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

All photos courtesy of www.ifest.org
Ozomatli: 8 p.m. Saturday, April 17, Bud Light World Music Stage

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.

New Orleans Hustlers Brass Band: 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 18, Louisiana Stage; 6:30 p.m. Sunday, April 18, Chron.com Houston Stage
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.

Janiva Magness: 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 25, Louisiana Stage
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.

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