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There was Drake. There were The Strokes. There were beer lines so long you’d have thought they were giving it away for free. And, for a cool $900, there was a VIP ticket that afforded its purchaser “mini spa treatments” and catered buffets. This and more are what about 50,000 concert-goers found at the inaugural Landmark Festival for the National Mall, which took place last month at West Potomac Park.

It was a historic occasion, and not just because a Canadian artist performed on America’s Front Yard: This was the first-ever paid-admission concert on National Mall grounds, an area that encompasses the grassy park sandwiched between the marquee Smithsonian museums as well as the land and memorials that surround the Tidal Basin.

But it wasn’t just an excuse for a Lollapalooza-style party on the Mall. Organizers, including the Trust for the National Mall, emphatically touted that this massive two-day festival was being held for a good cause: saving the Mall. None of the revenue would go directly to the National Park Service, which oversees the Mall, but rather to the Trust, its official nonprofit fundraising partner. The Trust would receive 10 percent of the gross revenue from tickets, concessions, and sponsorships.

Though the Mall has played host to many musical artists in the past—as part of a rally, festival, or presidential inauguration—those events have been free and open to the public. But after all was said and done—with ticket prices that ranged from $105 for single-day admission to $2,350 for a platinum VIP pass—Landmark Festival raised just $570,000 for the Trust.

So how did a massive, millennial-baiting music festival—complete with steep ticket and concession prices—happen on the National Mall?

Landmark Festival was produced by C3 Presents, the promotion company responsible for mega-festivals like Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits. (C3 Presents and its publicist did not respond to requests for comment about Landmark Festival.) This wasn’t the first time the Live Nation subsidiary tried to throw a festival on the Mall.

According to the Washington Post, C3 Presents first proposed a paid-admission concert on the Mall to the Trust in 2009. John Piltzecker, the previous superintendent of the National Mall and Memorial Parks, turned down the proposal. Kristine Fitton, the Trust’s vice president of marketing and communication, says she revived the idea; this time, Piltzecker’s successor, Robert Vogel, approved it. (Vogel is now director of NPS’ National Capital Region.)

The process to plan the concert was not without its bumps. In emails obtained through an open records request, NPS employees raised questions and expressed concerns about charging for tickets, bringing in outside concessions, the price of said concessions, and the possibility of selling branded merchandise. In February of this year, Fitton emailed NPS to say the head of C3 Presents was “nervous about the viability of the concert since he has big financial contracts in front of lots of bands but the material we’re getting from the permitting department reads as though a gated and ticked event isn’t allowed.”

Organizers also had to make a convincing case to win approval for the paid event. According to Landmark Festival’s website, backlogged repairs and needed upgrades to the Mall and its memorials carry a pricetag of around $750 million. The festival, it explained, “kicked off this monumental national campaign to bring awareness and funds to America’s Front Yard.”

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.” 

As NPS’ reversal on Landmark Festival approval shows, not everyone has the same vision for why the park matters. The festival took place as the $40-million NPS turf restoration project (which the Trust supports financially) continues, making it harder and more expensive for events to take place on the Mall.

As a result of the changed rules, several longtime Mall events have moved elsewhere, and another had to reduce its size significantly because of the rising costs to use the land: The National Book Festival moved into the Walter E. Washington Convention Center; the Solar Decathalon contest has gone to California; the Black Family Reunion is on hiatus; and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is being forced to use a smaller area of the Mall next year and go without its large concert tents.

While the new turf is designed to address problems with the dirt patches on lawn panels between 7th and 14th streets NW, the restrictive regulations and higher costs associated with its use have raised concerns that Mall events will be limited to those with fat wallets. Case in point: last year’s veteran-honoring, free Concert for Valor, which was presented by HBO, Starbucks, and JP Morgan Chase.

Kim Stryker of the Save the Smithsonian Folklife Festival organization says that the NPS turf project rules are a “death by a thousand cuts type of thing.” She says that while NPS is not technically saying no, they’re just creating “as many obstacles as possible” and presenting a “false choice” between upkeep of the monuments and traditional events on the Mall.

Taken to its worst conclusion, these new rules could give big corporations that have deep pockets (like C3 Presents) a pseudo-monopoly on hosting events like Landmark Festival on the Mall. But NPS says consideration is given to all, including other groups proposing a paid-admission event.

“If another organization were able to demonstrate that their event has meaningful associations with the National Mall and would contribute to visitor understanding of the monuments and memorials, and if they could abide by the conditions of the permit to protect park resources and provide for the safety of visitors, we would consider that request,” says NPS Public Affairs Officer Mike Litterst.

And therein lies the real question: What does the future of events on the National Mall look like? Free and open events to the public, or large, expensive ticketed ones like Landmark Festival? Public funding has helped to put on longtime events like National Book Festival and the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival, but restrictive regulations have made those events tougher to put on.

“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 says.

Even so, Stryker feels misled by Landmark Festival, which so proudly boasted its “Save The National Mall!” message. “If it was supposed to be about raising awareness for the National Mall, why didn’t the artists waive their performance fees,” she says, “or only have a nominal fee and do it because of the prestige of the National Mall?”

A similar controversy has been brewing for years between city officials in Chicago and C3 Presents over its annual Lollapalooza festival, which has been held in Grant Park since 2005. Under a deal struck between the city of Chicago and C3 Presents/Lollapalooza in 2012, the promoters will contribute at least $1.5 million annually for improvements to Grant Park, the Chicago Tribune reported. Additionally, the annual percentage of net ticket sales from Lollapalooza to the Chicago Park District will rise annually until 2021, at 15 percent.

Litterst asserts that the ultimate goal of Landmark Festival was to raise awareness of the issues plaguing the National Mall and to introduce the Mall and its significance to a new, younger generation. 

Stryker isn’t sold.

She says the Trust gave “everyone the impression that they are going to patch Thomas Jefferson’s nose with your ticket price.”

Additional reporting by Steve Kiviat.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery