By David Phillips
Editor’s Note: This op-ed is in response to a news story the Reader wrote about the Festival at Sandpoint ending their “number line” system and replacing it with a fee-based system where participants can pay extra to stand in line for better seats.
I believe there are a few more sides to this story.
In reality, the Festival people didn’t exactly get rid of the system; they turned it into a revenue source, and in the process removed any local advantage to people in the community by enabling online purchase of the perk.
The 300 “morning numbers” (literally cards numbered from 1 to 300, issued in order), a local tradition, had become abused by a small number of small people, among them parents sending their children to camp illegally in the park to claim the cherished numbers the morning of a show. These noble citizens then scalped the numbers to the ticket holders waiting in line ( a low number might go for as much as $100), while the Festival Committee for years determinedly looked the other way. Standing in line for a show, we observed parents escorting their kids and coaching them to work deals. I called this out to the Festival back in 2016, including video of the parent/child scalping activity. By coincidence the Festival a day later announced they were limiting morning numbers to one per ticket holder.
A small step in the right direction. With a little more effort, they might’ve created a solution that preserved the local feel, catered a bit to the community that has supported them for so long, and largely defeated the more unseemly aspects.
The old system, while a bit ad hoc, in spirit offered something to those in the community that made the Festival what has been: one could walk or bike over early to the venue and get one of the morning numbers, returning at show time able to enter the venue about a half hour early, in numeric order, to reserve a spot for a “blanket’s worth” of people.
The new plan effectively turns its back on that local population in favor of courting more and more remote attendance: in an email announcing “New Entry Options“, the free morning numbers that had to be acquired in person were transformed into the friendly-sounding “Need to Be Closer Plan:” only $25 per person, added to a ticket, which can be reserved online in the interests of making it “fair for fans from near and far”. Tickets for ZZ Top this year, on this plan, are for example over $100.
While it is somewhat defensible that the Festival is determined to grow and increase revenue, there are tales of caution out there: Seattle’s Folk Life Festival, or Austin’s SXSW, or even the Bite of Spokane, events that have grown so large that the locals avoid them. The Festival organizers appear to be steering us the same direction of Bigger is Always Better.
The Sandpoint community made the Festival possible, and has continued to support it over the years, a friendly, relaxed couple of weeks of music and food. It has become less friendly, less relaxed and certainly a lot less affordable each year. I would like to suggest the folks running the Festival remember that before they price attendance out of the reach of many local people and make the event so crowded that it is no longer attractive.
David Phillips lives, skis, kayaks, bikes and makes photographs and films in Sandpoint. He writes about these and other things at fromtheid.com.