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In Chicago for the long run, Lollapalooza makes itself at home

Lollapaloozfounder Perry Farrell performs Kids stage. Sunday August 7 2011.  | TamarBell~Sun Times Media

Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell performs on the Kids stage. Sunday, August 7, 2011. | Tamara Bell~Sun Times Media

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† Noon-10 p.m. Aug. 3-5

† Grant Park, Michigan and Congress

† Sold out


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Updated: August 30, 2012 6:14AM

Last year, as Lollapalooza celebrated a 20th anniversary, the music festival’s founder, Jane’s Addiction singer Perry Farrell, remarked to me, “I mean, it looks like this will go on forever, right?”

Never say forever, but Lollapalooza’s long-term future in Chicago — where the touring concert series was reborn in 2005 as a stationary, destination event in downtown’s Grant Park — certainly firmed up this spring. With a revised agreement that consummated the existing relationship between the city and the festival’s producers, Texas-based C3 Presents, Chicago now has a solidified tax deal and Lollapalooza has use of the city’s front yard through at least 2021.

“We’re no longer dating,” C3 partner Charlie Jones told the Sun-Times this week. “We’re married.”

Plus, according to ads that started showing up on CTA platforms this week, the dates of next year’s Lollapalooza are already set: Aug. 2-4, 2013.

Lollapalooza is now one of the country’s big three annual pop music festivals, alongside the Bonnaroo Music Festival in rural Tennessee and the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival outside Los Angeles. This year Lollapalooza will admit 100,000 ticket holders per day into Chicago’s public lakefront green space.

That’s up from last year’s already record-breaking daily tally of 90,000, and way up from a 33,000 daily maximum for 2005’s inaugural reboot.

Can it get any bigger?

“No, I don’t think it can,” said Michael P. Kelly, superintendent of the Chicago Park District, which oversees Grant Park, in a separate interview this week. Considering the number of people and available real estate, Kelly said, “We’re about at the limit.”

Jones actually agrees. “At a certain point — and we may be there — there’s a tipping point where it just feels too crowded,” Jones said. “If we tried to think of pushing it to 150,000, we’d have to ask for Millennium Park, too. That becomes something too big, a different thing. I was at [the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival] the year they pushed it to 125,000. It was too much.”

So, like an actual marriage, C3 and the Park District both now speak of settling in, setting a routine — and fixing up the house.

Quicker repairs

The new deal announced in March mandates that C3 pay for any damage done to the park immediately after the festival each August. Instead of C3 staffers fixing things themselves, as they’ve done previously, the Park District will assess any damage and make the repairs, with C3 getting the bill.

Last year, a rainstorm combined with high foot traffic on the fest’s final day caused significant turf damage that took weeks to mend. C3 was criticized for its speed in making the repairs, for which it paid $800,000.

But Jones and Kelly have been discussing more long-term infrastructure improvements to the park, specifically in terms of drainage and soil retention — maintenance that Jones likened to “looking under the hood and fixing ’er up.”

“Lower Hutchinson Field has become a premier permitting space for the city,” Kelly said. “The [Avon] Breast Cancer Walk, the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon, the Chicago Marathon, now Lollapalooza — it’s a big gathering space, and that’s not going to change. We’re going to take a serious look at how we can improve what’s going on at that site, how we can make it great for softball as well as for the semis that roll in and out for these larger events.”

Under its new terms with the city — a renegotiation that was initiated, Kelly and Jones said, by Jones and his partners, Charles Attal and Charlie Walker — C3 this year will begin paying all city and county sales and amusement taxes.

Through the previous arrangement, C3 was partnered not with the city itself but with the Parkways Foundation, a non-profit, fund-raising arm of the Park District, which handled all the city permits in exchange for an annual payment from Lollapalooza. Last year, according to the Park District, that amounted to $2.7 million on total ticket sales of $22.5 million.

Kelly said he expects the Park District to receive the same amount this year. The extra amount in city taxes, he said, will amount to about $1.5 million — higher than the $1.1 million estimate made in a September 2011 city inspector general’s report suggesting that the tax be applied to the festival.

“We had to up the ante,” Kelly said. “[C3] had to pay more for the event.”

As a result, so did fans. To cover the added expense of the taxes, the cost of three-day passes to Lollapalooza jumped $15, from $185 (early-bird) and $215 (regular) to $200 and $230, respectively. The event still sold out all three-day passes within a week before its performers were announced.

Coachella and Bonnaroo

Parkways was able to earmark its Lollapalooza income especially for park improvements citywide, including playground renovations, Grant Park tree planting and part of the restoration of Buckingham Fountain, which sits between Lollapalooza’s allocated concert area. Under the new deal, Kelly admits some of the Lollapalooza revenue will be used to shore up the Park District’s deficit budget, but he adds, “We have been and will be disciplined in allocating a big chunk of that money to the neighborhoods.”

Parkways announced in April that it will cease operations this summer. The Park District will launch a new non-profit division, which will not be connected to Lollapalooza, later this year.

Lollapalooza’s direct negotiation with governments is unique among the “big three” fests.

The Bonnaroo festival started in 2002 on a private farm in Manchester, Tenn., between Nashville and Chattanooga. In 2007, festival organizers purchased 530 acres of the land; they continue to lease about 250 acres for parking and camping. Bonnaroo, which occurs each June, draws about 80,000 people daily over four days.

Coachella now stages its concerts over two April weekends at a rented private facility, the Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif. That festival, which started in 1999, ran into its own governmental woes this spring when an Indio city official proposed a tax on Coachella tickets (approximately $18 per ticket). The festival balked and began shopping for alternate locations; the tax proposal was dropped.

Coachella’s agreements with the polo club have been made two years at a time, with the current contract expiring after the 2013 festival (for which tickets are already on sale).

This year’s Coachella events were attended by 158,000 total and grossed $47.3 million in ticket sales, according to Billboard Boxscore.

The Chicago Park District estimates the over-all economic benefit from Lollapalooza to the city at $100 million annually.

“Because we do this in the heart of a culturally savvy town,” Jones said, “the over-all economic impact is huge. Fifty percent of the people at this festival are from out of town. You can’t get a hotel room during the festival. Plus, we shut down at 10 [p.m.]. After that, the town gets lit up.”

He’s referring to the numerous official post-festival concerts each night at Chicago indoor music venues, as well as the other food, drink and entertainment business from festivalgoers throughout the city.

Lollapalooza, in fact, has become so attractive to the Park District that the city is looking for other ways to add large music events to Chicago’s green spaces. In addition to Lollapalooza in Grant Park and the annual Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park, this fall the annual punk rock Riot Fest will include two days outdoors in Humboldt Park.

The city’s openness to large-scale music in the parks is a relatively recent development, Kelly said.

“I was still in college in 1991 when Smashing Pumpkins were talking about playing Butler Field, and people talked it down because the crowds would be too big or whatever,” Kelly said. “Years later, we were doing Shania Twain and Radiohead in the park, and people were saying, ‘Well, maybe we can do concerts in Chicago parks, after all!’

“With the concerts we do now, we’re one of the largest providers of outdoor entertainment in the state,” Kelly said. “And we’ve always got a Dave Matthews or a Jimmy Buffett knocking at our door. Plus, other cities, like San Francisco, have been calling and asking, ‘How’d you do it?’ So, yes, pop music has become increasingly important to us.”

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