Where My Concerts At

the politics of free concert series’ success

by by Gillian Brassil

illustration by by Candice Chu

Pretend, for a second, that you are tasked with finding free summer concerts that moderately-hip urbanites would like to attend, but there’s a catch: New York concerts are off-limits. If you get to Googling, you will find quickly that free music series in most American cities consist of philharmonics, local jam bands, and spicy Latin ensembles. When it comes to free indie music, I discovered that New York’s options dominate those of any other city—I counted five free concert series with hipster-friendly acts to other cities’ one (or none).

A fair question to ask at this point is what constitutes "hipster" or "indie" music. While a discussion of what those terms actually mean is beyond the scope of this article, I think the distinctions are usually pretty obvious: if a band’s albums couldn’t be found at a Best Buy and the only radio airplay they’re getting is on college stations, I’m counting it. Also important to note here is that I’m focusing on a very specific subset of events: concert series that take place during the summer with multiple, completely-free shows. Even though our own dear Providence has a great free festival—IndieArts Fest—it only lasts one weekend, and paid festivals like Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits help make their cities’ music scenes grand, but they’re not for the faint of wallet. With these qualities in mind, why do New York’s offerings so greatly outstrip those of other cities?

To many, the answer seems obvious: New York is a big and happenin’ city with plenty of hipsters to support lesser-known bands. But isn’t that also true of Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles? Unwilling to believe that New York’s five series featuring indie acts (Central Park SummerStage, Celebrate Brooklyn!, the Pool Parties, River Rocks, and River to River) can be explained solely by a large population and hipster contingency, I did a little investigation into the causes behind this strange discrepancy. The answers range from common-sense to baffling.

Dolla dolla bill, y’all
Unsurprisingly, money plays a huge role in the planning of free summer concert series and dictates what its organizers are ultimately able to accomplish. Compare, for example, the budget of Chicago’s single free indie summer series, Downtown Sound—$40,000—with that of the Pool Parties’ $500,000. Though the Pool Parties put on eight shows to Downtown Sound’s six, the difference is still astounding, and likely due to the relative wealth of the sources of support: the Chicago series is 70 percent government-funded, while the Pool Parties gets all its cash from corporate sponsors. In fact, only one of the New York series—River Rocks—is planned and funded in full by the city, and it puts on just three shows. The rest are run by organizations that rely on corporate sponsors, private donors, and benefit concerts. Central Park SummerStage, the largest and most established of NYC summer series, gets only ten percent of its $2.5 million operating budget from government resources.

This difference in funding sources also affects programming: concert planners working for a city government are more obliged to cater to an entire city’s tastes, rather than just those of the demographic sponsors tend to appeal to: the young and hip. Paul Natkin, who sits on the Board of Directors for the Chicago Music Commission, says, “If you work for the city, and you’re putting out free music for the population of the city of Chicago, you can’t program for a bunch of indie rock fans, because there are Latin people, there are Polish people, there are Chinese people, there are Puerto Rican people, there are Mexican people, and you’ve got to give them their music, too.” Michael Orlove, who works for Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and does the programming for Downtown Sound, puts it this way: “We’re programming as much diversified music as possible. The same could be said for people who say, ‘How come you’re not programming polka?’ There’s communities out there that can navigate for themselves.”

This idea—that indie music fans can easily find shows to satisfy their interests, albeit paid ones—seems to suggest that the hipsters should just shut up and go to Pitchfork already. Still, one can’t help but question the assumed ability of this community to self-organize; if they can navigate for themselves, why haven’t private indie-minded organizations outside of New York been able to stage free shows? It’s been suggested that some aspects of indie culture—an aversion to corporate sponsorship, the value attributed to obscurity and elitism—may be responsible for the community’s unwillingness to plan public events. While these factors are certainly worth considering, they fail to explain why New York’s private indie organizations have been so successful in organizing free shows.

The Party Population
Clearly, the causes behind the concert-series disparity are due to more than issues of private versus public funding. Los Angeles’ Grand Performances, the city’s largest free summer performing arts series, is like SummerStage in that only 10 percent of its money comes from the government, yet its line-ups still conspicuously lack well-known indie acts. Michael Alexander, executive director of the series, cites problems entirely different from the financial woes of other cities as the cause.

The fact is, Grand Performances is financially stable: it takes place at California Plaza in downtown Los Angeles, and the surrounding businesses are required to foot 50 percent of the series’ bill; Alexander realizes that most organizations aren’t afforded this option: “Without an assured income stream (in our case, the funds from the buildings), non-profits cannot count on the support that is needed to professionally produce and manage a free concert series.”

For Grand Performances, budget’s not the problem; concertgoers are. As Alexander explains, “Some of the artists would attract a crowd that would require exceptional security costs… We are working in the midst of a corporate mixed-use development. Programming that encourages the consumption of alcohol is riskier than some other types of programming. This is not to say that I don't believe there should be indie programming, it just says that a community needs to look carefully into where best to bring free concerts of that sort.” Interestingly, Alexander also brings up the issue of over-attendance, noting that high-profile indie artists can draw crowds that exceed a series’ space and security allowances.

Regardless of their funding source, most events require the hiring of outside security—even smaller series require upwards of 50 security personnel at each show—so huge crowds can make an otherwise-affordable show prohibitively expensive. It appears that finding artists neither too obscure—those that Natkin describes as “the kind of band that should be playing in a club for 200 or 300 people, or maybe for 50 people, until they build up a fan base”—nor too popular presents a serious challenge for concert planners.

No money, no art rock
Free concert series of all types appear to have felt the effects of the ever-looming bad economy. Natkin says “almost every festival in Chicago this year was cut down by a day because of budget constraints.” In a world of tightening wallets, getting funding is increasingly tough; Alexander Kane of Jelly, the group that puts on the Pool Parties, noted in a New York Times article this July that corporate sponsorship is down: “Even now it would be great to get a company to cut you a check for half a million dollars. But you’re lucky if they cut you a check for a tenth of that.”

Though the current dismal economic situation doesn’t entirely explain the lack of free indie concerts—it’s not as if such series thrived in the past and only recently shut down for monetary reasons—it does provide some insight as to why concert planners might be loath to start introducing more adventurous lineups. In order to encourage sponsors to keep giving, summer series are under more pressure than ever to keep large crowds coming, limiting their willingness to take programming risks. This is how Natkin explains the preponderance of free classical music series in many cities: “The fact of the matter is: let’s say [an indie band] has 500 fans, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has 8,000 fans. I mean, who gets precedence at that point? If you need to break even or make money, you have to book somebody that will draw a crowd.”

There’s also the issue of priorities to consider, especially for government-funded ventures: it wouldn’t look good for a city to increase its concert budget even as its employees were required to take unpaid days-off to save money. Faced with this situation while planning the first-ever Downtown Sound series, Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs managed by diverting funds from other Chicago arts programming, apparently deciding that appealing to a younger audience was worth shortchanging other events.

So why don’t New York series require such sacrifices? The answer lies partly in the series’ long, established place in New York’s music scene: this season was SummerStage’s twenty-third, Celebrate Brooklyn’s thirtieth. Their budgets are notably larger than those of the seven-year-old River to River and four-year-old Pool Parties, not to mention the fledgling Downtown Sound.

Amber Haeckel, of Central Park SummerStage, acknowledges how helpful the series’ reputation can be: “In terms of sponsorship, I think that because we are an established festival, it does give us a slight edge. Most all of our sponsors this year were returning partners. We are very fortunate considering the downturn in the economy.”

Hope for the hipsters
At the very least, it’s reassuring to see that free indie concerts aren’t dying out. Though not exactly flourishing, opportunities for underground performers do seem to be on the rise. The success of Downtown Sound’s first season will likely encourage similar events in Chicago, and an expansion of the Pool Parties to the West Coast is entirely possible; they attempted to stage a second set of shows in San Francisco this year but were foiled by high costs. I am by no means demanding a hipster takeover of existing music festivals, but if concert planners truly do want to serve the entire population of their cities, they should acknowledge that part of that population consists of spandexed, flannelled, and Ray-banned youth, yearning for synths and theramins—at no cost.

GILLIAN BRASSIL B’12 is riskier than other types of programming.