Is the Future of the Santa Monica Pier Summer Concert Series at Risk?

Larger crowds, rising costs, and security concerns are raising questions

A special meeting has been called tonight to evaluate the future of programming at the Santa Monica Pier, in particular the free summer concerts known as the Twilight Concert Series. The members of the Santa Monica Pier Corporation, the body responsible for events held at the Pier, will hear comments from the public in advance of a full city council meeting on the topic next month.

The primary issue on the agenda for tonight’s meeting will be the future of the Twilight Concert Series, which has entertained Angelenos for the past 33 summers. In recent years, the series has hosted free, beach-side shows from musicians including Valerie June, Mayer Hawthorne, Natalia Lafourcade, Morris Day & The Time, Jefferson Starship, and Charles Bradley.

The Pier concerts began as a way to bring people back to the reconstructed Pier after disastrous storms in the early ’80s,” Santa Monica City Councilmember Kevin McKeown told Los Angeles magazine. “They became a beloved community summertime party, with carefully curated music choices.” 

As the popularity of the concerts has grown, concerns about the security and infrastructure required to accomodate the crowds have grown as well. With the recent opening of an Expo Line Metro stop near the Pier, attending the concerts has become more accessible for a diverse audience from across the Los Angeles area.

Photograph courtesy of Santa Monica Pier Corporation

The tipping point for city push-back against the series seems to have been the June 22, 2017 concert headlined by R&B musician Khalid. With a young and enthusiastic fan base, and a song that hit big between the initial announcement of the show and the eventual concert date, organizers knew to expect a high turn-out. An average concert at the Pier draws a crowd of 8,000 to 10,000 attendees, so when they recorded 22,000 advance RSVPs online, that information was shared with local public safety officials so they could prepare (the voluntary RSVPs are neither required nor binding, but are used as a general track of attendees).

After the packed performance, the excited, 18-year-old Khalid posted to Twitter that, “60,000 people came out to see me in Santa Monica.” While independent auditors estimated actual attendance at about 25,347 based on tallies and digital reconstructions from the event, Santa Monica police chief Jacqueline Seabrooks nonetheless stated an estimate of “40 to 50,000 people” in a comment to the Santa Monica Daily Press, describing a gathering of that size as “irresponsible.”

Photograph courtesy of Santa Monica Pier Corporation

In 2017, the Twilight Concert Series season was reduced from 10 performances to eight, citing rising costs, particularly costs associated with paying for security protocols mandated by the city government itself. Those mandated costs increased 1,900 percent from 2013 to 2016, according to reporting by Santa Monica Next, swelling from $50,000 to $1 million. During that same time, attendance at the events increased around 25 percent. (Funding for the series comes from a combination of sources, including public money and corporate sponsorships, including a presenting partnership with Santa Monica-based Snapchat.)

“The Pier itself is now one of the most popular and iconic destinations in Southern California, and despite our affection for those summer concerts, it has come time to consider whether they remain responsibly appropriate,” Councilmember McKeown said. 

It’s unclear what parties might end up agreeing upon for the 2018 season. Possibilities on the table might include additional cut-backs to the season, intentionally booking artists expected to draw smaller audiences, or shifting the season to fall when Santa Monica’s overall crowds are lighter—none of which are likely to please concert-goers who have enthusiastically embraced the Twilight Concerts for decades.

Then there are those who have expressed a desire to scrap the series, like Santa Monica Arts Commissioner Phil Brock, who penned an op-ed in the Santa Monica Mirror calling for the cancellation of the series, citing both the security concerns and a worry that, “While we share our Pier with the world, it must retain its local flavor.”

Photograph courtesy of Santa Monica Pier Corporation

At tonight’s meeting, members of the public are encouraged to attend and offer their thoughts regarding the upcoming concerts or other public programming at the Pier. No final decisions will come out of tonight’s advisory session, but recommendations from the meeting will be taken into next phases of a process that could result in big changes for one of the region’s most popular summer traditions.

The Santa Monica Pier Corporation Board  holds a public meeting tonight at Ken Edwards Center (1527 4th Street, Santa Monica) at 6:30 p.m.  

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