The Largest Free Music festival in the U.S. - French Quarter Fest!
What follows is a fun interview with Marci Schramm, Executive Director of French Quarter Festivals, Inc., and story about her flagship festival that I wrote last year for our magazine. Now’s the time to start thinking about the party because this year’s Fest is only 2 weeks away! First, I want to let you know about Opening Night Gala, what’s new for this year, and some general information for this year:
The Opening Night Gala takes place Thursday, April 9th, 2015 at Antoine’s, America’s oldest single family owned restaurant. The Gala, featuring dinner, drinks, and dancing, is 8 – 10:30 p.m. with a Patron Party at 7. John Rankin performs at the Patron Party and Charmaine Neville & Special Guests entertain the Gala. Guests will enjoy tastings by Antoine's and other festival favorites, and open bar courtesy of Abita Brewing Company and Republic Beverages. Tickets are available at online or by calling 504-522-5730.
The tradition grows in 2015, with Live Local Music across 23 stages and an expanded footprint. The new Spanish Plaza stage sponsored by The Outlet Collection at Riverwalk and Harrah’s New Orleans will take the music across Canal Street with three days of programming. The new Omni Royal Orleans stage located at 500 Royal St. will bring more traditional jazz to the street with performances on Saturday and Sunday.
What – The French Quarter Festival presented by Chevron
When – April 9 – 12, 2015
Where – The French Quarter, NOLA
Info & Tix – Admission is free. There are many things going on so check out Web Site for more information.
~ HINT: go to the Mint to have a seat, relax, and enjoy some a/c in the very cool third floor space for lectures and films.
Louisiana hosts over 400 festivals each year, most of which feature music that is either indigenous to or can be found only in the Bayou State. While there is that fun, yet weird, city in a state to our west that purports to be the “Live Music Capital of the World”, I submit for your consideration that it is time for Louisiana to claim its rightful place as “The State of Live Music”!
French Quarter Festivals, Inc. (FQFI) is an organization that makes a strong contribution to this very cause. They produce the Satchmo Summerfest in August, Christmas New Orleans Style in December and one awe-inspiring event each April, the French Quarter Festival.
Marci Schramm is the Executive Director of French Quarter Festivals, Inc. She may not be known to most people, but what she does is familiar to almost everyone who loves Louisiana music. Originally from Detroit, she wanted to study Shakespeare when she went to college. However, as Fathers tend to do, hers suggested matriculation in something more practical like business. “I got my first job at Union Carbide Corporation, which was a great job, but I felt like it was sucking the soul out of my body.”
Marci’s heart was still with the arts and soon she landed a job with a group that lobbied the state of Michigan for government support of art organizations. This led to marketing and P. R. positions with opera companies from Detroit to San Francisco to New Orleans. While not a singer, “I can’t sing to save my life,” she has always been passionate about it. “I love it. I feel I was always a very, very good Marketing Director because I believe in it so much and I have the ability to look at what would make someone who has had no exposure want to come.”
Enter the good man behind every successful woman: Marci’s husband is from New Orleans and was – understandably – not having a great time in Detroit; they decided to return to the City That Care Forgot. Marci took the reins at FQFI in 2008 and has been guiding festivals in the right directions ever since.
The French Quarter Fest traces its roots back thirty years, “Mayor Dutch Morial had the brilliant idea to throw a big party to get the locals to come back; because the year of the ’84 World’s Fair, the streets and sidewalks were so torn up local weren’t coming and businesses were suffering.” It was only meant to be a one year event, “French Quarter Festival was an excuse to draw people back after all the construction.”
The event was successful enough that the party continued annually and a non-profit was born to produce it. Marci describe the FQFI mission simply, “to keep this neighborhood healthy.” Elaborating, “What we do is we produce massive, very high quality, community events free and open to the public, and by producing these events thousands of people come to this neighborhood. They spend their money, they eat in the restaurants, they drink; there is this boom of economic impact.” French Quarter Fest is second to only Mardi Gras in terms of the city’s economic impact.
For the hundreds of thousands who attend each year, Marci sheds some light on the organization behind the scenes, “We are a non-profit 501(c)(3). We are an arts organization, and we are non-profit in every sense of the word. Almost every penny we make goes back into producing the festival.” Not surprisingly, the hardest part of free festivals is paying for them. Marci explains the four ways this happens for them, “Number one, our sponsors are amazing.” They support because they believe in the organization’s mission, many appreciate the family-friendliness of the Fest, and, naturally, they appreciate the opportunity to impact half a million people. Interestingly, studies indicate that the crowd is almost 50/50 locals and visitors. “Second is probably beverage sales, beer pays a lot of the bills for us.” In addition to Abita being a sponsor, the fest keeps proceeds from alcohol sales. The third way is merchandise sales and the final revenue avenue is booth fees paid by participating vendors.
What does it take to be a participant in this amazing event? Musically, it is not like they are hurting for talent. This year, 700 bands applied to play the 270 available slots. On 21 of the 22 stages, you can only perform if you are a band from Louisiana. On the remaining international stage, you must be a traditional jazz performer.
When it comes to cooking for “The World’s Largest Jazz Brunch”, Marci says the criteria to be one of the 65 vendors is much different than other festivals, “The first rule is you have to be a sit-down restaurant... and priority is always given to French Quarter restaurants.” Like on the music side, “The waiting list to get in is enormous.” She did acknowledge that exceptions have been made for unique and culinarily significant businesses like one specializing in meat pies from Natchitoches and those who have been “grandfathered” in.
Thinking about expanding the event for the future, the logistics involved to go more than the current long 4-day weekend or the more popular request of two separate weekends are not going to be determined in the near future. However, an option to expand the area of the event, possibly to Armstrong Park to include more music, activities, and perhaps even a food truck row is on the drawing board. Marci does excitedly point out that the possibility of expanding Satchmo Summerfest is a very real possibility, “Satchmo needs to grow… That’s really my big project, to look at the August festival and turn it into the next French Quarter Festival in August.” Talking about this, Marci can hardly contain her passion, “I really believe that Satchmo Summerfest has the potential to be a huge, huge, huge national and international tourism draw.
Schramm loves the sense of community generated by producing this event all around one neighborhood, “This organization is so rooted in the community, we probably touch every single person and business in the French Quarter... People enjoy it and feel like they own the festival.” However, she acknowledges the dirty side of the Fest as well, “The most challenging thing is the unbelievable expenses… It takes a lot of $4 beers to pay for $80,000 of sanitation costs.”
As I was leaving, Marci wanted to add one more thing, “We love producing this festival, and it’s an honor to do it, but I think sometimes people don’t realize the way we keep it free is that when people come to the festival and they support the beverage sales or buy some merchandise; that’s crucial for us to keep it the high quality event that it is and to pay the bills.” What I come away with from this chat with Ms. Schramm is, not, perhaps what I expected, but just maybe what kind of person it takes, along with her talented staff, to perform the Herculean task of organizing the largest free music festival in America which supports over 1,400 musicians, entertains 500,000 guests, and generates an economic impact of $245 million in our community and state.