It’s right around now – the beginning of August – that we typically dive into planning the next TD Toronto Jazz Festival. And although there may be nothing “typical” about Festival planning this year, it is time to set our sights on next June – the pitches from agents are already coming in.
One of our first items of Festival planning business is always to secure venues for potential ticketed shows. While our free shows are focussed in Yorkville, for ticketed shows we aim to choose the right venue for each act, regardless of geography: the right capacity, the right vibe, seated or standing, etc. Assessing a venue’s availability is a relatively straightforward process…but finding venues that are actually available is much more complicated.
We are lucky in Toronto to have fantastic venues which can fit almost any style of show, for audiences of less than 100 to more than 3500. We’re also lucky in Toronto to have an incredibly busy cultural calendar – we can usually see and hear almost any style of music we want, almost any night of the week. But a byproduct of a busy cultural calendar is that our first-choice venues are often booked well in advance. It’s not unusual, when we start making inquiries in August for the following June, to be told that, if the venue is available, we’re third of fourth hold on our requested dates.
What does that mean, exactly? Essentially: if we’re fourth hold, there are already three other promoters who have requested the same date – which means they have a show they might want to present that night. Actually booking a date means initiating a “challenge” process, through which each of the other presenters in front of us has 24 or 48 hours (depending on the venue) to either confirm their intention to use the date (and then pay a deposit) or release their hold. And if those three presenters all pass, then the venue is ours – which means we must be 100% committed to using the date. This can truly bog down our booking process – we can only challenge holds on a venue when an artist has indicated their intention to accept our offer; and we can only confirm with the artist once the venue holds have cleared. It has happened that, through the “challenge” process, one of the other presenters confirms, and we’ve been left without our first choice venue for the show. Finding a replacement can be tricky – each venue is slightly different, and a show that would work in a 500 capacity room may simply not work in a 400 capacity room (with capacity being only one of many possible variables).
I look on with envy at some of my colleagues in other markets who are able to much more easily secure venues well in advance for their Festivals – in Rochester, for example, the team regularly books no less than ten different indoor venues, of varying sizes, for all nine nights of their Festival. I can’t imagine finding ten different venues in Toronto available for all ten nights of our Festival – in fact, looking at the booking grid from last year, there were barely ten different venues available for three nights of our Festival! However – I’d much rather see our local venues fully booked. As we know based on current realities, the alternative is scary.
You may have noticed that, although we are firmly in Stage 3 of Ontario’s re-opening plan, many of your favourite concert venues are not yet open. With attendance restrictions in place, they are doing some of the same math we do when determining which venue to book: if a concert needs to sell 400 tickets to break even (or even make a few dollars), what is the point of even trying if only 50 tickets can be sold? Smaller venues are facing similar challenges: the maximum attendance is 50, but physical distancing must be maintained – so a venue that would be nicely full with 50 people in the room can likely only safely accommodate 15-20 people at the moment…and, when a venue needs to maximize ticket sales, as well as food and beverage sales, that math doesn’t add up. All that to say: as soon as these venues open up, please find a way to support them – quickly, often, and as generously as possible.
Ultimately, I’m not complaining – finding the right available venue is all part of the fun. And as I say above, I’m glad that Toronto is usually busy enough to keep these venues fully booked (and their respective teams fully employed). Securing the right venue for the right act is just one of the challenges we face each year – as we move along the planning process, I figured I would occasionally shed some light on some of the behind-the-scenes dealings we go through each year as the Festival comes together.
Do you have any questions about Festival planning? Let me know – perhaps I’ll be able to answer them in an upcoming post.