Daley rejects the only bid to privatize the city music fests (and finally make them world-class events)

February 2, 2011

Late in the day Tuesday, as the “storm of the century” bore down on Chicago, the Daley Administration unleashed a small blizzard of its own—one of inexplicable b.s.—as it announced its rejection of the bid it had asked for to privatize Chicago’s Grant Park music festivals.

The Tribune broke the news that the city has turned its back on the one and only bid to privatize Taste of Chicago, the Blues Festival, and the five other free music festivals submitted by a world-class partnership consisting of the Illinois Restaurant Association, Chicago-based concert promoters Jam Productions, and national concert promoters AEG Worldwide.

That trio’s vision: To remake the Chicago events into something the Windy City could be proud of, akin to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (which AEG co-promotes) or Milwaukee’s Summerfest.

And, really, how is it that freaking Milwaukee has a better summer concert festival than Chicago, which ranks beside New Orleans and Austin as the finest live music city in America?

Oh, wait: Milwaukee charges for Summerfest, and Mayor Daley is saying that the reason that Celebrate Chicago’s proposal was rejected was that the festivals must remain free. The bidders’ plan called for a $20 admission fee to Taste, though they later dropped the cost to $10. But that still wasn’t low enough for Daley.

Mind you, this is despite the Mayor’s comments a few months ago saying he thought there definitely would have to be some charge to save the festivals.

Here is Budget Director Eugene Munin in a statement released late Tuesday, as quoted in the Tribune:

“While Celebrate Chicago is an experienced special events team that is qualified to manage and operate the lakefront festivals, we believe the proposed entry fee for the Taste of Chicago is unacceptable for Chicagoans and our visitors.”

But, as noted in this blog on Jan. 7, here is Daley quoted in the Sun-Times on Nov. 19 about the necessity of charging admission:

“You have to. The cost factor was enormous for Taste of Chicago. No one made any money… If it costs you more and more money every year for city services, how are you affording this? We’re laying people off. People don’t have jobs. To spend that amount of money is enormous. That’s truly unfair.”

The question this blog asked on Jan. 7 still stands: What changed your mind, Mr. Mayor?

Could it have been the fact that neither of Daley’s two big favorite corporate concert promoters—Austin’s C3 Presents (whose 10-year sweetheart deal for Lollapalooza was crafted in part by their lobbyist and attorney, Daley’s nephew, Mark Vanecko) and the giant national Death Star of the concert business, Ticketmaster/Live Nation (who seem to have a permanent lock on concerts at Northerly Island)—rose to the challenge of crafting a bid for Taste and the other festivals?

Or was the plan all along to issue the request for proposals to privatize the festivals in an attempt to appear to be doing something in the face of the budget crisis, while in fact intending to keep the booking in-house and under the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, run by Daley family crony Megan McDonald, with maximum inefficiency, extreme artistic mediocrity, and ubiquitous political patronage?

Make no mistake: Making the festivals work was a major challenge for any outside bidder, even with an admission fee. The costs of staging a well-run and artistically worthy festival in Grant Park are staggering, but Celebrate Chicago insisted it could be done—with a reasonable admission fee. And it had the collective track record to prove that it could do it.

The less-than-transparent, shady backroom way that the Daley administration approached the privatization effort left many in the local arts and music communities skeptical, and rightly so. But it really deprived the community of the chance to engage in a worthwhile debate: Can Chicago do better with live music and food in Grant Park than it’s been doing with the free city-run festivals? And should it?

By way of making its case, now moot, Celebrate Chicago presented the city with a blizzard of its own: A pile of fascinating data comparing Taste of Chicago with Milwaukee Summerfest and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in terms of the admission fees, the caliber of the main-stage acts, and the sponsorships. There also was an interesting chart comparing the relative cost of their proposed Taste admission fee with other sources of summertime entertainment, and a more clear-eyed look at profits and losses at the city festivals than the city really has given us.

Could Celebrate Chicago have done better on the Lakefront than the city has done itself? It seems we won’t know unless the new mayor revisits this issue, as should certainly be the case.

Earlier reports in this blog about privatizing the city festivals and the battle between the Mayor’s Office of Special Events and the Department of Cultural Affairs:

Jan. 20: Lois Weisberg: “This is one of the worst things that ever has happened to the city.”

Jan. 7: Privatizing Taste: What changed for Daley since November?

Jan. 6: "It's called Taste of Food. We're not in it for music."

Jan. 3: And the mystery bidder vying to privatize Chicago's music festivals is...

Dec. 27: Only one bidder wants to privatize Chicago’s music festivals… but who the heck is it?

Dec. 20: What's really going on at Cultural Affairs, and what happens to arts and music now?

Dec. 16: Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs is dismantled as 29 are laid off

Dec. 14: Nope, they won’t have to remain free… and answers to other questions about privatizing the city music festivals

Dec. 7: City festivals chief responds to this blog’s reporting on the push for privatization

Dec. 6: Are a political power struggle and a sweetheart deal fueling the city's push to privatize the summer music festivals?

Nov. 22: Psst! Hey, buddy: Wanna buy a city festival?