It's a familiar affair
If you've been to one summer fest, you've been to them all, right? Here's why.
It’s summer in the city. You’re standing in the middle of a crowded, closed-off street somewhere, anywhere on the North Side, washing down a gyro and elephant ear with a $7 plastic cup of watery beer. On a stage in front of you, a hard-rocking frat band is pumping out Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl.” A blond dude in khaki shorts and a light-blue polo—you feel as if you’ve seen this guy dozens of times—raises his cup and yells, “Whoo!” And then it hits you: full-on neighborhood street fest déjà vu. Is it just the oppressive heat, you wonder, or has all of this happened before?
Chances are it has. There are about 39 main neighborhood street fests from May through September, according to the Mayor’s Office of Special Events. Almost all of them are produced by just two private companies: StarEvents and Special Events Management. And that’s why every weekend, all summer long, you end up eating the same vendor food, drinking the same overpriced beer, watching the same old ’80s cover bands and rubbing shoulders with the same “Whoo!”-ing bros.
The homogeneity of street fests isn’t lost on John Barry, StarEvents’ 43-year-old founder. Barry, who’s tan and handsome in the Robert Mitchum mold, has been producing street fetes—among them Andersonville Midsommarfest, Wrigleyville Summerfest and Chicago Summerfest—for 15 years. He says he fields complaints every year from attendees who are burned out on the same old, same old. “I get these e-mails on occasion from Chicagoans that will say, ‘Why are you booking the same bands over and over? We’ve heard those songs and the city offers such great talent,’” Barry tells us at StarEvents HQ in Lakeview.
“Believe me, I’d love to have them and I’d encourage anyone who wants to see more original acts, come here and put on an event. When you’re paying for lights, stage, sound, security—your expenses get really crazy. And if you book bands that no one knows, even though they sound great, they’re playing all originals and they’re hip—I want to put them up, but if they can’t draw a crowd and sell beer, we’re going to take a beating.”
Hanging on the walls in the bathroom at StarEvents are promo posters from Lakeview Mayfest, Rock Around the Block (also in Lakeview), Retro on Roscoe and other StarEvents fests dating back to the late ’90s. It’s hard not to notice a pattern among the stage lineups: Cover acts Mike and Joe and Mr. Blotto dominate prime spots. Barry concedes hit rehashers Sixteen Candles, Hairbangers Ball, Too White Crew and Maggie Speaks are also go-to acts.
“When you’re drawing a generic crowd of 20-, 30-, 50,000 people, you want to appeal to as many of them as possible,” he says. “Cover bands play what the crowds love to sing. And when you’re drinking with your friends on the street with a hot dog, I guess ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ is a fun thing to hear. Come to any of our fests and you’ll probably hear that song a couple of times from different bands, because they all share the same set list. But it works.”
Hank Zemola, CEO of StarEvents’ main rival, Special Events Management, says it takes effort to avoid “clone fest.” He’s had success setting limits on bands. “We say, ‘We’re going to give you three slots this year: once in June, once in July, once in September. You want to do other events? Then we don’t want you.’”
Despite being competitors, Barry and Zemola agree that most people don’t understand summer street fests are fund-raisers—especially the scoundrels who sidestep the recommended gate donation (usually $5 to $10). Neighborhood orgs such as chambers of commerce, charities and churches tap StarEvents and Special Events Management to help fill their coffers. “These events cost a lot of money—anywhere from 50,000 to a quarter of a million dollars,” Barry says. “When you’ve got that kind of money on the line and you’re a local charity, you’d best find a way to reduce that risk as much as possible.” (Zemola can speak to that: In 2005, the Old Town Merchants & Residents Association lost $90,000, he says, when Hurricane Katrina–related rains drowned out the festivities.)
Reducing risk also means favoring the same few established turnkey food and crafts vendors instead of local restaurants and artisans . “We always look first to see what we can get from the local community,” Zemola says. “But the smaller, local operators often say they’d love to do it but they don’t have the infrastructure.” There’s also a three-hour Food Service Sanitation Certification class required by the city. “Some of these guys,” Zemola says, “would have to pay $4,000 before they even sell their first hot dog.”
“So you’re going to see these same operations, like the egg rolls from Lee Concessions,” Barry says. “For me, it’s much easier. I don’t have to hold their hand.” Tried-and-tested bands, vendors and artisans get first dibs for the next year, Barry says, and some he hires in blocks of up to ten events. “If you have a return rate of 80 percent, you’re doing well.”
However, Zemola’s had luck keeping the Wells Street Art Festival vendors fresh by saying no more often. “It causes some hard feelings. I had a woman call me and say, ‘I’ve been accepted for ten years in a row and I wasn’t accepted this year.’ Well, just because you were in last year doesn’t mean you’re in this year.”
One of StarEvents’ summer-fest outliers is the Taste of Randolph Street. The foodie-centric fest spurns cover bands and traveling vendors. (Jam Productions, an entity that books national acts at venues like the Park West and the Riviera, produced it in years past.) Barry says it’s going to be one of his big challenges of the year, because he’s had to establish relationships with companies like Live Nation and William Morris, instead of, say, speed-dialing Mr. Blotto.
Barry attends every festival he produces. In a decade and a half, he’s been to more than 200. “You tolerate it, you put up with it. But no question, I could go the rest of my life without seeing Mike and Joe and Sixteen Candles ever again. I’ve sang ‘Jessie’s Girl’ a thousand times over,” Barry says. “But I love the outcome. Any of these nonprofits can do so much more because of the money we raise for them. That’s a cool job.”