Rothbury Festival aims to find its niche in a summer filled with multi-day music events

by Brian McCollum

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

30 June 2008


Maybe it’s the result of tightening economics in the concert industry. Perhaps it’s a reflection of our changing music tastes. Maybe we’re just finally catching up with Europe.

Whatever the case, one thing is clear: The music festivals are mushrooming.

Rothbury Festival aims to find its niche in a summer filled with multi-day music events

Following in the steps of a tradition long entrenched overseas, North America has caught festival fever. Dozens of fests - multiple-day events with a sprawling array of artists - decorate the 2008 concert landscape, many of them first-time entrants on the scene.

In these parts, the action is led by the inaugural Rothbury, which will run Thursday-July 6 with an eclectic bill that ranges from jammy headliners such as Dave Matthews Band and Trey Anastasio to boutique artists such as offbeat rapper Sage Francis and psychedelic rockers the Secret Machines.

With about 200 acres set off for camping on the Double JJ Ranch, 25 miles north of Muskegon, Mich., most Rothbury attendees will be roughing it at an environmentally conscious event whose aim is to “build a durable social movement,” as one official describes it.

Organizers aren’t disclosing ticket sales figures yet, but they predict that attendance will hit 40,000.

Not too shabby for an event whose weekend passes start at just under $250. And it would put Rothbury in respectable territory - on par with the early crowds at now-signature music fests such as California’s Coachella and Tennessee’s Bonnaroo.

Those two are the established leading lights on the suddenly flowering festival scene, which finds newcomers such as Rothbury and Outside Lands in San Francisco eager to make good first impressions while building their own identities.

Rothbury organizers still haven’t settled on an all-encompassing definition for their event, and perhaps nobody will have one until it wraps up next week. From this early vantage point, Rothbury seems to lie somewhere among the neo-hippie vibe of Bonnaroo, the freak-art spirit of Nevada’s Burning Man and the indie cool of Coachella.

“The thing that’s unique this year is each of these new festivals is able to create its own distinct experience and community,” says Carrie Lombardi, whose Colorado firm, Madison House Presents, is producing Rothbury in partnership with Los Angeles promoter AEG Live. “That’s important. That’s what will keep people coming back.”

In some ways, the festival explosion is the logical progression in a concert-biz trend that’s been under way for several years. After national ticket sales plateaued and even dropped earlier this decade, the summer circuit saw more and more package tours - shows with headline-level acts banding together on a single bill.

Industry movers and shakers began to use terms like “value-added” and “enriching the experience” as they sought new combinations to keep turnstiles moving. The big destination festivals take that to a substantial next level, packaging dozens of artists into one setting, with an eye to the standards of stylistic diversity set long ago by events such as Woodstock and the Monterey Pop Festival.

You could say Rothbury and its peers are catching up with the legacy nearly left by those celebrated events. What might have become an ongoing American pop-fest tradition was cut short by the disastrous Altamont festival of December 1969, a moment heralded as both a literal and symbolic end to rock’s halcyon ‘60s. (A revolver-bearing fan was stabbed to death by Hell’s Angels security staffers during the Rolling Stones’ set.)

The U.S. concert business moved its big shows into stadiums and, eventually, the amphitheaters that became known as the shed circuit. Across the Atlantic, however, the festival momentum continued apace: Europe became home to dozens of annual high-profile gatherings - led by such fests as Glastonbury, Knebworth and Roskilde - spawning a festival culture that still dominates the summer music scene there.

Stateside festival business was largely relegated to occasional nostalgia (the Woodstock sequels of ‘94 and ‘99) and traveling galas such as Lollapalooza, H.O.R.D.E. and Ozzfest - which continue this summer with new ones such as Crue Fest, the Metal Masters Tour and the Mayhem Festival.

But it’s the destination festivals, such as Rothbury, where the notable uptick is occurring. Rothbury producer Jeremy Stein cites three big factors in the resurgence: concertgoers’ frustration with clinical, corporate environments at the summer sheds; production advances that allow for more fan-friendly fest experiences, and the diversified music tastes that come with the iPod era.

And it could become the latest big change in a music decade that has already seen massive transformation. In an era when few acts can draw tens of thousands on their own, festivals make sense for artists and fans.

“It’s reverting back to where it should have been in the first place: big, well-run festivals,” says Stein. “This is actually a great moment for music in America. It’s all changing so much, so fast. I have no doubt that in 20 years we’re going to look back on this as an important shift” in American concert-going habits.

“These are the anti-tour,” says Charles Attal, who produces Lollapalooza, now an annual stand-alone festival that will run Aug. 1-3 in Chicago’s Grant Park. “For us it’s about destination, about vacation, about seeing music in a green space. It’s a totally different experience. People are getting tired of going into the amphitheater to see two bands for $80. I think that’s why the festivals are working.”

Important lessons have been learned about festival production, promoters say. With cues from the European model, organizers know what works on the operations side - and maybe more importantly, what doesn’t.

Stein says there have been big advances even in seemingly simple categories such as bathrooms and drinking water, down to nuances such as restroom cleaning schedules. And it all starts with a safety-first mandate that trickles down into other fest operations.

“There’s a level of comfort that didn’t exist in those Woodstockian days,” he says. “Now you can’t go without it.”

Rothbury’s core team of about 30 people includes specialists who have helped stage festivals such as Glastonbury, Coachella and Bonnaroo. The fest’s parking director does the same job for NASCAR.

But even amid the high-quality, streamlined productions, there are concerns about whether the festival market is becoming oversaturated - or if every new fest is up to snuff. Lollapalooza’s Attal won’t name names, but he thinks some weaker festivals will be weeded out over time.

“There are just so many that popped up this year,” says Attal, who also produces the annual Austin City Limits Festival in Texas. “A lot goes into making a great destination festival. The ones that survive will be the ones in great locations and run with quality. Others will lose millions of dollars and go back down.”

With soaring travel prices, regional drawing power is key. Coachella and Bonnaroo - which had built significant national bases - both took attendance hits this year. At Lollapalooza, which describes itself as a regional Midwest fest, ticket sales are up 35 percent, says Attal, who expects daily crowds of 75,000-plus.

Rothbury, which like most camping fests caters to an 18- to 30-year-old age group, has enjoyed its highest ticket sales in Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin. But Stein says it has also moved tickets in all 50 states, along with Canada and Mexico.

Among the travelers will be James Bricker of Houston, a frequent festivalgoer who says Rothbury is a perfect fit for his blend of “hippie rock and indie music scene” tastes.

“People have gotten tired of the really huge festivals like Bonnaroo,” says Bricker, 24. “They’re looking for something like Rothbury - a bit more scaled back, but still with all the good music.”

Here’s one big difference from the Woodstock days: A sense of festival community is already building at Rothbury message boards and other online sites - many of them created by fans. When Bricker and others hit the Double JJ grounds on Thursday, they’ll be joining a crowd of not-so-strangers.

“When they come to meet, they find out they’ve already got a really good friend,” he says. “The music is always your big draw. But it’s also the gathering aspect that matters - it’s 40,000 like-minded people wanting to have a good time together. That sense of community is a huge thing.”



Thinking about Rothbury? If you’re still on the fence about heading through the gates of the inaugural music festival, which starts Thursday, here’s a quick primer.

First things first: Yep, tickets remain available, in a variety of packages, from $244.75 up. There are no daily passes. VIP passes - which include special viewing areas, exclusive washrooms, etc. - start at $475.

Rothbury is built around the camping experience, with about 200 acres for tents. (RV slots are sold out.) Note well: If you’re not in the mood for an all-night party, be sure to get yourself directed to the family zone or the Clean and Sober Camping area. You don’t have to camp. Reentry to the festival grounds is allowed, and if you can actually find lodging nearby, go for it.

So, is it for you? The 82-artist, six-stage bill is packed with organic, jam-friendly rock like Dave Matthews Band, Widespread Panic and Gov’t Mule. But there’s other stuff too - acts such as Snoop Dogg, Modest Mouse, Gomez and Crystal Method, along with offbeat “circus and theater art around every corner,” as a spokesperson puts it.

Rothbury is playing up its green theme, which includes carbon offsets and environmental seminars. But organizers insist it’s not a political event: “We’ve made a point to say we’re not on the left or the right,” says one official.

As for the fest site? The Double JJ is a ranch resort north of Muskegon. Most of the site will be accessible to all, though certain areas - including those with swimming pools and restaurants - will be limited to premium-package buyers.

Maps and schedules: www.rothburyfest.com

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