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To be free or not to be free: Do you want (to pay for) better music at the city's summer festivals?

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Chicago's city council has a proposal before it -- just one -- to privately run the city's summer music festivals, but while time is of the essence aldermen are balking at the bid and trying to slam on the brakes. What's at stake: Whether there will be any acts music fans would actually want to see at this year's Taste of Chicago, blues festival, jazz festival and more -- and how much it'll cost you for the privilege.

In its effort to trim costs, like everyone else, the city finally realized in 2010 that producing six free entertainment festivals -- especially when, as we reported a few weeks ago, they lost the city $7 million over three years -- doesn't make a lot of fiscal sense. The spirit of offering Chicagoans free hootenannies throughout the summer is commendable but has grown evermore utopian amid the 21st century's difficult financial realities. Mayor Daley suggested privatizing the festivals -- Taste of Chicago, plus the six genre fests: blues, jazz, country, gospel, Celtic and Viva Chicago (Latin music) -- and last month opened the idea to bidders. (A good start. He could have just nixed them. The next mayor, however, should be formulating a coherent and aggressive arts policy.)

Only one bid came in, from a new organization, Celebrate Chicago: a partnership between Chicago event promoter Jam Productions, nationwide event producer AEG Live and the Illinois Restaurant Association.

Given the unpredictable scenarios that could have resulted from throwing these reins into the air and seeing who might grab for them, this sounds pretty great. It also means, according to Celebrate Chicago's bid, some of the festivals won't remain free. That's OK, and long overdue.

In 2008, columnist Dave Hoekstra wrote a story for us about how the free entertainment options at Taste of Chicago, our summer sweat-and-gluttony marathon in Grant Park (which bills itself as "the world's largest food and free entertainment festival"), pale miserably when compared to the hot -- and largely current -- talent to the north at Milwaukee's superb Summerfest (calling itself "the world's largest music festival"). In defense of Summerfest's gate charge vs. Taste's stubborn insistence on remaining free, Hoekstra wrote:

A minimal ticket charge not only weeds out some characters but helps support better bookings. The city will tell you that a free festival makes the event available to everyone, but in 24 years of covering major free festivals, the only times I have seen that consistently played out in heartfelt manners are the jazz and gospel festivals. And with the city's financially crippled education and transportation systems, why are we having a huge free festival, anyway?

Amen and hallelujah -- though the not-so-minimal $20 Taste admission fee proposed by Celebrate Chicago wouldn't all be going into city coffers. But neither would it continue to drain them.

Summerfest is supported by an $8-15 entry fee, which is waived for those who buy tickets to the concerts. Celebrate Chicago is proposing the $20 fee and concert tickets aiming between $25 and $65, which would also waive the entry fee. That's for Taste -- the bid proposes a $10 entry fee for Chicago's blues and jazz festivals, while others would remain free.

In 2008, a City of Chicago official said the 2008 Taste of Chicago budget was $9.5 million, with roughly 10 percent allocated to entertainment. (That does not include money paid to restaurants from food ticket sales.) That same year, Summerfest's budget of $31 million earmarked $9.6 million of it (slightly more than the entire budget of Taste) to entertainment, or about 31 percent.

But the bottom line for music fans is this: An entry fee would support better talent on stages, which Taste of Chicago has consistently lacked. Last year's top Summerfest performers included Tim McGraw, Lady Antebellum, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Justin Bieber, Brooks & Dunn, Usher, Santana, Rush, Carrie Underwood, Eric Clapton performing with Roger Daltrey. By contrast, during the same weeks the free Taste of Chicago filled stages with Salt-N-Pepa, Gavin Rossdale, Emily Osment, Los Lobos (who encored with Robert Plant, a purely serendipitous occasion), Mat Kearney, Trey Songz, Rob Thomas and the perennial Steve Miller. It's been embarrassing like that every year since the city took over booking the acts in the 1990s.

"For a city like Chicago to get beat by Milwaukee is unacceptable. The level of talent we have playing the Taste needs to be elevated," a source familiar with the bid told the Sun-Times.

The question raised by at least one alderman, though, is whether or not this is a talent contest. Do you as Chicagoans want to hear quality, current entertainment -- which costs money -- or do you just want a relatively thin excuse to be in the park on a summer evening regardless of who's on stage? The city has already allowed an out-of-town company to take over Grant Park for a couple of weeks each summer, producing the private and not-cheaply-ticketed Lollapalooza concert festival on public land. Does the city thus have a responsibility to balance that experience by offering something for free?

Ald. Freddrenna Lyle (6th), we reported today, is reluctant to agree to the entry fees and is against higher ticket prices for festival concerts. "The last concert I went to was Maze and Frankie Beverly. Tom Joyner had done a promotion, and everybody came out. I saw thousands of middle-aged black and Latino people all dressed in white. They were out there enjoying the lakefront. It was exactly what you want at a Taste event," she said Tuesday. "More than half of those people would not have come if it was $65. They're making just about the minimum wage. They wouldn't have been able to afford a $65 ticket. Taste of Chicago is not Ravinia, and we should not be trying to make it Ravinia."

So the two camps in this issue are: those who think citywide music festivals in Chicago should be as world-class as the city itself and thus feature world-class but pricier performers, and those who are content with perfectly talented but utterly stale acts like Frankie Beverly. (Who? Exactly.)

Public hearings are a good thing, always. But it's January, and any musician who's planning to tour the country this summer is booking those dates right now. The longer the city waits to accept or reject the bid, the fewer acts it or Celebrate Chicago will have to choose from, thus making the whole debate moot for at least the 2011 events. Fans shouldn't wait for the hearings, though. Call or write your reps -- let them hear from you now.

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on January 5, 2011 5:00 PM.

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