“Unofficial” Jazz Fest (and Arbitrage, and Licensing, and Taxes)

By: Shu-Yi Oei

blogged on Wednesday about taxes and tax enforcement at Jazz Fest, a.k.a. the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Today’s follow-on post celebrates the phenomenon that I call “unofficial” Jazz Fest.

There’s “official” Jazz Fest, which is what happens after you’ve bought your ticket, gone through security, and are within the confines of the New Orleans Fairgrounds (where the Fest is held). And then there’s “unofficial” Jazz Fest, which is what goes on in the surrounding Fairgrounds neighborhood outside the Fest. [fn.1] As I described in Wednesday’s post, “official” Jazz Fest is a big deal, well organized, and highly regulated. The music programming unfolds on a tight schedule. Only approved food and craft vendors are allowed, and those vendors need to be properly licensed and pay some sort of booth fee in order to sell at Jazz Fest. The organizers exert significant control over the food items sold—the Jazz Fest website says that “‘carnival’ food items or beverages” will be not sold and that duplication of food offerings is minimal.

“Unofficial” Jazz Fest, as I call it, is what happens in the area outside the gates of the Fairgrounds. On Fest days, the neighborhood is transformed into its own unique microclimate of festive Festy-ness. Here, street vendors hawk wares such as hats, kooziessecond-line umbrellas, water, and art. no vending(There are “No Street Vending Allowed” signs posted, but those don’t seem to be given much weight.) Popup brass bands play for tips on the sidewalks. Some neighborhood residents hire bands and throw backyard parties, some of which you can attend for a fee (or, perhaps, crash unnoticed). New Orleans, like many other cities, has business licensing requirements, including mobile vendor licenses, and some of these vendors are clearly licensed, though it’s plausible that others might not be.

Many of these behaviors look like classic arbitrage: You can of course buy or enjoy most of those items or services in the official Jazz Fest, but they’re more expensive once you’re inside the Fairgrounds and committed to being there (general admission tickets allow single entry only). This creates obvious opportunities for unofficial vendors to sell products more cheaply just outside the Jazz Fest entrance gates. So, for example, it gets hot in New Orleans in April/May, and Fest rules allow you to bring in “Factory-sealed bottled water for personal consumption.” Bottled water sells for $3 in the Fest. But there are lots of people selling it out of a cooler for $1 in the surrounding streets, so it really makes sense to buy your water before you enter. From the seller’s point of view, if she buys 78 24-count cases of bottled water from Costco, it comes up to under 27 cents a bottle before tax. The incentive to make dollar-a-bottle sales outside the Fairgrounds on Fest days is obvious.

Others of these activities look like something close to agglomeration:  Continue reading ““Unofficial” Jazz Fest (and Arbitrage, and Licensing, and Taxes)”

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (and Taxes)

By: Shu-Yi Oei

New Orleans is currently in the throes of Jazz Fest.

For those of you who don’t know what that is, Jazz Fest—or, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival—is a famous annual festival celebrating music and culture in New Orleans. It’s held at the New Orleans Fairgrounds. It spans seven days over two weekends. It draws hundreds of thousands of people.

But even that description doesn’t do the event justice. There are twelve different music stages and tents set up in the Fairgrounds and a lineup of over a hundred performance groups—this year’s headliners include Stevie Wonder, Pearl Jam, Paul Simon, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Snoop Dogg, and Van Morrison. There’s also a huge number of food and crafts vendors who set up at the Fest—over 200 food offerings sold! Some of us to go to the Fest at least as much for the food as for the music: my personal favorites include the Crawfish Monica, mango freeze, crawfish beignets, seafood stuffed mushrooms, and Chef Linda Green’s award-winning yakamein.

This past weekend, my colleague Ann Lipton and I traipsed down to the Fairgrounds to find the fun. While enjoying performances by Janelle Monáe (amazing), the Red Hot Chili Peppers (meh), Leroy Jones (so good), Herlin Riley (just, wow) and others, we chatted a bunch about vendor licensing and regulation at Fest. We even ran into an on-duty New Orleans revenue agent who was more than happy to tell us all about tax compliance at the Fest and kindly gave permission to blog about it.

After some research, some casual conversations, and some lurking around the food booths, here’s what we now know about Jazz Fest and taxes:

Continue reading “The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (and Taxes)”