Injustice at the G. Love fest
There at the front of the stage was a vast private viewing area for VIPs. Unlike the rest of the jam-packed fields, the VIP section was half-filled with what Mr. Love described from the stage as “cockeyed” people more interested in talking and drinking free beer than in watching the show. Behind them, thousands of Mr. Love’s more devoted fans were pinned behind a steel barricade set up almost 100 feet from the stage.With Robin Hood-like valiance, Mr. Love took to the microphone and told the security guards – who’d already reinforced their positions at the barricade – to lighten up. He then motioned for the crowd to move forward. After some tussling with security guards, the fans soon prevailed and overtook the VIP section. With Mr. Love’s fans finally ensconced at the front, the concert proceeded without incident, and Mr. Love put on the stellar show that he and his fans deserved.Thankfully, no one was hurt in the initial melee. But if someone had been, the concert’s promoters would have shouldered the blame for pursuing a crowd-management plan that was both unwise and unfair.We’re all accustomed to seeing lavish VIPs sections at events across the valley. Normally, they’re merely an annoyance for rank-and-file attendees. But in this case, the huge VIP section was an affront to everyone who paid to get into the concert. Positioning such a section at the side or behind the stage is a lesson in Rock Promotion 101; you’re simply asking for trouble by cordoning off a huge VIP area right at the front of the concert. (Evidently, the promoters, a Vail-based group called Highline Sports & Entertainment, didn’t learn their lesson at last year’s Sports Fest, when a similar fracas occurred at a Big Head Todd concert.)Highline Sports made a second, perhaps less dangerous error in judgment by failing to clearly publicize the fact that the concert was not a free event. Instead of announcing a ticket price, advertisements for the concert referred convolutedly to a “courtesy $10 admission donation.” At the entrance to the show, concertgoers were greeted by printed signs that read “$10 donation requested.”Yet when attendees like Vail resident Dave Kraft opted not to contribute, they were turned away. “I pointed to the sign that said “requested,’ but was I still denied admission,” recalls Kraft. “I had the $10, but I made a U-turn on principle.” He and others who’d balked at paying the $10 were subjected to name-calling as at least one gate attendant shouted, “What, are you too cheap?”Concertgoers who’d assumed the admission was free or had less than $10 were turned away, too. “There was one group of three teen-agers who were $4 short between them,” recalls Kraft. “But they weren’t allowed in, either.”Others who were reluctant to pay the fee – but intimidated upon hearing the gate attendants’ name-calling – choose not to enter or to do so without putting up a fuss. (The staffers pointed nonpayers to an area outside the gate where they could view the concert from afar.) Yet even some of those who paid complained later that the event’s promotion was confusing at best. “Early last week, the articles claimed there would be a FREE concert for people after the sports action,” a local concierge told the Vail Daily’s Tipsline. “Then I read that there is a COURTESY $10 admission to see the band. Why the sudden change?”Some who balked at the $10 “donation” wondered why they should plunk down their money to benefit two of Vail’s wealthiest institutions – The Steadman Hawkins Sports Medicine Foundation and the Vail Valley Medical Center Foundation. Their planned Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Wing, to which the event’s proceeds are earmarked, is hardly a charity in the conventional sense. The new wing is likely to be a magnet for wealthy celebrities, sports figures and dignitaries from around the world, such as skier Picabo Street, who was among the VIPs milling about at the fund-raiser. Locals who need knee surgery and other operations will also have access, but they (and their insurance companies) will pay through the nose for the privilege.”Is the new orthopedic wing going to be a free clinic? Or is it going to be a profit center for the hospital?” asked one disgruntled concertgoer.Unfortunately, those questions remain just that. Advertisements and announcements at the concert referred vaguely to “a worthy cause” to “help fund the new Sports Medicine Wing.” But there was little information to identify exactly which needy souls would benefit from the tens of thousands of dollars collected at the show.A request for information to John Welaj, COO of the Steadman Hawkins Foundation, was greeted with a polite “no comment.” His referral to the Suzanne Sloan, the medical center’s marketing director, was met with similar reluctance to speak on the record. (Ms. Sloan, in turn, referred questions to the the medical center’s public relations director, who was out sick at press time.) Although Ms. Sloan declined to specify exactly where the concert’s proceeds would go, she noted that the Vail Valley Medical Center engages in many charitable activities.For their part, the promoters at Highline Sports were apologetic about the mess at the front of Saturday’s concert. “Obviously, we wanted everyone to have an enjoyable and safe experience,” says Jeff Brausch, the group’s founding partner. “In the future, we’ll certainly move the VIP area off to the side of the stage.”As for the confusion over the “courtesy $10 admission donation,” Brausch, too, admits his company could have done a better job communicating to the public that the $10 donation was, in fact, required. “It was just one of those communication things where people take it one way when it’s meant another,” says Brausch. “We were trying to let people know that it’s a $10 donation. It’s an admission charge, but it’s a donation, too. We didn’t mean for there to be confusion.”Unfortunately, the result (according to one non-profit tax expert) is that the concert admission fee’s “required” status robbed those generous souls who did pay from the chance to claim a charitable deduction on their taxes, as the IRS only considers voluntary donations to be tax deductible.Hopefully, Mr. Love won’t abandon his frequent visits here just because of last Saturday’s mess. And with some improvements in how benefit concerts are staged here, the man whose best songs decry homelessness and champion the little guy won’t have reason to raise his voice against injustice – at least not here in Vail.Alex Markels of Minturn is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who writes for such publications as Wired and Newsweek.