Could the sun soon set on Santa Monica's long-running Twilight Concert Series? It will if one vocal contingent has its way.
Phil Brock, a member of Santa Monica's Arts Commission and two-time City Council candidate, raised eyebrows earlier this month with an op-ed in the local Santa Monica Mirror that proposed canceling the event. "The [concert series] must be canceled and reimagined," Brock wrote, adding that it had become "a security burden to our city."
Currently, the 32-year-old concert series at the Santa Monica Pier brings in diverse acts such as Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Mayer Hawthorne and Mexican pop-rock singer Natalia Lafourcade — all of whom played last year — for 10 free shows every summer. (Disclosure: L.A. Weekly is a longtime co-presenter of the series.)
Neither Brock nor his commission have any say over whether the concert series continues, though they can make recommendations to Santa Monica's City Council, which has the final budgetary say.
There is, however, a real issue underlying Brock's criticism. According to a financial report presented to the Santa Monica Pier Corporation, the nonprofit tasked by the city with putting on the event, security costs for the event have ballooned in recent years. In 2013, the city spent $50,000 on public safety for the event; in 2016, safety costs had skyrocketed to nearly $1 million, driven largely by spending on the police presence. (The financial report was initially analyzed by Santa Monica Next.)
Brock chalks up the rising costs to a spike in attendance over the last several years, which he says has necessitated the increased presence. He thinks the event should be reimagined with smaller, local artists.
“[We] either have to downsize the concert to something that regains its roots — something family-friendly, a celebration for residents in our city and the surrounding areas — or we have to find a way to police the beach and have everyone go through security,” Brock tells L.A. Weekly. "I don’t know if we have the physical capability to rope off the beach and make it secure, and I don’t think we should be spending a million dollars of city budget money [for an event] that’s not for residents anymore."
But attendance growth hasn't exactly been “exponential," as Brock claims. The events have grown about 25 percent over the last three years, according to the Pier Corporation Board analysis.
Jay Farrand, the director of the Pier Corporation, which pays for marketing and promotion of the event through sponsorships and whose board is appointed by the city, says the problem isn’t the crowd levels or the size of the event.
The problem is that he doesn’t know exactly what the problem is.
“This is the only event I’ve ever seen where the public safety costs are more expensive than the concerts themselves,” Farrand says. “So there’s obviously something wrong with the model, and we’re just trying to figure out what that is.”
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The city itself is solely responsible for spending money on public safety, meaning all Farrand can do is help the city come to a decision that keeps the spirit of the event alive.
But he disagrees with the argument that scaling down the acts booked at the event — currently handled by RH&S Concerts, a partnership between Spaceland Presents (which runs the Echo, Echoplex and Regent Theater) and Rum & Humble — would necessarily result in significantly smaller crowds, or make them cheaper to keep safe. “We’ve noticed that limiting the size of the talent doesn't always coordinate to crowd size,” Farrand says. “If it’s a beautiful night, or if people have heard this is a wonderful free event, or if there’s an up-and-comer that happens to have a buzzy single, those could be the biggest shows."
The Santa Monica City Council will evaluate the amount of money it spends on the concert series as part of its regular budget review, a process that will continue until June and involves consulting with the Santa Monica Police Department. In the meantime, folks like Brock will continue trying to bend their ear, hoping the uncertainty over rising costs leads to some big changes.
[Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Spaceland Presents books the Twilight Concert Series. Booking and production are in fact overseen by RH&S Concerts, a partnership between Spaceland and concert producers Rum & Humble. We regret the error.]