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Lollapalooza: Helping Break Down Barriers

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Farrell encouraged cross-pollination and collaboration, and the fans loved it. Initially, Lollapalooza had the feel of a “best kept secret”. One of the key features that kept Lollapalooza fresh were diverse lineups that transcended the narrow formats presented to fans by mainstream radio. One of Perry’s initial goals was to encourage bands from different genres, and their fans, to mix it up. Looking back with hindsight, though, the bands on the original Lollapalooza all shared a certain underground aesthetic. According to Rollins, “There wasn’t all that much genre differentiation on that line up. It was all kind of indie/punk rock. When the Jane’s guys mix with the Body Count guys, it’s not all that much of a stretch for a singer going from his guitar driven band to another for a song. Many of the bands played with others on that tour. We did a lot of it. We had the entire lineup of the Butthole Surfers onstage with us at one point.”

Lollapalooza, to its credit, helped break these barriers by sending a powerful message to programmers, marketers, and the music industry something that musicians and fans knew all along, that music fans had much more diverse music tastes than the industry gave them credit for. Before there was an iPod Shuffle, music fans wore their diverse musical tastes proudly.

Henry Rollins recalls: “It was not as together as later versions of the tour, but it ran very well. I was surprised to see how many people showed up to the thing, it was pretty incredible, some of the ticket counts. I think that made it clear to anyone in doubt that there was a genuine interest in this music. We were always on first, but we did end up playing with other bands now and then, I sang with Ice-T a lot, and Vernon [Reid of Living Colour] jammed with us at one point.”

After the success of the original tour, Perry Farrell realized he had been part of creating something special. Whether returning with his new band Porno for Pyros, as a solo artist, or as a benevolent guiding hand, Farrell kept pushing the idea forward. The rise and increasing visibility of Lollapalooza paralleled the arrival of underground music into the mainstream. Lollapalooza’s first few years could have been a time capsule of breakthrough artists, such as Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, along with underground favorites like Dinosaur Jr. and Primus. After the shock of Kurt Cobain’s death—which occurred the day after Nirvana pulled out of the 1994 Lollapalooza—Smashing Pumpkins, at the height of their powers, filled in ably. The creative peak may have been the 1995 tour, which featured headliners Sonic Youth, joined by Hole, Beck, Pavement, and Elastica (though it also happened to be one of Lollapalooza’s weaker tours in terms of the box office). That’s not to mention how Lollapalooza ushered in the emergence of industrial, dance/electro, alt-country, and gangsta rap to larger crowds, which showed the seemingly limitless possibilities for underground music.

Lollapalooza didn’t seek to necessarily jump start or redefine the music industry.  But it did offer an outlet, as well as a point of validation, for artists and their fans, who still felt like outsiders. Its timing couldn’t have been better, coinciding with a tipping point that was happening in 1991, when the underground went mainstream, with the enormous crossover success of the Seattle grunge sound and percolating indie scenes in Boston, D.C., and Chicago.

For many in the underground, Lolla reflected the emergence of something big. Dave Lilingdgren, who covered the scene for the Seattle publication The Strangerand currently runs the East Portland Blog, notes, “the early years of Lollapalooza were a bacchanalian coming out party for Seattle music and the zeitgeist. Isolated by geography and a lack of relevance to the L.A.-New York pop culture axis, Rain City found solidarity with a burgeoning movement.” The unique Seattle contributions of grunge music and fashion revealed, according to Lilingdgren, “slackerdom as malodorous lifestyle, espresso pulling as art, craft and science, microbrews as religion, and performance art (including the likes of the Jim Rose Circus) as inarguable political statement.”

As the underground went mainstream, it didn’t take long for programmers to understand the marketing value of catering to the emerging demographic. When the alternative concept was co-opted by mainstream pop culture, much of the energy from 1991 began to fizzle out. Gen-X depictions in film may have jumped the shark, from Cameron Crowe’s Singles, which benefited the most from its depiction of Seattle bands in their heyday, to Reality Bites, with its Gap girl stereotypes and desperate attempts at hipster slang. Alternative became a marketing demographic and a programming format, begging the question, “How can alternative be used to describe a mainstream genre?” If something is alternative, to what is it an alternative? Bands ranging from Silverchair, Bush, and Stone Temple Pilots took the grunge sound to new levels of commercial popularity. Against this backdrop, Lollapalooza grew in popularity and became a commercial force in itself.

Yet in bearing witness to the mainstream success of the underground, Lollapalooza may have effectively outlived its initial purpose. Many veterans of the DIY scene, despite being fans of the “it” bands that littered Lolla’s roster, chose to opt out. As Tim Midgett of Silkworm notes, “I went to some of the first one on free tickets and boredom, and I went a few years later to see some friends play. Outdoor shows curated by Perry Farrell aren’t too likely to hold my interest. Maybe Lollapalooza has some cultural importance in the mainstream, but among the people I know in bands, it was notable almost solely as a cash cow.”

As Lollapalooza became a fixture on the touring calendar, it lost much of what made it so unique in the first place. After a seven-year run, Lollapalooza ceased operations after the 1997 tour. Its disappearance didn’t really seem to generate shock waves initially, more like the case of something that was once vital that had naturally run its course. Its core audience got older, assumed new responsibilities, and moved on to other things, while a newer generation sought to identify its own idea of the cutting edge.

And yet, the initial independent spirit, launched in 1991, never really went away. A sign of the festival’s enduring legacy and the potential for rebirth remained. For industry veteran Joe Shanahan, the highly respected promoter and co-owner of Chicago mainstay venues Metro and Double Door, the reason for Lollapalooza’s staying power seems fairly evident.

“I met Perry early on, and he’s the real deal.  When Jane’s Addiction first played at my venue in 1988. I asked them if this local band, the Smashing Pumpkins, could open for them. Perry and Billy Corgan became friends, and when Nirvana cancelled right before Kurt Cobain died, Billy and the Smashing Pumpkins stepped in to replace them. Many of the big festivals were saying the same thing about being alternative festivals, about getting bands more exposure in a given market and that would benefit local promoters. Many of these deals were disappointing, and took on a corporate stench. The one festival that stayed cleaner was Lollapalooza, and I believe that had to do with Perry.”

Part two of this series will take a look at Lollapalooza’s legacy twenty years later and what the success of its relaunch nearly a decade later—and the success of other major festivals, generally speaking—say about the music industry. In the end, the mass appeal of what is considered alternative may itself be a sign that pioneers like Perry Farrell have prevailed in their vision.

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