Bolstered by headlining sets from Stevie Wonder and Sting, the recently concluded Curacao North Sea Jazz Festival (Sept. 2-3) attracted 22,000 people over two nights, almost half of them from outside Curacao. But it was only the latest Caribbean music festival to offer a booster shot to its island's economy, even while boosting veteran international artists' popularity in the region.
Once one of five islands comprising the now disbanded Netherlands Antilles, Curacao became an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands in October 2010. That same year, Live Nation subsidiary Mojo Concerts NL -- producers of The Netherlands' North Sea Jazz Festival -- first brought the Curacao festival to the island's World Trade Center, through the sole sponsorship of Curacao businessman Gregory Elias' Fundashion Bon Intenshon (FBI).
Curacao's Dutch heritage, coupled with its proximity to South America, results in a wide range of musical tastes, which were reflected in the 2011 festival's star-studded 16-act roster, presented on three concurrently running stages. Featured performers included Latin music superstar Juan Luis Guerra, perennial pop-soul diva Dionne Warwick, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, seminal disco producer/guitarist Nile Rodgers with Chic, and vibrant retro-soul outfit Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings,
In 2010, when headliners Lionel Richie and George Benson lured 16,000 patrons to the Curacao Festival, 75% were Curacao residents and 25% were tourists, estimates the event's publicist Percy Pinedo. But this year, Pinedo reports, international attendance grew drastically - 45% of the festival's 2011 attendees were visitors to Curacao, primarily from Suriname, Holland and the United States. That dramatic increase, Pinedo says, is a result of strategic campaigns targeting overseas markets. "We promoted the festival," he explains, "on websites, through social media, on mailing lists to people who have previously visited the island, and through ads in the in-flight magazines of American Airlines and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines."
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The Curacao Tourist Board reports that the island's 5,200 hotel rooms were sold out during the weekend of the festival. Although Pinedo did not disclose the event's 2011 operating budget or earnings, a study by the Dick Pope Sr. Institute for Tourism Studies and by the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida calculated that the 2010 festival added $4 million dollars to the island's economy.
Like the Curacao event, many Caribbean "jazz" festivals use the word loosely, to brand popular music festivals primarily developed as vehicles for stimulating tourism. The host islands' economies benefit from the revenue generated through a surge in hotel bookings and expenditures in restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, car rental companies and other businesses that profit from a healthy tourism trade.
Artists whose careers may have peaked years, even decades, ago in the U.S. also stand a chance to translate performances at various Caribbean jazz festivals into a revived regional visibility. "Radio was all over us when we first started -- we had an incredible string of hits. And then in 1987, radio refused to play us in North America, and that just spread around the world," says songwriter/producer/guitarist Russell Hitchcock, who founded the duo Air Supply with singer Graham Russell in 1975. Starting in 1980, the Australian pair had a run of seven consecutive top five hits on the Billboard Hot 100, in a little more than two years. Adored by Jamaican audiences, Air Supply has performed five times on the island since 2006, including twice at the Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival, most recently in January 2011. "Jamaica has become a place we want to go back to all the time now, because the audiences are just fantastic," enthuses Russell.
A behind the scenes look at Jamaica's eclectic festival is highlighted in the HBO special "One Love: Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival 2011", which debuted on September 22, featuring performances and interviews with Maroon 5 and Natalie Cole. A collaborative effort between telecommunications company Flow, HBO, and Jamaica's Ministry of Tourism, HBO projects the special will be seen by 300 million viewers in 23 countries throughout the Caribbean and Latin America.
Ultimately, it's the artists' endorsements of the islands hosting the various jazz festivals -- whether through a televised special, print interviews, or widely viewed online video clips -- that play significant roles in increasing a destination's brand worth. "Lionel Richie wondered how come he never heard about the friendly island of Curacao; Nile Rodgers blogged that he might retire in Curacao because of the friendliness of the people; and when Stevie Wonder sang 'Happy Birthday' to Beyoncé at this year's festival, she put that on her website so millions of people saw him performing in Curacao," says Pinedo. "Those are marketing moments that Curacao gets for free from these artists that help promote the island, long after the festival is finished.