Council discusses festival’s budget, free admission

Zach Baker, the talent buyer for the Foothills Festival, said $65,000 was the right amount of budget for the type of festival Jasper mounts, while council members also discussed the reasons for having a free festival. Baker spoke last week to the Jasper City Council during a work session, after the council heard he wanted to increase the talent budget from about $45,000 to about $65,000, the latter figure now apparently being adhered to. The festival is scheduled to take place again in downtown Jasper on Sept. 7-8. A 1993 Walker High graduate, Baker is a sales consultant for the Daily Mountain Eagle. Baker has been a touring musician for more than 25 years, living in Austin, Texas, and Nashville, Tenn. He toured the country in bands such as Ultrasonic, Vallejo and Love at War. Baker later started a booking agency and has been an agent for 17 years, where he represented music legend Leon Russell for 10 years. He moved back to Jasper in 2013. The festival features free outdoor concerts that are attended by thousands of people. The Eagle is listed as a sponsor of the event, which last year featured artists such as John Paul White, formerly of The Civil Wars, and Spin Doctors. Baker told the council that in 2016 the event drew 32,000 people in two days. He said the city could probably not facilitate a larger crowd than the one in 2016, although the attendance might have been down to roughly 20,000 in 2017. The SteelDrivers, a bluegrass band which took home a Grammy Award in 2016, have already been booked to be the Friday headliners at this year’s festival, which will be the sixth edition, he said. Two weeks earlier in Birmingham, he said 1,400 people saw the group at a sold-out show, where tickets were $40. “And they announced our show at the end of their show, and we hadn’t even signed contracts yet,” he said. The group will cost $12,500 after Baker negotiated a lower cost with officials. “I think they are well worth it.”  He said he would like to have two regional bands before The SteelDrivers on Friday night, starting at 6 p.m. and ending at 10:30 p.m. Concerning a desire expressed at the last work session for a gospel group, Baker said an artist that came three years ago has been confirmed to come, Paul Thorn. “He is in the middle of doing a gospel album with the McCrary Sisters and Blind Boys of Alabama and some other acts. Bonnie Bishop is on the album,” he said. He said he will bring in the McCrary Sisters, whom he once represented, to sing, noting have backed up Bob Dylan and the Black Keys, as well as having their own albums. They will come out for 30 minutes with Paul Thorn’s band and then Thorn will come out for his set, with the sisters backing him up. “It’s energetic and amazing,” he said, noting that would likely start at 5:15 p.m. “It is super upbeat and fun.”  Saturday’s acts last year started at noon, with local contest winners filling in most of the afternoon until 4:30 p.m. “Last year we started really early and it is hot. I think starting it when it gets a little cooler at 5:15 p.m.” would be best, with the McCrary Sisters going from 5:15 until 5:45 p.m. Thorn would play from 6-7 p.m. Baker said he had not had many requests for gospel music, although council member Danny Gambrell said he had heard requests for groups like Gold City, and council member Jennifer Smith said gospel groups would draw people. Also, Baker mentioned ongoing efforts to reach some other acts, adding he is still within the budget, which he now puts at topping out at $65,000. With a $65,000 budget, “I can make it as big as it needs to be and as classy as it needs to be,” he said, noting he had about $70,000 in 2016. “I’m being very careful with the budget, because I’m not coming out of pocket and paying for it,” he said. Council member Gary Cowen raised the question of whether the free admission, which is rare at other festivals, is a good thing. Smith replied it was a great thing. Baker said, “It is a great thing for us. It is an obstacle sometimes when you call an agent with William Morris or CAA and they find out it is a free show, they are a little hesitant of doing it because it does make the artist look cheap. They are very conscious of that. But I have been pretty luck getting the Jason Isbells of the world.”  The council talked about the Rock the South concert in Cullman which can cost $40 a day and is enclosed by gates. Smith said outlying cities enjoy the overspill it causes, but she said many families also cannot afford to go. Smith, who has helped in planning for the festival since it began, indicated if Foothills was a paid event, the city would have to figure a way to block people in the downtown area once they got a ticket. Moreover, if a family walks in with their family, they can shop the local businesses and the vendors. She noted the festival is Los Reyes’ and Warehouse 319’s biggest day of business for the year, and Lavish Coffee Bar saw bigger business. Also, while some may not go to purchase jewelry, for example, during the festival, they are exposed to products and customers will later return. “We had one couple fly in from Chicago last year just because it was go pay a ticket or come,” she said. “I know it is bringing people in here who are seeing our community, and we have an impressive downtown, so they come back.” Baker said he starts getting phone calls within three months of the end of the festival to talk about the next year’s festival. “A lot of people look forward to this more than anything else during the year,” he said. Smith said, “If we do anything, I would say we would raise a little bit more on what the vendor fees are, because ours are not in comparison with some of the other places.” She added that charging would probably lose support in the community. Cowen leans toward having a free event, but he said $5 a head would not hurt. “You’re talking about $150,000,” he said. However, Smith questioned how the admission charged would be handled, and brought up again the fencing. It was noted that the event was fenced in once before. Baker said charging has pros and cons. He noted that visitors are going into restaurants for a cup of beer and then going to their car to refill with more alcohol beverages from a cooler the rest of the day. “It is happening and the businesses are losing money because of that,” he said, adding there is not enough police to monitor it. When the mayor asked what it means that $65,000 is enough, Baker said to get the necessary acts, one has to take a chance and get them on the way up in the career, which happened with Isbell, or after their peak when they are “heritage acts.” He said it is a fine line in deciding. To get Isbell now would cost $320,000. “That number will get us the entertainment that we need that will satisfy somewhat of a blanket market in this demographic,” he said, as a free event. Smith added the budget would have to balloon to get ticketed acts. Baker said Rock the South’s budget is about $4.5 million just for the performers. Baker said it doesn’t make sense to spend $20,000 on sound and lights, as the city now does, and not have major acts to draw. He said that after five years, it is important to note thousands of people have come to the festival and only three arrests have been made. “I know who were arrested, and they deserved it,” he said to laughs. “But that is a testament to the type of acts that I book. You can’t have — if you book a David Allan Coe here, you are going to have a bunch of whiskey bottles and things like that. You have to book class acts.”  Baker said the 2016 festival was the biggest edition, although last year was slower as money was slim to work with and the festival had to compete against area concerts with Eric Church and Chris Stapleton. “It hurt us,” even though the festival ran smoothly and many were happy with it. “I would love to have that 2016 crowd again.”  O’Mary and some council members say they have heard criticism from some local businesses not located downtown about why acts are not performing closer to them, as well as criticism about why the businesses are not paying for it if businesses benefit — although the festival’s website,, has 31 businesses listed with the city as sponsors. The mayor said it is a cultural event, while Cowen said it benefits the city through quality of life to create ties to “the Yorozus of the world.” Smith agreed, saying many people or young people might not step outside of Walker County to see acts like this. Gambrell said it was a very positive thing for the city, and that the fact the city will offer it free of charge “says a lot about Jasper.” He also said Baker had performed a good job with the festival.