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The Pied Piper of Words: F-R-E-E

Our Town downtown

June 4, 2007

How a summer music festival charges nothing and rakes in tens of millions

Last July Fourth, I enjoyed one of my first – and one of the few – perks of being a reporter: two tickets to a free Belle and Sebastian show at Battery Park, to which tickets were no longer available.
It’s true that I had decided Belle and Sebastian was too saccharine for my taste, a result of overlistening on my IPod. Still, there had been eyeball scratching for the free first-come, first-served tickets, followed by bitter blog-o-rants by those who had gotten to the give-away points on time to find the tickets already gone, about how “some fans DO hold jobs.” If only because so many other people wanted to go and couldn’t, I felt compelled to take advantage of my otherwise useless press creds. I invited my then-boyfriend and we sat in the taped-off press section, which was sort of far from the stage, but which had plastic chairs and a tent with a free buffet lunch and coolers full of sodas.
As we gobbled down triangular little quesadillas, the sky opened up. After they cleared the park (I think there were concerns about lightning) and then let everyone back in, we hopped over the tape into the non-press section where, if you stood, you could actually see the performers.
Sure, we complained about the rain and about how there was no beer and no place anywhere near the performance to go get beer during the rain interruption, but complaining is what we do – or did (now we don’t talk by orders of his new girlfriend and I complain about that). By the end of the show, I was clapping along and we had no choice but to admit: we had had a picture-perfect summer in the city day, which could be improved upon only by the acquisition of a beer.
Before the encore, the band announced that they’d be heading to a bar in the area called Trinity Place, where the band members would be DJing and hanging out. Well, we needed to drink – Trinity sounded fine to us.
So we beelined it up Broadway, grudgingly paid a $5 per person cover, and had – I’m going to have to estimate – maybe two beers and a whiskey apiece? I remember ogling a bottle of $10 double chocolate stout that turned out to be worth every dollar.
Then we wandered homeward, stopping to watch two young brothers do tricks on their wheeley shoes, pleased with ourselves for having scored a free meal and concert.
Little did we realize, we had paid in kind for our “free” tickets. That’s the idea.
“Once we get them down here, we try to encourage people to shop, to dine, to check out our incredible museums,” says Valerie Lewis, vice president of marketing and communications for the Alliance for Downtown New York, which orchestrates the festival.
“Not everyone is buying flat screen TV’s or Armani suits, but even if they’re patronizing a restaurant or going out for a couple rounds of beers, that’s money spent in Lower Manhattan.”
I’ll admit that I was not particularly jazzed about interviewing anyone with the title of vice president of marketing and communications, but the folks at the Alliance for Downtown New York, Inc. have got the whole thing down to a T, including an aggressive PR guy who kept… on…calling. And then, as usually happens, it turned out that there was a story here, and it wasn’t fluff. It was cold hard cash.
Roughly $35 million was spent last year in Lower Manhattan as a direct result of the festival, according to a survey by the Alliance. (The festival itself costs between $6 and $8 million to put on, depending on the year.) About 75 percent of those dollars are dropped on food and drink, the other 25 percent on shopping. To calculate that number, the Alliance asked festival attendees how much they spent, and how many people were in their party, and multiplied that per-person average by the number of people who attend the festival every year.
The festival, which launched its sixth year the first weekend of June, began as a “sort of a roughshod experiment” to jumpstart the economy post-9/11, but, says Lewis, “we’ve come a million miles since then. We’ve moved from healing the community to trying to revitalize the community with economic development to establishing an arts base here to sort of a nice combination of all three.”
Although Battery Park is overrun by tourists who are sitting ducks for marketers (see: the statues of liberty, the caricaturists, the rice grain name-writers, the fake purses, the I Heart New York T-shirts, the break dancers), this festival is not targeted at them. Last year, over seventy-five percent of festival attendees were from the five boroughs, and only 4.4 percent were international tourists.
“Cause we want to create a lasting impression about Lower Manhattan – a year-round impression,” says Lewis. “I want to bring somebody in from, say, the Bronx, who hasn’t been to Lower Manhattan in over a decade, and say, ‘Wow, I want to come down here,’ or ‘I want to live down here,’ or ‘I want to bring my business down here,’ or ‘I want to shop down here,’ or ‘I want to take kayaking lessons here.’”
Is it a bit slick, a little slimy, to lure music lovers in with the promise of a free show and an eye on their wallets? The hipsters who will take the day off work to queue up for their free tickets to see the New Pornographers on July Fourth might be unsettled to learn that the event was manufactured by a blonde in a gray pants suit from her office in a high-ceilinged office building which you need to present identification to enter.
“I think using arts as an economic development tool is one of the most important things a recovering community can do,” says Lewis. And downtown’s economy, for all it has rebounded, is still struggling. “A lot of people like to say, well it’s five years beyond 9/11, it’s five and a half years beyond – this community still has not fully recovered as far as retail and restaurant patrons.”
Lewis has no qualms about calling the festival “somewhat a PR tool, somewhat a marketing tool.” Music, she points out, has been used in that capacity “all over the country, and it’s been certainly used in New York, if you look at Lincoln Center.” Whatever you call it, there’s no arguing with the numbers: it works.