C3 Presents is a giant in the music festival industry. They just announced that Lollapalooza—the annual Chicago festival that the company has promoted every summer since 2005—would extend to the point of bursting with a fourth day of live music in Grant Park. Back in September, they announced plans to broaden the ACL brand it has fostered in Austin for over a decade to Auckland, New Zealand. And they’ve dabbled in politics, too—C3 also used its familiarity with Chicago’s Grant Park to put together President Obama’s election night parties in Chicago in 2008 and 2012.
So it makes some sense that the company might explore some political connections as a way to further open up the festival and events business. That’s the takeaway from the political money trackers the Sunlight Foundation’s recent report that C3 hired the Austin-based Ben Barnes Group to lobby Congress to open up the national parks for its events.
This isn’t a shocking move—C3 put on the Landmark Festival in Washington, D.C. this fall, which was the first paid-admission event on the National Mall. The Mall is a national park, so the idea of extending to these spaces isn’t unprecedented. It is controversial, though. As the Washington City Paper noted in the aftermath of Landmark, the process of getting approval was “not without its bumps,” as the National Parks Service had concerns about everything from charging for tickets, the sale of outside concessions (and what those concessions would cost), and the sale of branded merchandise. As recently as February—just six months before the festival—C3 expressed its own concerns about whether or not they were allowed to even host a gated and ticketed event in a national park.
That’s something that had been attempted before by non-C3 companies in the past, too. As the City Paper reported in October:
C3 Presents isn’t the only concert promoter to pitch a music festival on the National Mall. Local concert producer I.M.P. Productions sought to do a festival of its own on an unspecified portion of the Mall, but its permit application was turned down because they wanted it to be a ticketed event—albeit one that benefitted a nonprofit.
“Like many other qualified organizations, we would love to present events on the Mall,” says Seth Hurwitz, I.M.P. chairman and 9:30 Club co-owner. “As it stands now, the entire process is designed to accommodate only one beneficiary and one producer. We hope that all of the recent attention will change that, unless all of this talk about how great it is for everybody is merely to rationalize one’s own agenda.”
That’s not exactly a thinly-veiled shot at C3, which even in its hometown of Austin has a reputation for not always playing well with others when it comes to how public space is used. In 2013, the company paid for $3.5 million worth of renovations to Auditorium Shores, but those renovations were contentious: Neighbors in the area saw the donation as a way for the company to attempt to dictate how the space would be used. Meanwhile, the company’s chief rival in Austin, Transmission Entertainment, had its marquee event Fun Fun Fun Fest disrupted during the renovations—and the new design of the park nearly derailed the 2015 event.
Still, the Trust for the National Mall vice president of marketing and communication Kristine Fitton has a different view. She told the City Paper the Trust’s rationale for hosting the Landmark Festival at the space, and it’s one that extends to most of the national parks that C3 would presumably like to hold events at in the near future. “I think regardless of your opinion on it, there is a new paradigm where government funds are not enough to take care of our public spaces right now,” Fitton told the paper in October.
Certainly, C3 does a lot to maintain Austin City Limits’s Zilker Park home, and Auditorium Shores, where it hosts the Austin Food & Wine Festival. Landmark raised a relatively small sum for the National Mall—just $570,000—but it’s certainly possible to imagine a future where minimum contributions from promoters who host events at these spaces are more substantial. But the question of whether this is how the national parks should be used at all—for events with high ticket prices and high concessions prices—is one worth asking.
The National Parks System was created in 1872 by an act of Congress and was expanded greatly under Teddy Roosevelt. Woodrow Wilson signed the law that created the National Park Service within the Department of the Interior, which also defined the purpose of the parks as “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
That’s a legit mission, and closing off portions of the parks—not to mention bringing hundreds of thousands of visitors who are less interested in “the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein” and more interested seeing Drake or Adele—would certainly seem to warp it. Music festivals and conservation aren’t inherently at odds, but given the current culture of these festivals, it’s easy to picture a Big Bend covered in cigarette butts.
For its part, C3 responded to requests for comment with this statement emailed to Texas Monthly:
In 2015, C3 Presents partnered with the Trust for the National Mall to produce the Landmark Music Festival in Washington, D.C. Located in West Potomac Park, this multi-day, multi-stage music festival was a first within a National Park. The firm retained in D.C. was to help ensure that the complexities of producing this major event on federal land was a success.
Of course, it’s also possible that this is less about getting into the 59 national parks scattered throughout the U.S. (it’s hard to imagine anybody rocking out at the top of Denali!), and more about ensuring easier access to the National Mall for Landmark 2016 and beyond. C3’s statement says as much—though it seems strange that they would lobby Congress for an event deal with the National Parks Service, but OK. But whether they’re Big Bend or the National Mall, the possibility and the consequences that go with it are worth pondering in the meantime.
*Editor’s note: Ben Barnes’s office reached out to us to confirm that the only park they were hired to discuss with the Department of the Interior was the National Mall.