The Lollapalooza Gang invades the National Mall | WBEZ
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Jim DeRogatis

The Lollapalooza Gang invades the National Mall

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The National Mall (WikiCommons).

In their never-ending quest to rule the world of live music—they’ve just announced another expansion to New Zealand—Lollapalooza promoters C3 Presents and Live Nation are once again raising questions about whether exclusive, big-money, very much for-profit concerts should take place in treasured parks that are supposed to be open to the public.

This time, the corporate giants have invaded a public site even more storied and beloved than Grant Park: the National Mall, probably the most famous urban green space in America, linking the Washington Monument, the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, and the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

“A music festival holds part of the Mall for big-dollar attendees. Is that okay?” The Washington Post asked on Tuesday, in the headline atop a story about the Landmark Music Festival, which takes place Saturday and Sunday in the stretch of the Mall known as West Potomac Park. (Topping the 40-band bill: Drake, the Strokes, Alt-J, and Chvrches; ticket price: $175 for a regular two-day pass, and an astounding $2,350 for platinum access.)

The story by Scott Higham and Michael E. Ruane proceeds to quote several people who answered that question with a resounding “no.”

“We see the National Mall as a public treasure, and it’s supposed to be free and open to the public — the museums, the memorials and the events,” said Mark B. Bennett, executive director of the National Mall Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group. “This festival violates the intent of public access, regardless of whatever cause they are supporting.”

A historian who wrote the book on the Mall agreed.

“The Mall is America’s front lawn,” said Peter R. Penczer, author of “The Washington National Mall.” “It’s a place where people go to protest, to see the monuments, to relax on the weekend. I don’t know how it can be America’s front lawn if you’re fencing it off for a paid event. It’s for a good cause, but they are setting a bad precedent.” …

“When it starts to be for rich people to enjoy, it changes the nature of what the Mall should be,” said Kim D. Stryker, who heads a grass-roots campaign called Save the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. “The unfortunate precedent of this event is the Mall will not be seen as the place where the public can share events. Now people can profit off of holding big events that only some people can see.”

Following the pattern it established with the Austin City Limits Festival and Lollapalooza, C3 (now owned by the much-reviled Ticketmaster/Live Nation, the subject of anti-trust hearings in the Capitol a mere six years ago) is giving a chunk of the money it’s taking in to repairs at the Mall. Of course, the corporate concert giant is spinning this as altruism: The Mall is in the red for maintenance costs of more than $850 million, and kickbacks to the park include 10 percent of gross ticket sales, concessions, and corporate sponsorships (Miller, State Farm, Red Bull, and Volkswagen—and hey, couldn’t the latter use some good press at the moment?).

But calling the rent for a space that otherwise is not for rent “a charitable contribution” is hardly making a donation from the goodness of one’s heart. And As C3 majordomo Charlie Jones makes clear, this tax-deductible “contribution” is really an investment in a franchise—one that spits in the face of local indie promoters I.M.P., owners of the 9:30 Club, the way that Lollapalooza dumps on Jam Productions. (Both companies, two of the few remaining regional indies, testified against Live Nation at those aforementioned hearings on the Hill.)

So why is C3 really on the Mall? As in Chicago, it helps to have friends in high places. Noted the Post:

C3 had organized several large events in Washington, including President Obama's inaugurations and the White House Easter Egg Roll. The company also organized Obama’s election-night extravaganza in Chicago’s Grant Park in 2008.

C3 was acquired last year by Live Nation, a multibillion-dollar company. Live Nation’s board members include Ari Emanuel, co-chief executive of the William Morris talent agency and the brother of former Obama chief of staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

To be certain, the Post story is not the first time questions have been raised about the concert. Grassroots groups such as Save the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and Punk the National Mall have been challenging the festival and digging into the back-room dealings that made it possible for months, and the Post story makes use of facts that they had to pry loose with voluminous Freedom of Information Act requests when federal parks officials stonewalled them at every turn.

Now there’s some irony. What do you think ol’ Tom Jefferson would say about that?

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