) does Downtown Alive! and they're entitled because it's the city. The city doesn't put any money toward this event. The city doesn't put a whole lot of energy into it.

         "We've been in cooperation with the city, for a long time, to get permits, security and things like that. But we pay the bands. We buy the beer. We pay the staff that operates it. It's a labor of love and an act of love, but it's also something that we need to keep going."

         Several years ago, music promoter and cultural advocate Todd Mouton started referring to Lafayette as the Free Music Capital of the World.

         Mouton initially meant the title as a slap at the overflow of free music. He also includes numerous jam sessions and club gigs with no entry fee into the mix.

         But Mouton now believes the free music should be promoted as a cultural and tourism asset.

         "Austin started calling itself the Live Music Capital of the World," said Mouton. "Now they are the Live Music Capital of the World because they said they are. So why don't we call ourselves what we are — the free music capital of the world? I don't know if anybody can beat that.

         "It speaks to the staggering amount of free, no-barrier entry, public spaces, easy-to-get-to gigs. For the price of a parking meter downtown, you can see all these different festivals and stuff. I think it's a cool title, it just needs to be promoted with a message of supporting the artists.

         "A lot of time, they say there's something in the water. A lot of our culture is environment and atmosphere, but it's a precious resource. If that would be a way to promote it more, we should use it."

         Like Mouton, Ben Berthelot, president of the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission, believes in waving the free music flag high and proud.

         But he emphasizes that fans must also remember the costs.

         "It's such a positive thing that we have, but we need to remember what it takes to have that," said Berthelot. "That means great sponsors, people going out to attend these events, buying beer and soft drinks and food and not bringing your own ice chests. There's a price that comes with things being free."

         Whether they have compliments or concerns about the free music, all involved agree that money keeps the musicians, events and organizers in business. A variety of solutions have been suggested.

         With more than a million miles of touring, Simien has seen simple steps, like a tip jar passed through crowds, collect $5,000 or more.

         "I think there's enough level-headed people that if you put it out there, we want to keep this festival free, but we need your help," said Simien. "You don't have to sign up for anything. We're passing this bucket around. Put some money in now and do it at every stage."

         Feehan said an increase in donor program participants is vital for Festival International. The event attracts more than 300,000 fans each year, but less than 300 supporters donate $50 or more.

         "We have to raise between 1.1 and 1.5 million dollars every year to put the festival on," said Feehan. "Beverage sales made up 30 percent of our revenue last year.

         "We are also heavily dependent upon the support we receive from our Amis, Pass holders, Rain Angels, Festival Leauxcal (small business) and Corporate Sponsors. We have to work very hard on all angles to put everything together. Without the support from each one of these special groups of supporters, Festival International would not happen."

         Although Festivals Acadiens remains free, Mould has started limiting the use of the word in marketing.

         "In my ad for our Festival Friends program, I put 'Do you part to help keep Festivals Acadiens et Créoles trés cool,' instead of free. I'm trying to use the word 'free' less and less.

         "We created this monster by saying it's free, free, free. But it's not free."

         Durio said constant reminders among friends may have the most lasting effects.

         "Encourage your friends, publicly shame them if you have to. At Downtown Alive!, we don't serve anything in Styrofoam. The minute I see even my good friends with Styrofoam cups, I tell them something. Our Downtown Alive! is only a three-hour event. We're not asking for the whole night.

         "We're just saying while we're open and there's music playing, please give back to that. Make sure DTA! goes on by buying your drinks and stuff there. It's bigger than what you and I could say. It's got to be a tell-a-friend campaign."

         – by AP/ Reporter Herman Fuselier with The Advertiser

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