Park District to run city music fests | WBEZ
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Jim DeRogatis

Foxes in the hen house: Park District to run city music fests and Live Nation likely to get Northerly Island again this summer

On Thursday afternoon, the Daley administration made the latest in a series of inscrutable moves to assure a future of stultifying mediocrity and/or political shenanigans at Taste of Chicago and the six other Grant Park music festivals.

As first tipped by Crain’s and then reported at length by the Sun-Times and the Tribune following a press conference that the mayor did not even deign to attend, the Chicago Park District will take over running Taste of Chicago this summer—with no “big musical acts” and the focus on food, food, food.

The four smallest music festivals—the Viva Chicago Latin Music Festival, the Country Music Festival, the Gospel Festival, and the Celtic Music Festival—will be folded into Taste, leaving only the Blues Festival and the Jazz Festival as free-standing events run by the surviving patronage hacks of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, thereby ensuring they still have jobs while many Cultural Affairs veterans are unemployed in the wake of the merger that led to the new Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

This follows a mind-boggling chain of events that started with Daley last fall saying that he’d like to privatize the festivals and granting that there probably would have to be an admission fee; the administration issuing a request for proposals and receiving only one bid from a world-class troika (Jam Productions, AEG Worldwide, and the Illinois Restaurant Association) that would have turned the Blues Festival into a true competitor of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Taste of Chicago into a cooler Lollapalooza with food (AEG has a hand in the New Orleans fest and promotes Coachella); the mayor arbitrarily rejecting that bid and saying that Taste should be free forever and about food not music, and the city following suit by formally torpedoing the plan at 4:30 the afternoon the blizzard of the century hit Chicago.

Confused? Who isn’t? As reported by this blog, even now-retired Cultural Affairs maven Lois Weisberg has been mystified by all of the doings of late—and they’re all intertwined: the festival privatization, the decimation of Cultural Affairs, and the bid for the concert venue on Northerly Island, all loose ends Daley seems to be trying to tie up before leaving office, leaving a long-term legacy a la Lollapalooza, which has a deal to remain in Grant Park through 2018. It helps to read the many stories this blog has run attempting to shed light on all of these issues—see the links below—but for the moment, let’s just focus on the reason why Park District involvement with the city music festivals is a very, very bad thing.

Plain and simple, the Park District consistently has favored big, corporate, out-of-town concert promoters at the expense of Chicago musicians and promoters. It approved the long-term, tax- and competition-free deal with Lollapalooza, negotiated in part by attorney, lobbyist, and Mayor Daley’s nephew Mark Vanecko, who worked for promoters C3 Presents. It awarded C3 a contract to promote cultural and music events at Soldier Field during the Bears’ off-season, though that deal has yielded almost no events of note. And it gave Ticketmaster/Live Nation a three-year contract to book concerts on Northerly Island, extended that deal for the two one-year extensions allowed in the contract, and then threw in an extra year last summer without the bidding process seemingly required by law, claiming it just wouldn’t have been practical to bother with all of that when the city was making plans to host the Olympics (which of course soon became moot).

But wait, you say, what does it matter if the Chicago Park District favors corporate concert promoters if music won’t be a big part of Taste anymore? Well, that might be part of the reason for this whole shell game: C3’s deal with the Park District states that no other concert promoter can run a “similar” festival in Grant Park as long as Lollapalooza’s deal is in effect, though it makes an exception for the seven existing city music festivals. If C3’s rivals Jam Productions and AEG took over Taste of Chicago, they’d be competing in the park that C3 has come to consider its own private venue to book some of the same name rock acts that might otherwise play Lollapalooza.

And the blues and jazz festivals? Well, they’re the biggest losers in all of this, because the partnership of Jam and AEG could have done truly amazing things with the bookings at both, albeit with music lovers now having to pay a nominal charge for the privilege. And no one in any of the music communities involved ever was given a chance to weigh in on any of this or suggest alternative plans. (Public hearings? We’d don’t need no steenking public hearings; we’re the Daley administration! At least for a few more weeks.)

How exactly will the Park District take over the thousand practical aspects of running Taste? It’s unclear whether all of the work will be kept in-house or if it will partner with outside companies—and gee, wouldn’t it be interesting if C3 Presents turns up to lend a “helping hand” as a contractor?

Meanwhile, just to the south and east, it looks as if the Park District will wind up with Ticketmaster/Live Nation once again promoting concerts on Northerly Island this summer.

As this blog recently predicted, the Park District has admitted that it never will have time to weigh the four bids it’s received and award the long-term contract to turn the former site of Meigs Field into an ecological playground and natural concert amphitheatre in time for construction to be completed by this summer. So yesterday, it sent each of the four bidders a letter inviting them to erect a temporary concert facility at the site and promote shows there this season. Their responses are due by Feb. 23.

The problem here: Only one of those bidders, Ticketmaster/Live Nation, is in a position to practically respond in such a ridiculously short period of time, having already erected the temporary venue for the last six years, and publicly stating that it’s already holding concert dates for this summer “just in case” it’s chosen by the city. It’s impossible for the others to compete, so the dreaded “Death Star of the concert industry” (so named by many employees who work there; it’s not a phrase this blogger coined) just got a big, wet Valentine’s Day kiss a few days early.

Oh, and lest anyone think things will get any less friendly for the corporate concert bad boys any time soon, let’s note once again that the two top executives of Ticketmaster/Live Nation both have donated to the campaign of mayoral frontrunner Rahm Emanuel, whose brother serves on their board of directors, and that 15 employees of his brother’s talent agency, which co-owns Lollapalooza with C3, also are among his donors. This reporter still is waiting for the Emanuel campaign to respond to questions about those contributions and comment beyond its one-sentence pledge to turn all dealings with those entities over to an independent negotiator to avoid the charge of favoritism. It’s been four days and counting.

              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:
Earlier reports in this blog about Lollapalooza’s shenanigans:
Earlier reports in this blog about Rahm Emanuel and Ticketmaster/Live Nation:


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