Free festivals: A thing of the past?

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Two of Northeast Mississippi’s best-loved festivals this year have grown into multi-day events with more music, more activities and, for the first time, admission fees.
Oxford’s annual Double Decker Arts Festival and Tupelo’s annual Azalea Festival, both held in April, each slapped $5 to $15 fees on all or part of their previously free events.
The back-to-back charges caused some grumbles – in a region notorious for its penniless parties, people dislike paying for what once was free. But it also raises the question: What’s next?
For now, the answer seems to be nothing.
Tupelo’s annual Gumtree Festival, held every Mother’s Day weekend, will remain free to the public, said organizer Kit Stafford. So too will the annual Amory Railroad Festival, said its chairman, Bo Miller.
“We’ve been very fortunate, and, in fact, sponsorships went up this year, which is why we can afford not to charge,” said Miller, whose festival marked its 33rd event earlier this month.
Other continuing freebies include Dudie’s Burger Festival in Tupelo, the Tallatachie Riverfest in New Albany and the Bodock Festival in Pontotoc.
But rising entertainment costs have forced organizers to shelve big-name acts. Miller said KC and the Sunshine Band wanted $40,000 plus travel expenses for a two-hour set, which busted his budget. Instead, the festival books smaller, regional acts to save money.
“As long as we can afford to do it for free, we’ll do it for free,” Miller said. “It’s our way of giving back to the community.”
But the Double Decker festival, set for this weekend, wanted to add big-name acts to its bill. So it launched the Friday night venue and added a gate fee. Nationally acclaimed Old Crow Medicine Show will play to a crowd of what organizers hope will be 3,000 or 4,000 people.
It’s $10 in advance and $15 at the gate; Saturday’s events will remain free.
“It gives people who are really into the music scene a chance to see a big band Friday night, but to cover expenses, we had to do a ticket,” said organizer Mary-Kathryn Millner. “We spent about $30,000 more on music than we did in the past. We’re just trying it out. If it doesn’t work, we’ll probably be back at the drawing board.”
And earlier this month, the Elvis Presley Heights Azalea Festival also added a Friday night component to its annual event when it joined forces with the Up, Up and Away Hot-Air Balloon Festival. The double event charged $15 for adults, $5 for kids.
“We brought in a stage and bands, and that was expensive, and the hot air balloons are also expensive,” said Keith Henley, an Azalea Festival organizer. “But despite the charge, we are pleased with the turnout, and it’s actually better than we ever would have expected.”
An estimated 10,000 people attended the event, but others skipped it upon seeing an admission fee they deemed too costly.
“In front of us at the gate was a single woman with three children, (and) after taking a moment to read the sign they turned and left,” Tupelo resident Roseanna Mosley wrote in a letter to the editor published this month in the Daily Journal.
“In keeping with my principles,” she said, “we also left.”
Mosley, and the single mom she cited, can still enjoy the May 7-8 Gumtree Festival at no extra cost. Stafford said organizers “adamantly oppose” a gate fee.
“You’ll limit the family atmosphere,” she said. “If you have three children and have to pay admission – especially in an economy like this – our middle-class families will have to think twice about whether to come or not. We want kids to come out and experience the arts activity tent, enjoy live performances and just experience all that our festival has to offer.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or

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