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Future uncertain for Twilight Concert Series on its 30th anniversary

In the past few years, the concerts have produced staggering turnouts at Pioneer Park.

In August 2013, nearly 30,000 people gathered at the annual Twilight Concert Series to see rapper Ludacris, according to attendance records provided by the Salt Lake City Arts Council. An additional 5,000 attendees were at the following week’s show that featured hip hop artist Kid Cudi.

In 2015, more than 25,000 lovers of Death Cab for Cutie united in downtown Salt Lake to see the alternative rock band perform.

But now, in 2017, the event that has been a part of the Salt Lake community for 30 years hangs by a thin thread.

Rising artist and production fees have caused a substantial increase in the concert series’ funding over the past five years, according to a recent Deseret News article, and several years of cost overruns have led the Salt Lake City Council to question the sustainability of the series.

And while that discussion is inevitable, it won’t take place until after this summer’s Twilight Concert Series wraps up, according to Matt Thurber, communications manager for the Arts Council. The series kicks off with Swedish electronic band Little Dragon on July 20, and as Thurber and other members of the Arts Council prepare for the large masses of people that will flock to Pioneer Park, there’s a reflection that comes with simultaneously celebrating the series’ 30-year milestone while questioning its future.

A humble beginning

With its densely populated crowds and high-profile acts performing on stage, the Twilight Concert Series has become a summertime staple of Salt Lake. Yet, upon the series’ inception in 1988, such an outcome would have been unfathomable.

“I don’t think anybody would have imagined it would’ve become this juggernaut of a concert series every summer,” Thurber said. “I think at first it was just giving exposure to these little bands and over time, it was more than just the concert. It was a concert-going experience.”

Initially situated in the grassy courtyard of the Salt Lake Art Center — now the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art — a few dozen residents gathered to attend the series’ debut concert in the summer of 1988, according to Thurber.

The event was the product of one man’s vision of launching an outdoor musical experience under the stars, Thurber said. Led by Casey Jarman, former program director of the Arts Council, the Twilight Series first formed as a partnership with the Brown Bag concert series that, at the time, had been offering free, lunchtime concerts during the summer for the past 10 years, according to the Deseret News. In the Twilight Concert Series’ early years, Jarman ran the lights and sound until the event gained enough popularity that a larger work crew was hired.

The performances featured in the series' early years catered to a significantly different crowd than the young people who enjoy the concerts today, Thurber said. The major emphasis was on world music, with the concerts often highlighting traditional music from a variety of cultures. In addition, the early Twilight Series regularly featured classical music, folk music, jazz and bluegrass, as well as performances from the Salt Lake Repertory Dance Theatre and Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company.

Starting in the early ’90s, the series began to branch out from its local performances, coinciding with a relocation to the larger Gallivan Center, according to Thurber. In 1994, The Blind Boys of Alabama brought their stirring gospel music to Salt Lake, and the Twilight Concert Series would go on to include a few recognizable acts as well as some up-and-coming, lesser known bands each year — a format that remains in play today.

As the performing artists who graced the Twilight stage each year became increasingly popular, the audience turnout began swelling to unimaginable proportions, putting the series in need of a new location.

Transitioning to Pioneer Park

Summer of 2010 was an unprecedented one for the Twilight Concert Series.

The headlining act for the inaugural show at Pioneer Park was Modest Mouse. Perhaps the pairing of a new — and larger — venue with such a well-known, popular act created the frenzy that ensued that evening. According to a Deseret News account of the event, police estimated 40,000 people showed up for the concert — 10,000 more than expected — and it was a stark contrast from the average attendance of 16,000 that had attended the series the year before at the Gallivan Center.

This unanticipated turnout led to capacity issues that resulted in a portion of the fencing breaking down.

“I think that kind of forced a lot of people to say, ‘OK, how are we going to make this feasible?’” Thurber said. “How are we going to still make this a pleasant experience for people who do not feel like we’re packed in like sardines, and still have a good time?”

After that successful albeit overwhelming turnout, members of the Arts Council took great measures to ensure that there was additional security and fencing reinforcement. It was also clear at this point that the series couldn’t continue with the same amount of visibility and big-name artists without charging an admission fee, which went into effect in 2012, according to Thurber.

“It was nice for free while it lasted, and it (lasted) a very long time,” he said. “I think five bucks was a reasonable rate, (and) I don’t think it’s affected the crowds too much because the caliber of talent is still really high. In order for the series to be sustainable, it had to do something.”

And even though the admission price has since increased, massive crowds continue to come to Pioneer Park as concert slots are filled with big acts. Since the series is limited to Thursday evenings, it can be a challenge filling the roster, Thurber said, but the event has not disappointed as popular acts ranging from Girl Talk to The Flaming Lips to Iron and Wine have performed at the park. This summer is no exception as Beyonce’s younger sister Solange, Andrew Bird and Jimmy Fallon house band The Roots will all take the stage.

The future of the series

After The Roots end the series’ 30th season on Aug. 31, in-depth discussions on how things should proceed will take place between the Arts Council and City Council.

“‘Is it still feasible to have it at Pioneer Park?’ ‘Is there a more cost effective way?’ ‘What sort of changes do we need to make?’ All of these are questions that will be asked after the season is over,” Thurber said. “It’s really speculation on what’s going to happen in 2018. I wouldn’t be surprised if it took a year to maybe make some changes. I just don’t really know at this point. … I think if there’s one thing that is kind of known is that it’s time for a change, and what that’s going to be, I don’t know.”

And whether or not the Twilight Concert Series will have a 31st season, Thurber is hopeful that this simply marks another transitional phase for the concert series.

“It’s a wonderful summertime evening event, (and the) camaraderie is good for the surrounding businesses,” he said. “At 30 years we’re now to the point where we’re starting to see another generation. A lot of those people that went to the series (when it first began) are starting to bring their kids (and) passing on that tradition. To have that accessibility for everybody at a low cost is kind of like a win-win, and to me it’s part of what makes Salt Lake a great place."