Sinking Jamaican Dollar Brings Challenges to Reggae Sumfest, the Country’s Largest Music Festival

The port of Montego Bay, Jamaica (via Wikimedia)

The ongoing devaluation of the Jamaican dollar within the past 12 months has brought significant challenges and steep price increases to this year’s staging of Reggae Sumfest, Jamaica's largest music festival. “It cost US$2 million to put on Sumfest, more than last year, due to the economy,” said Johnny Gourzong, Summerfest Productions' CEO and executive director. The promoters booked Miquel in December 2012, but escalating costs delayed the confirmation of additional international acts. Damian Marley and Flo Rida were announced just five weeks prior to the festival. “Due to Jamaica’s exchange rate, it’s become very challenging to find acts that will resonate with the Jamaican audience and overseas visitors; some artists’ high prices are now out of reach for us,” Gourzong disclosed.

Held at Catherine Hall Entertainment Complex, an open-air venue in Jamaica’s resort capital, Montego Bay, more than 30 reggae acts performed at Sumfest 2013 (July 25-27), in three marathon-length presentations each beginning at 9 PM and finishing at 6 the following morning.

Inaugurated twenty years ago as a vehicle to boost tourism during the offseason, each July Reggae Sumfest generates a surge of tourism to Jamaica, pumping $6 million into the Jamaican economy in 2012, says Sumfest Chairman Robert Russell (this year’s figures were not yet available). Jason Hall, deputy director of the Jamaican Tourist Bureau says revenue and attendance numbers would be greater if the JTB had a longer timeframe to market the event. “Our biggest challenge is not knowing far enough in advance who is on the lineup, especially the headliners; a nine-month window would be ideal for global promotion, because people need time to plan their trips.” Hall thinks Sumfest should be moved to earlier in the year to avoid conflicting with the numerous reggae festivals held throughout Europe in July and August, including Rototom Sunsplash (Spain) and The Garance Reggae Festival (France). It’s an option Gourzong is strongly considering. “Summer is a busy touring time for artists, and European promoters can pay more -- so it is difficult to compete,” he said. “But Jamaican artists bring their entire band, backup singers, dancers to Sumfest; it’s a full presentation [that] they can’t always make in other parts of the world, something that makes our event very special.”

Each year, Summerfest Productions utilizes the latest in technologies including image magnification screens, lighting and laser effects, and the largest stage in Jamaica, all of which are imported into the island, adding to the steep costs. “We raise the bar on our production each year by using what’s considered the best on the market,” notes Gourzong. “Catherine Hall has nothing there so it takes about a month to transform it into a concert-ready venue, put in the backstage, dressing rooms, doctor’s area, etc., which is a huge expense. This is where our sponsors come in.”

Sponsors subsidize 30% of Sumfest’s operating expenditures, with the balance primarily obtained though Summerfest Productions’ shareholders and private investors. Digicel, the largest mobile telecommunications operator in the Caribbean, along with the Montego Bay-based Iberostar and Secrets Hotels are Sumfest’s "Diamond" sponsors, each giving $150,000, in addition to products and services. Platinum sponsors (contributing between $100,000-$150,000) are the Jamaican Tourist Board, Pepsi Jamaica and Red Stripe Beer. “Because of the devaluation, Sumfest attracted fewer new sponsors this year, while existing sponsors expected greater returns for their investments,” notes Marcia McDonnough, Sumfest’s Director of Marketing and Sponsorship for the past seven years. “Long-term sponsors such as Digicel and Red Stripe previously supported us to develop future business. Now they want maximum promotional benefits at the festival, so they create consumer programs and contests to see immediate returns.”

Sumfest’s major sponsors build elaborate promotional booths for the three-day festival that line the perimeter of Catherine Hall, offering Jamaican buffets, full bar service and prime vantage points for watching the show in second-floor VIP areas. “Our challenge as a lead sponsor is finding innovative ways to do things bigger and better than the year before, to attract customers,” said Jacqueline Burrell Clarke, Public Relations Manager, Digicel Jamaica. This year Digicel drew patrons to their stall with an "Instagram lounge," where Sumfest photos could be directly uploaded to Facebook, and by hosting (for the 7th time) Sumfest’s second stage, adjacent to their booth. This year the Digicel stage offered performances by their Brand Ambassadors, rising female deejay Tifa, and widely popular sing-jay I-Octane, whose professional ascent began on the same stage in 2009. Summerfest Productions selected I-Octane to close Dancehall Night (on Sumfest’s main stage) an important position requiring a catalogue of hits and dynamic performance skills that can hold the crowd in the venue in the early morning hours (perennial favorite Beenie Man has closed Dancehall Night a staggering 15 times). I-Octane balanced social commentaries with romantic songs in a well-received, adrenaline-pumping set, another landmark in the 29-year-old’s soaring career that signifies the passing of the dancehall baton to the next generation.