On a typical evening in the VIP tent at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass (JAS) June music festival, butlers circulate with platters of hors d’oeuvres, high-end cocktails flow at an open bar, chefs sear halibut and prime rib on mobile grills, and guests periodically retreat to clean, private bathrooms with running water.
When showtime arrives, the VIP patrons shuffle to cordoned-off viewing areas close to the stage. After the concert, they stroll to nearby VIP parking lots, where their cars are waiting.
The scene is a far cry from the muddy, sweaty atmosphere of many music festivals, and it’s also a critical part of the business model for JAS, a 23-year-old Aspen-based festival and nonprofit organization that runs music education programs for youth in the Roaring Fork Valley.
On average, combined with contributions from corporate sponsors, VIP ticket sales account for between 57 and 60 percent of total revenue for JAS, according to Jim Horowitz, who is the founder of the festival and currently serves as the president and CEO.
“The VIP ticket and sponsor revenue enables us to keep everything else affordable for everyone else,” said Horowitz. “It’s fundamental to why we are able to do what we do. It would be impossible without that income to have this quality of programming.”
In 2011, according to tax returns filed with the IRS, the festival had just under $6.5 million in revenue, which would put the proceeds from VIP ticket sales and corporate sponsorships at nearly $4 million.
The JAS June festival kicks off Friday, June 21 with Jackson Browne (the show is sold out except for a few VIP passes), and it continues on Saturday with Ben Harper and on Sunday with the Tedeschi Trucks Band.
VIP passes to the June festival are $450 for one day, $800 for two days (Saturday and Sunday), or $1,250 for three days. Around 50 percent of the VIP ticket price is considered a charitable donation, and is tax deductible.
General admission tickets, by contrast, are $70 to $90 for Ben Harper and $65 to $85 for the Tedeschi Trucks Band.
VIP ticket revenue plays a key role in keeping JAS afloat in an increasingly competitive — and expensive — concert industry. The bill for attracting a big name musical act to Aspen can frequently run six figures: JAS paid the groups Steely Dan and Michael Franti $112,500 apiece to play its Labor Day festival in 2011, according to JAS tax returns for that year.
“Touring has become the primary part of artists’ income,” said Horowitz. “When you bring big acts you make more, but you also pay more.”
Attracting large artists to a remote place like Aspen can also be difficult, said Horowitz, particularly since JAS is sometimes competing against larger and more established venues like Red Rocks on the Front Range.
Following a year of lackluster ticket sales in 2010 sparked by the national economic recession, JAS partnered up with the global concert production company AEG, which puts on massive festivals like the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Coachella in California.
Since then, Horowitz said, it’s been easier to attract big name artists, and ticket sales are on the upswing.
“This turned out to be a really good move for us,” he said, noting that general admission ticket sales for the 2012 Labor Day Festival were more than double 2010 sales for the same event.
Sales of VIP tickets, too, have gotten more popular since the humble beginnings of the VIP program in 1996.
“When we started, we just had a 40-by-40 tent, and about 100 people showed up,” Horowitz recalled. Typically VIP attendance at the June festival is around 300 to 400, and at the Labor Day festival it can number in the thousands.
Horowitz said that VIP tickets to last year’s Labor Day festival sold out in advance for the first time ever. At press time, there were still a few VIP tickets left for the June festival.
“We have taken the VIP experience and just elevated it,” said Andrea Beard, director of marketing, PR and sponsorship for JAS. “We’ve gone all over the country, we’ve gone to other festivals like New Orleans, and there’s just nothing like it anywhere.”