Originally conceived by founder Perry Farrell as a farewell tour for his band Jane’s Addiction, Lollapalooza was based on the concept of a traveling caravan for like-minded artists all somewhat out on the fringe. But what started out as a bit of a lark was so unique that it became an overnight sensation, something that brought together misfits to celebrate their fandom and, in the process, build a sense of community. By tapping into the zeitgeist, Lollapalooza achieved for Gen X’ers what Woodstock did for the boomers, becoming synonymous with the “alternative” branding that both marketers and self-aware hipsters coveted.
On its twentieth birthday, Lollapalooza is being showered with glowing testimonials from participating artists and past alums, having become one of the crown jewels of the summer events calendar after ups-and-downs that would see it disappear entirely for five years before reinventing itself for a new generation of music fans. Even during a deep recession and with lingering uncertainty in the music industry, the festival has enjoyed unprecedented box office success, selling out 270,000 tickets over its three days and maintaining a stable long-term relationship with its home for the last seven years, the city of Chicago. Its commercial impact is substantial, as measured by the stable of sponsorships and a lineup of over 130 artists sprawled over one of the city’s premier locations, 115 acres in Grant Park along Chicago’s lakefront.
Its cultural legacy, though, is somewhat more debatable. While the eccentric tour has come a long way over the years as a testament to the vision and persistence of its founder, Perry Farrell, its evolution has been far from linear. The reimagined festival’s dominance of the music landscape, along with two other major annual events, Coachella and Bonaroo, speaks to Farrell’s foresight in partnering with major industry players such as C3 Presents and the William Morris Agency. Yet while Lollapalooza is reveling in plaudits, the idea of such a celebration is itself a bit misleading, given the absence of continuity and the contrast between its original incarnation featuring a handful of alternative artists just breaking into the mainstream and its current form, with a staggering roster that includes what seems like nearly every relevant artist, from chart-topping acts to long-running cult favorites to indie up-and-comers. In 2011, we celebrate Lollapalooza, past and present, in the way one might treat the return of the prodigal son come home, conveniently overlooking the days when the boy was a truant. In the first of a two-part series, we will look at Lollapalooza’s origins as a touring festival.
1991: The Year Things Broke
The music industry was in a much different position at Lollapalooza’s inception: Before YouTube, social media, or even the Internet, commercial rock radio represented the way much of the mainstream was exposed to new music. And opportunities for artists outside the mainstream were rather dismal. In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, radio was stuck in fairly static and predictable programming patterns where there was very little mixing and matching of genres. A Neneh Cherry or KRS-One, for instance, could suddenly get airplay on “modern rock” stations, so long as they were dueting with college radio poster child Michael Stipe.
It was against this backdrop that Perry Farrell wanted to throw a going away party. Rock history is laden with final goodbyes. With so many instances of bands careening to an abrupt halt, an untimely death, or—equally dramatically—an implosion in band chemistry, one could not begrudge Jane’s Addiction the opportunity to do something for posterity, like the Band’s Last Waltz, or take a victory lap, like the Who’s Last Tour in 1982 (which was so successful, they tried it again and again). On the other end of the spectrum, the Replacements said their goodbyes by handing their instruments to their roadies in the midst of “Hootenanny” at a July 4th concert in Chicago.
Perry Farrell, along with the other members of Jane’s Addiction, came up with the concept of a traveling caravan that became Lollapalooza. Initial tour planning had a by-the-seat-of-your-pants lunacy that comes with most great ideas. The bandmates literally sat around and selected who they wanted to have join them on the final tour. As legend has it, Farrell handpicked Ice-T, while bassist Eric Avery chose the Butthole Surfers, guitarist Dave Navarro Siouxsie and the Banshees, and drummer Stephen Perkins the Rollins Band. In addition, tour promoter Marc Geiger offered up his choices of Nine Inch Nails and the Pixies, though the latter declined its slot.
The show, despite its grand ambition, was constrained by the relics of the stadium-rock era that remained from rock’s Paleolithic Age. The first tour was held in outdoor concert venues such as the World Music Theatre in Tinley Park, IL and Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, CA. The first Lollapalooza tour had a carnival feel to it, with a range of captivating sideshow exhibits and progressive causes filling in the gaps between sets, mindful that the ghost of a REO Speedwagon guitar solo might cascade from the rafters. The tour blended headliners that had entered the mainstream (Jane’s Addiction, Living Colour), a motley collection of cutting edge bands gaining traction beyond niche followings (Nine Inch Nails, Fishbone, Butthole Surfers), and a few veterans of the yet-to-be-uncovered genre of classic modern rock (Siouxsie and the Banshees, Violent Femmes). Some of the most memorable moments from that summer were provocative sets by two independent-minded, eclectic artists of the day, rapper Ice-T, in his guise as frontman of metal band Body Count, and Henry Rollins, fresh off successful forays into publishing and spoken word, and who was soon to emerge into a multimedia figure, fronting his own solo band. The combination was an instant success. As Henry Rollins notes:
“I always knew the bands were good, but I never thought the bands would get over the wall, due to the restrictive nature of radio. I was glad to be proven wrong. I knew that I lived in a different world than the mainstream. All the people I knew liked alternative music, all the bands I knew played that kind of music, it seemed to be the entire world. It wasn’t, though, it was a very small slice. Perhaps mainstream music got so bad, young people started making better choices. It was a great time to be in a band.”
Farrell was a visionary, identifying something that marketers, demographers, and radio programmers had not yet recognized before the Internet spawned Tori Amos meet-up groups and social media created virtual communities: that small groups of self-described outcasts in schools or a small town, when brought together, represented communities of interest. The initial Lollapalooza tours were as much about enlightenment and self-discovery for the fans as anything else, recognizing that there were others out there who shared the same passion and interests. Signs of this had popped up before Lollapalooza, like when 60,000 Depeche Mode fans stunned promoters by selling out the band’s 101st date for its 1988 “Music for the Masses” tour at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
After Lollapalooza, the phenomenon of subcultural gatherings became the rage, proven, for instance, by the droves that have built and sustained the Vans Warped Tour since 1995, which first demonstrated the potential marketing force of waves of skate kids and paved the way for the extreme sports culture culminating in the X Games. Some ideas like the H.O.R.D.E. and Lilith Fair may have had less of an enduring impact, but they also demonstrated signs of the broader commercial possibilities associated with getting a community of fans to rally around the concept of a broader tribal consciousness.