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The first-ever Blue Note Jazz Festival in Napa was announced Thursday, and two things happened: my eyes widened at the incredible lineup, and then my brain fell out at the ticket price.
The two-day festival on July 30 and 31 hosts so many all-stars that to list just half is like a first draft for a Jazz and Hip-Hop Hall of Fame. It’s got resident artist Robert Glasper, Maxwell, Erykah Badu, Yasiin Bey & Talib Kweli as Black Star, Thundercat, Anderson .Paak, Flying Lotus, the Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA, Christian Scott, Pharaohe Monch, Ledisi, Terrace Martin, BJ the Chicago Kid and plenty more, including DJ Jazzy Jeff, all playing solo or in different configurations.
Did I mention Dave Chappelle is hosting?
Here’s the thing: Tickets for this festival are $385 each. In line with nationwide trends in festival ticket pricing, that’s three hundred and eighty-five dollars for one two-day, general-admission ticket, and that’s before “convenience” fees, which have soared astronomically in recent years.
For reference, the last time I bought tickets from Ticketmaster, to see Paul McCartney, my charges included a 23% service fee, a 5% facility charge, and a 3% order processing fee. Our $189.50 tickets suddenly became $250 tickets. (Because my daughter saves ticket stubs, I also willfully opted to pay an extra $10 to send them in the mail at a time when first-class postage costs 58¢).
If equal percentages get charged on top of this Napa festival’s face value of $385, you’re looking at possibly paying $504.35 per ticket to the Blue Note Jazz Festival at Charles Krug Winery, to sip Cabernet Sauvignon while watching Black Star do “Redefinition” among the vineyards, in the upscale, chi-chi confines of Napa Valley.
Is this really what we are doing, people?
If the answer’s yes—if you’ve been in this festival-pricing dilemma before, either with Outside Lands (more expensive than the Blue Note festival) or Coachella (much more expensive than the Blue Note festival)—then you’re probably used to “festival math.” You’ve already added up the acts you want to see, calculated roughly how much it would cost to catch each playing separately, in a club, theater or arena, added up all those costs, and realized: hey, even at $385, that’s a lot of bang for my buck to see so many of my favorites in one weekend.
Add the cruel reality that artists’ album royalties have evaporated in order to make Spotify CEO Daniel Ek a multibillionaire who invests in defense technology, or the historic exploitation of Black musicians in America which substantial festival guarantees can help repair, or the possibility that you’ve just gotten a huge tax return (just kidding, you probably didn’t—thanks, Paul Ryan!), or just that you haven’t taken your loved one out on a nice weekend getaway for the past two years, you start to say to yourself, “You know what? Why not? Let’s do it up.”
Not everyone is in that position, though, and certainly not your average rap fan, and certainly not the surge of younger people getting into jazz thanks to some of the very acts on this bill. Unless they were born into privilege or have a trust fund, they definitely wouldn’t throw down for VIP tickets ($850), or VIP parking (an additional $150). Having lived in Sonoma County my whole life, and for decades covered the region’s wine country-branded lifestyle experiences thinly veiled as music festivals, I can tell you that weekend hotel and Airbnb rates are excessively high for these weekends, and concessions at festivals up here ain’t exactly $6 ballgame hot dogs, either.
(It’s worthy to note that there is a free shuttle to this festival, but from an as-yet-determined parking area with an as-yet-determined parking fee, while Coachella shuttles are $75–$84. And technically, public transportation to the festival exists, sort of, in the form of the Napa Valley Wine Train, which changed ownership several years ago after kicking 10 Black women off the train mid-excursion for “laughing while Black.”)
If I sound like a hater, let me remind you: I hereby place my hand on a stack of Blue Note LPs and vow under oath that this festival has an incredible, historic lineup. But I’ll also remind you that the Blue Note Entertainment Group is not associated at all with the famed jazz label Blue Note Records, and books rock, smooth jazz, funk, fusion and folk acts at its seven Blue Note venues and other clubs and theaters around the world, aided in part by sponsorships with corporate giants Intel, Seagram and Sony.
And look, I accept there’s no going back to the days of events like the Harlem Cultural Festival, made famous by the Oscar-wining documentary Summer of Soul, where daily admission was completely free. (Unless you’re talking about an anomaly like the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, which is paid for by a finance-sector billionaire’s estate). The problems inherent with today’s festival prices are not unique to the Blue Note Jazz Festival. And I firmly believe that music is a source of joy like no other, and musicians who create that joy should be paid.
But with festival ticket prices already out of reach for so many, especially in the communities from which jazz and hip-hop grew, and with bot-enabled instant ticket scalping an epidemic not only rampant but encouraged and systemically enabled in 2022, I have to wonder: should joy really be for sale to the highest bidder?