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

November 22, 2010

Mayor Daley has been talking for some time about privatizing the Taste of Chicago and other major city music festivals in Grant and Millennium parks. Now, with little fanfare, the administration has issued a request for proposals to pawn off its biggest musical celebrations, with responding bids due by 4 p.m. on Dec. 23—a time when reporters and the public are likely to be paying little attention.

According to city documents, Chicago spent $2.75 million policing and cleaning up the free festivals last year, with $2.3 million for Taste of Chicago alone. In late October, Special Events Director Megan McDonald told a City Council hearing grappling with the budget crisis that major cuts would be necessary if the city continued to run the festivals in-house.

"We can only do what we have the funding to do and what we’re able to raise money to accomplish,” McDonald said. Yet the lame-duck Daley administration continued to drag its feet on issuing its invitation to privatize the festivals, which should already be in the process of booking talent and vendors for 2011, and which should have their lineups finalized by March.

According to its solicitation document, the city is seeking "event producers who are willing to produce orderly festivals of the highest standards consistent with the reputation of a world-class city, and which are consistent with the concept of providing family-focused events with budget-friendly food and beverages for sale.”

It adds: “The City does not require that the Events be produced exactly as the City has produced them, but if respondent wishes to propose deviations from the events as they are currently planned… that plan should be spelled out in the proposal.”

In other words: Promoters don’t have to keep these shindigs free, as the city has, for the approximately six million people who enjoy them every summer.

Up for rent, just like the parking meters that the mayor unloaded, are the Chicago Blues Festival (June 11-13), the Taste of Chicago (June 27–July 4), and the Chicago Jazz Festival (September 4-5), all in Grant Park, and the Chicago Celtic Festival (May 8-9), the Chicago Gospel Music Festival (June 5-6), the VIVA Chicago Latin Music Festival (September 17-18), and the Chicago Country Music Festival (October 8-9), all in Millennium Park.

Respondents can submit proposals for just the Grant Park concerts, just the Millennium Park concerts, or both. The terms of the winning contract, should the city award one: three years, with two one-year extensions possible, just like the deal the Park District made with giant national promoters Live Nation to run the concert venue on Northerly Island. (And that, too, is scheduled to go out to bid again this year, though there is not yet any documentation about that process available.)

This of course means that the Daley administration will saddle the new mayor, whoever that may be, with any deal that it awards for the entirety of his or her first term—just one more gift that it’s leaving the city of Chicago and Daley's successor on the way out.

Left wonderfully vague in the 96-page document outlining the city’s request: How much it hopes to earn from privatizing its marquee summer events. It’s more like, “Hey, make us an offer... please?”

 “A goal of the City is to incur no costs for any event, whether in the way of payments to the Producer or in the way of payment of City services to support the events,” the solicitation document notes. In another section outlining how the proposals will be evaluated, it adds: “The City will consider financial models deemed advantageous to the City.”

Um, sure, right. Just like the sweetheart deal that Daley made with Lollapalooza, courtesy in part of its lobbyist and attorney, his nephew? See this blog on Oct. 4: "Is the city earning all that it should from Lollapalooza?"

Continuing to run the festivals in-house isn’t necessarily a good idea. From the point of view of the serious music fan, saying that the bookings at most of them have been moribund for the last 15 years is paying them a compliment that hardly is deserved, especially when it comes to Taste of Chicago and the Blues Festival.

On the other hand, against all odds and with a minimum of resources, there are city officials who’ve done tremendous things with music of late, chief among them Michael Orlove at the Department of Cultural Affairs. (Note that the World Music Festival he’s helped build into a premiere global event is not on the list of events for sale.) And the new mayor might have a different set of priorities—and much better taste—when it comes to programming the city music fests.

The city held a pre-proposal conference Thursday afternoon, but amazingly, none of the Chicago media covered it or reported which interested promoters attended. (Don’t blame this blogger: He was teaching his Careers in Writing class at Columbia College, ironically enough.) But given the scope of what’s required to run any of these festivals—including at least $15 million worth of insurance and a bank account big enough to pay major artists’ advances and fund all of the city services—it’s not hard to peg the major contenders.

1. The Texas cowboys of C3 Presents.

The “three Charlies” will almost certainly throw their 10-gallon hats in the ring. The long-term deal that the mayor’s nephew helped the Austin-based promoters strike with the Park District for Lollapalooza specifically prohibits any similar festival from taking place in Grant Park as long as that contract is in effect, through 2018. But it also specifically exempts the soon-to-be-formerly city-run festivals. The company already acts as if it owns Grant Park—it also threw the election-night shindig for President Obama there, as well as several events during the disastrous Olympics bid—and winning this deal would make that an actual fact. Its ties to the Daley administration are beyond cozy, and it’s in just as solidly with at least one mayoral candidate: Rahm Emanuel, whose brother, Hollywood superagent Ari, quietly owns 50 percent of Lollapalooza.

2. The newly merged monopolistic giant Ticketmaster/Live Nation.

The local office of the concert industry’s Death Star remains hamstrung by the giant albatross of the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in Tinley Park, the sort of expensive summer shed that the industry abandoned a decade ago. Business has not exactly been booming at the Charter One Pavilion that it threw up on Northerly Island, but the company needs to stay in the summer concert game and compete with Lollapalooza and myriad street fairs. Top executives still regret having been edged out of the contract to promote more varied music and cultural events at Soldier Field; that deal went to C3 three years ago, though they have done very little with it. And while Ticketmaster/Live Nation has some political clout—it was represented in its unsuccessful bid to win the Uptown Theatre by mayoral pal turned candidate Gary Chico—he has been taking shots at Daley’s Board of Education lately, and the blood connection beats the old buddy every time anyway.

3. Chicago-based Jam Productions.

Through the ’80s and into the’90s, the local concert promotion firm started by Chicagoans Jerry Mickelson and Arny Granat booked the Taste of Chicago and occasional stages at the other festivals for the city, and that was the last time when the lineups were consistently good, with memorable acts ranging from Barry White to the Replacements. Their relations with the current administration have been contentious at best for the last decade; the Daley administration clearly favored C3 and Live Nation. But  having paved the way for Lollapalooza with successful concerts such as Radiohead at Hutchinson Field, Jam would love to get back into Grant Park—and stick it to their bigger, badder, better-funded competitors C3 and Ticketmaster/Live Nation in the process.

Asked via email if Jam would respond to the request for proposals, Mickelson wrote,“We are looking at it but have not made any decision at this point in time.” The same question was posed to C3’s top Charlie, Charlie Jones, and Ticketmaster/Live Nation’s Midwest honcho, Mark Campana, but neither responded.

As for other interested parties, the second biggest national concert promoter Anschutz Entertainment might consider making a bid, though with the exception of a handful of generally dreadful national pop superstars, its annual presence in the local concert market has been minimal. And after that, it’s anybody’s guess.

You say you booked a few shows at college or the local VFW Hall and might want to get into the game? As noted earlier, the documentation can be found online here. Or just start by filling out the first page of the paperwork below and sending it to the Bid and Bond Room, Room 301, City Hall, 121 North LaSalle Street, Chicago, Illinois 60602. And remember: You have to do it by 4 p.m. on the day before the night before Christmas!