How is Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival free to attend?

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Steve Earle and Bob Weir perform together at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival at Golden Gate Park on Oct. 8, 2017 in San Francisco, California. Despite being a free music festival, Hardly Strictly regularly brings in the biggest names in Americana, folk, bluegrass and related genres.

Steve Earle and Bob Weir perform together at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival at Golden Gate Park on Oct. 8, 2017 in San Francisco, California. Despite being a free music festival, Hardly Strictly regularly brings in the biggest names in Americana, folk, bluegrass and related genres.

Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival will feature the likes of Emmylou Harris, Rufus Wainwright, Dawes, Jason Isbell and Steve Earle in 2023, to name just a few. It will also be free to attend, as it’s always been.

Unlike other big-name Northern California music festivals — which often charge hundreds for a single-day pass — Hardly Strictly invites everyone to come out, grab a spot in the grass and catch a three-day lineup of acclaimed artists that truly spans eras, all without paying for the privilege. The festival, which has been a San Francisco fall staple since 2001, has always been free to attend thanks in large part to a wealthy benefactor who called the city home.

Warren Hellman, a venture capitalist and San Francisco resident, created Hardly Strictly Bluegrass from a place of pure fandom. Initially called Strictly Bluegrass, the long-held lore is that the festival was created when Hellman — also an avid banjo picker — mentioned his deep love of bluegrass music and desire to start a festival celebrating it to a friend, who introduced him to a producer and booking agent who could help make it real.

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Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival creator Warren Hellman plays banjo alongside 13-year-old violinist Ruby Jane as they play a bluegrass tune to open the festival at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park on Oct. 3, 2008.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival creator Warren Hellman plays banjo alongside 13-year-old violinist Ruby Jane as they play a bluegrass tune to open the festival at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on Oct. 3, 2008.

Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

The 2001 Strictly Bluegrass festival was much smaller than the event is today and featured two stages and eight acts performing on a single day in Golden Gate Park’s Hellman Hollow (which was then called Speedway Meadow). Hellman funded the first festival himself and made it free for others to attend. The event grew exponentially in the years to follow, expanding to two days in 2002 and three days in 2003, while the festival now has six stages and more than 70 sets and still no entrance fee.

Hellman died of leukemia in 2011, a decade after unleashing what he called his “selfish gift”. The festival’s founder set up a fund that would keep it going in the same manner after his death. But for how long? In 2016, an SFSounds article quoted Hellman’s son, Mick Hellman, as saying that his dad left enough money to fund the festival “for about five years” after his passing. He added that, before he died, Warren Hellman wanted an “affirmative decision” from his children that they would carry on with Hardly Stricly Bluegrass the way it had always been done: with no corporate sponsors and no paid admission.

“The goal of what was done with the foundation was for this to go on in perpetuity,” Sheri Sternberg, executive producer of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass tells SFGate. That said, while rumors persist that Hellman left an endowment with enough money for the festival to run forever, that’s not exactly true.

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Fans enjoy Bela Fleck, at the Swan Stage on Sunday.

Fans enjoy Bela Fleck, at the Swan Stage on Sunday.

Chris Partin/Special to SFGATE

Money for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass now comes from the Hellman Foundation, a nonprofit that was launched in late 2011 after Warren Hellman’s death. In addition to funding the festival, the foundation awards grants to initiatives with primary focuses on “health, education and urban green space,” according to the organization. Since 2012, the foundation reports it has awarded over $75 million in grants to organizations including The Center for Investigative Reporting, Planned Parenthood of Northern California and the Oakland Public Education Fund.

ProPublica’s database on nonprofits reports that the Hellman Foundation had nearly $700 million in total assets as of 2020, with expenses that year listed at $79 million. It’s unclear how much of those expenses comes from the festival.

Hellman’s four children and the directors of the Hellman Foundation now oversee Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. The festival has obviously lasted longer than that half-decade that Mick Hellman estimated in 2016 and its future seems secure for now, but there may be big questions to come in another decade.

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Lila Blue performs onstage during Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival at Golden Gate Park on Oct. 8, 2017 in San Francisco, California.

Lila Blue performs onstage during Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival at Golden Gate Park on Oct. 8, 2017 in San Francisco, California.

Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

The Hellman Foundation has announced it will shutter in 2034, working to pay out all of its funds to various grants by that time. On its website, the organization’s statement says Hardly Strictly Bluegrass will continue after the nonprofit’s demise, but doesn’t explain how that will happen. We reached out to the foundation for additional details but hadn’t heard back as of publication time.

When we asked Sternberg, she acknowledged the situation but also declined to get into specifics about how Hardly Strictly Bluegrass will continue beyond the foundation’s closing in 2034.

“What we know is that the festival will continue,” she wrote in an email. “Right now we are focused on HSB 2023. We have 11 years to plan and consider the best future for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.”

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Sternberg says the goal is to keep the festival going “in perpetuity” and keep it free for attendees, goals she says can be met if organizers manage the allocated funds responsibly. That means that, from year to year, things might change or be done in more cost-effective ways.

“As long as the city and the folks are still willing to come out and participate in this event and want us to be here we want to be able to do it,” Sternberg says.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2023 is being held from Sept. 29 through Oct. 1  at Golden Gate Park’s Hellman Hollow, Lindley & Marx meadows.

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Additional reporting by Clint Davis. This story was edited by Hearst Newspapers Associate Editor Clint Davis; you can contact him at [email protected].

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