Chicago’s music festival mystery bidder revealed | WBEZ
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Jim DeRogatis

And the mystery bidder vying to privatize Chicago’s music festivals is…


As this blog reported shortly after Christmas, only one bidder responded to the city’s request for proposals to privatize Taste of Chicago, the Blues Festival, and the five other (soon-to-be-formerly) free city music festivals by the 4 p.m. deadline on Dec. 27. The bidder is a company called Celebrate Chicago, LLC, but since its corporate registration has not yet been made public by the state, the specifics of the bid do not have to be made public by the city, and absolutely no one is talking, the group’s identity remained a mystery. Until now.

Celebrate Chicago, LLC is a new partnership comprised of Chicago-based concert promoters Jam Productions, the Illinois Restaurant Association, and national concert promoters AEG Worldwide.

Every member of that trio has history with the city music festivals, the Daley administration, or the sort of world-class events the city is claiming it wants these seven music festivals to become, a source familiar with the bid said.

For years, through the mid-’90s when the acts actually were something to be proud of, Jam booked the Taste of Chicago, until the Mayor’s Office of Special Events took over and the quality of the bookings took a nosedive.

Taste is, of course, the major event on the calendar for many of the members of the Illinois Restaurant Association, and its president, Sheila O’Grady, is beyond well-connected: She was the longest-serving chief of staff to Mayor Richard M. Daley until leaving that post to join the culinary group a few years ago.

And AEG is second only to Ticketmaster/Live Nation as the biggest national concert promoter in the U.S. Though it is best known for booking national package tours by the likes of teen-pop phenom Taylor Swift, its more credible accomplishments include the fact that its Goldenvoice division created and runs the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, and it produces the enormously well-regarded New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the country’s premiere celebration of roots music.

The source familiar with the proposal said that, if the city awards the contract, Taste of Chicago, the Blues Festival, the Jazz Festival, the Country Music Festival, Gospel Fest, the Celtic Festival, and the Viva Chicago Latin Music Festival all will remain in Grant Park. But the concerts will charge admission in line with standard concert-ticket prices: About $30 to $50 or more for big acts.

There also will be a charge for admission to the festivals, but that will be waived with the purchase of a concert ticket. The festival-only admission charge will be in line with the cost—or, rather, the “suggested donation”—charged by many of Chicago’s countless street fairs, which is to say in the range of $10 to $15.

O’Grady could not be reached for comment, and Jam co-founder Jerry Mickelson declined to talk about the proposal. AEG did not respond to a request for comment.

Celebrate Chicago is optimistic about winning the privatization bid, above and beyond the fact that it has no competition, the source said. “These festivals could and should be world-class. And they’ll be bigger and better than Lollapalooza, simply because they’ll appeal to a much wider range of people.”

Many sources familiar with the request for proposals are shocked that politically connected Lollapalooza promoters C3 Presents did not bid on the city festivals, as was widely expected (sources say the promoters were courted by the city to respond). And though the Austin company’s 10-year deal to keep Lollapalooza in Grant Park specifies that no other promoter can stage an event “similar” to Lollapalooza in that venue, it also specifically exempts the city festivals—which means that Jam and AEG could bring an act like, say, Phoenix or Radiohead to Taste of Chicago without Lollapalooza being able to protest.

So what happens now? The request for proposals did not set a timeline for the process of evaluating the responding bids—er, make that bid, singular—but the clock is ticking fast. If it succeeds in winning the fests, Celebrate Chicago already is months behind in booking and lining up corporate sponsorships, but the Mayor’s Office of Special Events also hasn’t booked any of the headliners for any of the festivals, either, and they’re not nearly as efficient or skilled in the process as the professionals at Jam and AEG.

The questions, therefore, remain: Will the city move quickly to award the contract to Celebrate Chicago and see a whole new kind of music festival dominating Grant Park through the summer of 2011? Or was it never really serious about pawning off the fests in the first place, hoping to keep them in-house and under the purview of Megan McDonald for as long as she lasts in the newly merged Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events?

Stay tuned: It’s sure to be fascinating either way it plays out.

UPDATED TUESDAY MORNING:  Fran Spielman has a lot more information on the specifics of proposed prices at the new festivals in a report in today's Sun-Times. According to her source:

Celebrate Chicago wants to boost sagging attendance and upgrade talent by charging the $20 admission fee, with $10 of that money rebated to patrons in the form of food and beverage tickets.

The admission fee would apply during weekends, holidays and after 4 p.m. on weekdays. Children under 10 would continue to get in free.

Celebrate Chicago also proposes to follow the lead of Milwaukee’s popular Summerfest by selling concert tickets for its biggest-name entertainment stage.

Concert tickets would range from $25 to $65, but the $20 Taste admission fee would be waived for concert goers.

Taste attendees already pay an “amenities charge” of $2 for every strip of a dozen food tickets sold for $8. Celebrate Chicago would eliminate that “hidden fee.”

General admission tickets would also be pre-sold in May and June for a bargain fee of $8.

Celebrate Chicago’s bid also includes a $10 admission fee for Blues and Jazz Fest. Admission to Viva Chicago, Celtic, Gospel and Country Fest would remain free.


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:

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?



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