For the National Park Service, the Lollapalooza-style festival featuring Drake and the Strokes near the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on Saturday and Sunday could be a windfall for the agency and for the Mall. More than 40 bands will perform on five stages to raise money for the Park Service, helping the agency to restore and maintain the hallowed, historic grounds, the site of some of the nation’s most defining moments.
“This is the first time money might circle back to the Mall,” said Robert Vogel, director of the National Capitol Region of the Park Service, who gave the go-ahead for the festival. “It’s certainly not a bad thing.”
But the concert comes at a cost. The Landmark Music Festival, promoted by Austin-based C3 Presents, marks the first time a section of the Mall and its memorials will be cordoned off for a concert and closed to the nonpaying public. The price to attend: $105 per day, $150 to $175 for the weekend, and far more for VIP and Platinum passes.
Activists and historians who monitor the Mall say the decision to charge admission to the music festival sets a troubling precedent that could signal an end to the days of free music in the national park, ushering in an era of pricey, multi-day festivals.
“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.”
Vogel stood by the decision, saying the concert is worth a try, particularly since maintenance of the Mall has fallen behind by nearly $852 million.
“This is a bold experiment,” Vogel said. “There really is a need to do something different.”
Vogel noted that the festival will be held in West Potomac Park and not on the official grounds of the Mall, which run from the U.S. Capitol to the Washington Monument. Still, the park is subject to many of the same federal regulations as events held elsewhere on the Mall, and it is part of what the Park Service calls the National Mall and Memorial Parks region.
Vogel also said people who don’t want to pay to attend the festival can still hear the music outside West Potomac Park, south of the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool. They can also watch the bands perform on a Jumbotron set up at the Sylvan Theater near the Washington Monument, and 1,000 free tickets have been given away through a public lottery.
“We are trying to make this an open event,” Vogel said.
C3, which is owned by Live Nation, the world’s largest concert promoter, will provide 10 percent of the festival’s gross ticket receipts to the Trust for the National Mall, a nonprofit group that is an official fundraising arm of the Park Service. The trust, co-producer of the festival, will also receive 10 percent from concession sales and donations from corporations that are sponsoring the festival, including Miller beer, State Farm insurance, Volkswagen and Red Bull.
Festival organizers expect 30,000 people to attend each day.
Benefit concerts rarely make money the first time around, said Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar, an online magazine that covers the concert industry. He said the shows are more likely to turn a profit after a few years.
“I would imagine that C3 would like this to be an annual event,” he said. “It looks like they are trying to replicate the Lollapalooza concerts in Chicago. They will probably lose money the first couple of years, but they are looking at this as a long-term play that could be an annual event on their calendar.”
Charlie Jones, one of the partners of C3, didn’t dispute that assessment. He called the early years of benefit concerts “investment years,” and said it’s not about making money initially.
“It is relationships, and making sure you do what you say you’re going to do and operate honorably,” Jones said. “And in this particular instance, there could not be more eyeballs on this event to make sure that it is run safely and with the piece of property respected.”
The Landmark Music Festival comes at a time when there has been increasing debate about how much of the Mall should be open for large public events, and how heavily the Park Service should be relying on private corporations to subsidize its budget.
New Park Service rules designed to protect the grounds of the Mall and its turf, which do not apply to the concert’s location at West Potomac Park, have forced the National Book Festival to move to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and reduced the footprint of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, eliminating large tented concert venues and removing much of the festival from the grass-covered center panels of the Mall.
For the concert in West Potomac Park, C3 will cover the ground with turf-protection flooring.
Relying on a private company such as C3 to help raise money for the Park Service is part of a growing trend. Under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015, the Park Service is permitted to pursue funding from corporate sponsors.
Companies such as Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch and Air Wick have answered the call, becoming official partners with the National Park Foundation, another charity that raises money for the Park Service. The corporations have donated money in exchange for product placements and advertising tie-ins with the national park system.
Budweiser, for instance, has been plastering beer cans and bottles with red, white and blue stripes and images of the Statute of Liberty to “raise awareness” about the park system and celebrate the centennial of the Park Service next year. Air Wick has launched a new line of scented oils called the National Park Collection. Among the fragrances: Yosemite Wild Strawberry & Mountain Rain.
Park Service officials say they need the money. Funding for the agency has remained flat over the years, and deferred maintenance costs throughout the entire park system now stand at more than $12 billion.
“As interest in the parks grows and appropriations remain flat, public-private partnerships continue to be an appropriate strategy to help us protect the parks and meet the needs of our current visitors and attract diverse audiences,” Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said.
Some people fear that having a paid-admission music festival in West Potomac Park, organized by a large, for-profit corporation, could lead to paid concerts elsewhere on the grounds of the Mall and its memorials, which include the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
“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.”
In addition to general-admission tickets for the concert, the Landmark Music Festival Web site offers VIP passes, for those who want to “See And Be Seen,” for $900 apiece, which include access to air-conditioned restrooms and spa treatments. For $2,300, “Platinum” passes allow concertgoers to “Live It Up Like Luxury,” providing them with access to the artists’ lounge area, special viewing areas and an on-site concierge.
James M. Goode, a nationally recognized author, curator and expert on the history of Washington and the Mall, said any move to charge admission to concerts and other events on the Mall and around the memorials should be reconsidered.
“I’m opposed to having paying ventures on public land,” he said.
The idea for the festival first surfaced in 2009, when C3 Presents proposed a paid-admission event to the Trust for the National Mall, according to concert organizers.
Park rules generally do not permit events that close off areas usually opened to the public or that financially benefit a for-profit entity. There is an exception for “special events” that provide a “meaningful association between the park area and the event” and “contribute to visitor understanding of the significance of the park area.”
Caroline Cunningham, president of the trust, said she believed C3 would be a good partner for the nonprofit, which wanted to raise money for Mall restoration and maintenance. 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.
The previous superintendent of the National Mall and Memorial Parks, John Piltzecker, turned down the proposal for a paid-admission concert. He declined a recent request from The Washington Post to discuss his decision.
After Piltzecker left and was later replaced by Vogel, Cunningham pitched the concept again.
Vogel said he carefully considered the pros and cons.
“We talked through it, and we thought it was a good idea,” he said.
The trust filed its application for the festival on Sept. 10, 2014, saying it wanted to “raise national awareness and funds for the Campaign for the National Mall.” Cunningham said the festival is aimed at attracting millennials and educating them about the importance of the Mall.
That October, Vogel granted “conceptual approval” for the concert. Final approval would still be needed before the festival could proceed.
Four months later, the Park Service’s permit office was notified of Vogel’s tentative approval, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. On Feb. 3, Sean Kennealy, acting deputy superintendent for the National Mall and Memorial Parks region, sent a copy of Vogel’s memo to Robbin Owen, the chief of Park Service permits.
“Here is the letter Bob sent to the TNM [Trust for the National Mall] for the conceptual approval of the concert event,” Kennealy wrote to Owen. “This is the first I’ve seen this too.”
Kennealy said in a statement that he had been in his acting deputy position for only a couple of months, and once he learned about the music festival, he sent Vogel’s memo to the permit office.
Word of the festival began to leak out. On April 27, Owen responded to another concert promoter, I.M.P. Productions, owner of the 9:30 Club and chief operator of Merriweather Post Pavilion, which wanted to stage its own festival in the Mall area to benefit a nonprofit organization.
Owen acknowledged that the Park Service had already received an application to hold a concert in West Potomac Park — but stated that any festival under consideration must be free.
“We had received a request for a concert to charge admission,” she wrote to I.M.P.’s attorney. “The application was reviewed and policies and regulations stand that all activities must be free and open to the public.”
The next day, the Park Service and the Trust for the National Mall held a news conference at the rooftop bar of the W Hotel in Washington to announce the Landmark Music Festival, the lineup and the ticket prices.
On April 29, I.M.P.’s attorney wrote back to Owen, saying he couldn’t understand how the festival could be considered “free and open to the public” after the announcement by the Park Service and the trust. “The listed prices even for general admission were quite substantial and there was nothing that suggested that it was ‘open’ to everyone,” he wrote.
Owen responded: “Just learned prior to the announcement that the decision was reviewed again and overruled at the Washington Office level.”
In a brief interview with The Post, Owen declined to discuss the decision.
“I’m not at liberty to say,” she said.
Vogel said many permitting decisions are made above the level of the permit office. He said he didn’t know why Owen was unaware that the concert would be a paid admission concert on the Mall.
“That’s a very legitimate question,” Vogel said. “I don’t know.”
Michael E. Ruane contributed to this report.