Loss Leader

           "Oh, man, what have I got myself into?" It's a question every promoter asks at some point, and Danny Alexander, founder of this weekend's Mill City Music Festival, says he posed it to himself this past February. Faced with nearly $1 million in talent fees, a good chunk of it due before the start of the festival, Alexander asked for help and found a 50/50 business partner in Triad Entertainment, the Eden Prairie-based agency that handles music bookings at the Fine Line, Cabooze, and Guthrie Theatre. With a total operating budget of $1.7 million, Mill City is about seven times the size of the Minnesota Heritage Festival, a celebration of 19th century Minnesota that Alexander produces on Nicolett Island over the Fourth of July weekend each year.

           The lineup Triad and Alexander have pulled together for Mill City is ambitious (48 national and 77 local acts representing all kinds of music), audacious (it's being staged during the final weekend of that economic steamroller known as the Minnesota State Fair), and for now, unfortunately, an almost guaranteed money loser. Whether Mill City goes the eventual way of New Orleans's two-week Jazz and Heritage Festival (as its organizers hope) or folds after a few years like Riverfest, may be determined by more than good luck, good weather, or even good intentions.

           Though Triad president Sue McLean says Mill City is modeled after Jazz Fest and Seattle's Bumbershoot, it's closer in spirit to Denver's LoDo Festival, a street party designed to help keep that city's lower downtown alive; in Minneapolis, Alexander says he wanted to promote an event that would keep the Warehouse District from becoming a ghost town over Labor Day weekend. To try and accomplish this, Mill City will offer music on three free outdoor stages and four paid stages covered by tents along First Avenue North between Washington and Seventh Streets. The strong emphasis on local acts, says McLean, is meant to echo Jazz Fest's celebration of hometown talent, which in Mill City's case means everything from pop stars (Soul Asylum) and hardy club veterans (Slim Dunlap, a reunited Suicide Commandos) to gospel greats (Sounds of Blackness) and cheese-curd-level kitsch (the Dakota Valley Chamber Orchestra and Laser Show, apparently known for their wicked versions of Andrew Lloyd Webber show tunes).

           Of course, it was the Allman Brothers, not Louisiana's Mamou Playboys, who drew 65,000 fans at this year's Jazz Fest. Similarly, most of Mill City's big-money draws are from out-of-town: B.B. King, George Benson, Diamond Rio, the Nevilles, and the Village People, armed with a laser show at least the equal of the DVC Orchestra's. In the same way that Jazz Fest is most distinctive for presenting performers on the musical margins, Mill City's biggest treats should be lesser-known artists such as Tejano singer Tish Hinojosa, Afro-pop star Tabu Ley Rouchereau, and Latin jazz masters Eddie Palmiero and Ray Barretto (see Music Notes, below).

           On almost any summer weekend, Mill City's 125-act lineup would probably guarantee large crowds. But factor in that it's a holiday weekend--when locals leave town and visitors head straight to the Fair--and the proposition's iffier. At $25 for a daily ticket or $60 for a three-day pass, Alexander says that he expects to draw 25,000 paid customers each day and an equal number of people checking out the free stages and the 28 food vendors. McLean, who has twenty years of local booking experience, offers a more conservative estimate: 10,000 paid attendees and 10,000 budget-minded music fans each day. She's convinced that most of the tickets will sell once the festival begins, which is why she hasn't kept track of advance ticket sales: "I haven't been checking them on purpose," she admits, "so I don't know."

           Alexander predicts that 90 percent of this year's festival attendees will come from the seven-county metro area, and insists he's not worried by competition from the State Fair. "It would be different," he suggests, "if the two events were a mile apart." But compare the above figures to the Fair's Goliath-size numbers. Last year, it drew 1.6 million people over its 12-day run, and attracted 225,000 on its second Saturday, which coincides this year with the first day of Mill City. State Fair spokeswoman Susan Ritt says that the second Saturday of 1995 was the Fair's biggest day ever, and claims to be unfazed by Mill City as an upstart competitor: "It's more curious to us that they chose the same weekend," she says. "If you're planning to go to the Fair, I don't think you're going to skip it to go to a music festival." Though her tone is nonchalant, Ritt doesn't hesitate to add that the fair offers cheap admission ($5), features plenty of free music (60 performances each day on 6 stages), and has some under-$25-a-ticket grandstanders of its own, including Bill Cosby on Saturday and Trisha Yearwood and Randy Travis on Sunday.

           Gary Bongiovanni, the editor of the national concert-industry newsletter Pollstar, says events like Mill City have been successful in cities eager to support downtown revitalization. But the head-to-head competition with the State Fair surprises him: "I've been there [Minneapolis-St. Paul], and the two places are not that far apart. I would have thought that the timing could have been better, especially for a first-year festival." He notes that in Fresno, California, where Pollstar is based, "It's almost suicidal to book anything against the State Fair."

           Of course, Minneapolis isn't a frozen Fresno; it's closer in size to Seattle, a city of more than two million that has long staged a Labor Day weekend arts festival. Now in its 26th year, Seattle's Bumbershoot has grown into a four-day blowout of film, theater, dance, comedy, readings, and visual arts. But according to Bumbershoot spokeswoman Terri Hiroshima, music still represents 70 percent of its attractions. This year, Bumbershoot's 15 stages offer over 500 acts, from Ani DiFranco, Vic Chestnutt, and the Mekons to Marva Wright, Trilok Gurtu, and Sir Mix-A-Lot. Because the event is housed at the Seattle Center, a city-owned, 74-acre site built for the 1962 World's Fair, it practically begs to be staged on a grand scale. Hiroshima wouldn't comment on Bumbershoot's budget, but a journalist who's followed the Seattle arts scene for years says generous city subsidies have kept Bumbershoot going through hard economic times and kept ticket prices incredibly low: this year, they're $9 per day in advance, $29 for a four-day pass.

           Based on those prices and Hiroshima's estimate of 200,000 total attendance for this year's event, ticket revenues from the quarter-century-old Bumbershoot would just about cover Mill City's 1996 expenses. Alexander, who says the Minneapolis City Council and Mayor have been supportive in approving festival permits, isn't receiving any operating subsidies. In fact, Mill City will contribute 10 percent of its gross revenues to the newly formed Warehouse Business District Association. If revenues match Mill City's $1.7 million operating budget, the fest will cost a total of $1.87 million to produce. To break even from admission sales, Mill City will have to meet Alexander's prediction of 75,000 paid festival-goers; using McLean's more pessimistic estimates, Mill City could lose a bundle of money.

           No matter. Speaking more than a week before its start, McLean says Triad co-owner Bob Doerr is committed to staging Mill City for at least one more year. Alexander also says he's in for the long-term. For proof, he points to his $250,000 budget Heritage Festival, a free-admission event that has yet to break even after four years. The 44-year old Alexander, who owned a print shop in the Warehouse District from the late '60s to early '90s, says he's certain Mill City will become a perennial favorite. How will it do in its first year? "Tell me what the weather's going to be," he replies, joking.

           But the weather, which generally is pretty good over Labor Day, may be the least of Alexander's worries: Even if the Fair has no effect on attendance, Mill City's half-free and half-paid format means it's competing with itself for ticket sales. "That may be the case," Alexander admits. "We'll have to look at it after the first year." What's more, the festival partners are paying downtown businesses for the privilege of hosting a party more likely to benefit the Warehouse District than its organizers. As it stands, the Mill City Music Festival in its first year is a good idea that needs to buck long odds.

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