For the past five years, the arrival of summertime in Williamsburg, Brooklyn has been accompanied by free outdoor concerts; not small acoustic neighborhood gatherings, but massive events with bands like Grizzly Bear, Mission of Burma, MGMT, Ronnie Spector and The Hold Steady playing for thousands of fans who attend each concert at no cost.
It costs money to put on a free show. Sarah Hooper, the co-owner of Jelly NYC, the tiny company that produces the Pool Parties, as the free series is known, puts the price tag for this summer's seven shows at half a million dollars. And producing the concerts, she says, is a year-long job that eats her summer alive. Jelly is a small company — just five people — and midway through this fifth season, the strain is starting to show a little.
"I spend my days — all day long — talking to sponsors, doing production, getting backline, security, permits, food vendors, booking talent," Hooper says while on a break from answering phones outside Jelly's office. "At the end of that, what I think makes Jelly special is we'll all stay until four in the morning making sure there's fun things happening. Are there free Icees for people to have? Can we set up our Slip 'n Slide? Can we have dodgeball?"
For their first three summers, the Pool Parties were in an actual pool — the enormous McCarren Park Pool, opened in 1936 by the Works Progress Administration and closed in 1983. Starting in 2006, bands played to crowds in the empty shell. Last summer, when New York City decided to renovate the pool, Jelly and an organization called the Open Space Alliance moved the parties to the newly protected East River State Park, an undeveloped gray concrete slab with spectacular views of Manhattan set between brand new condominiums on the Williamsburg waterfront.
In both of the sites, other promoters have followed in Jelly's footsteps, and made money doing so. This summer, AEG, the second largest promoter in the country, is presenting ticketed concerts at East River State Park — Band of Horses and Weezer have played shows, Pavement and Belle and Sebastian have concerts scheduled for later in the summer.
But while Jelly's profile in the community has risen along with the popularity of the concerts, they haven't made more money. And Hooper says the process of booking and producing the free concerts has become more difficult. The move to East River State Park meant a doubling of the fees Jelly pays to rent the site, along with the loss of revenue from beer sales and increased security demands. "It's been a tough year for everyone," Hooper says. "This summer has been about digging ourselves out of the hole of last year's Pool Parties."
This year's parties almost didn't happen. After last summer's concerts, parks officials cited safety concerns and told Jelly they wouldn't be renewing their contract to put on the concerts. That's when New York Senator Charles Schumer stepped in, Hooper says. Schumer helped to ensure that Jelly came back to the space for 2010, but according to Hooper, the relationship with the New York State Parks and the Open Space Alliance has frayed even further during the production of this summer's Pool Parties.
"It's no longer the series we envisioned," Hooper says. "Every time we've done an event, we approach it like, 'What can we do to make it better and more fun for the audience?' And when it gets to the level like we're seeing now where we're no longer able to make it fun for the audience in the way we want to, we start rethinking things."
The Pool Parties' growing pains have been heightened by the weak economy, which threatened to dry up sponsorships, the only source Jelly has for covering the cost of the putting on a show. About half the cost of a concert goes to the artist, Hooper says. The rest pays for things like security, equipment rentals, sound engineers and clean up crews. And because Jelly has no revenue, the thousands of fans who attend Pool Parties pay for that cost with their eyeballs: advertisements for major clothing and shoe companies, beer and energy drinks dot East River State Park.
Hooper told me that when Jelly first threw concerts at McCarren pool, the sponsors were more modest, and more local. Neighborhood restaurants offered to sell food at the events and to give the company a cut of the returns; a friend of a friend knew the local rep for a beverage company and convinced them to "throw in some cash."
"[This is] the thing with free shows: the best-case scenario is to be some place that's a little OK with being loose and letting you be who you are," Hooper says. "If you're providing a really fun experience and everyone's having a good time and no one's [providing a service] out of pocket, to me that's a win."
If Jelly doesn't get that kind of DIY joy from the Pool Parties any more, some new opportunities are letting them be who they are: this summer, they started Rock Yard, a tiny series of concerts at a former junk yard in Williamsburg that has a capacity of only 800, and where they can bring back their Slip 'n' Slide, a feature of the original Pool Parties that was barred from East River State Park for safety concerns.
Rock Yard parties are also cheaper to produce and feature mostly local bands. Jelly may decide to abandon the large-scale Pool Parties and focus on smaller events, but Hooper remains enigmatic: "I would venture to say we'll make announcements in the near future."
For the time being, the company will juggle large and small concerts. At East River State Park on Sunday, the Australian dance-pop band Cut Copy headlined a typically massive Pool Party that also featured two local groups — Glasser and Restless People — along with the New Jersey band Memory Tapes. The prior afternoon, just across the East River from the Pool Party stage, thousands more attended another show that Jelly had a hand in: a party at South Street Seaport thrown with the record label Mad Decent.
The collaboration with Mad Decent — a series of block parties in four cities (Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago) — approaches the scale of the Pool Parties, but Hooper insists it's closer in spirit to the first shows the company threw.
"The whole goal of Jelly was to be this umbrella situation where all of our cool, artistic friends were able to make money off of doing the things we love," she says. "I kind of hate the Pool Parties now. They make us all really sad when we go on site. And then I go to a Mad Decent block party or our things at Rock Yard, and it's exactly how it used to be."
(Video of Cut Copy via Big Ass Lens)