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Festivals and Their Critics

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Lollapalooza and, more generally, large festivals have their share of critics, centered around what the festival culture portends for the music industry. The status of playing Lollapalooza gives festival organizers the luxury of picking from the cream of the crop of the most commercially viable indie and alternative bands. While some see this as an embarrassment of riches for the music fans, others point to the grab bag nature of festival programming, rounding up the usual suspects from a roving pool of 300 as being far removed from Lollapalooza’s original concept of inspired lineups directed at a cutting-edge audience. Cynics point to Lollapalooza’s success, built on the diligence of the industry’s leading artists, promoters, and production talent, as nevertheless leading to a take-it-or-leave-it buffet-style experience that may not be to the liking of the hardcore music fan.


If the economy remains tight and fans are forced to make choices, one can see major festivals and local concerts eating into each other’s market share. Lollapalooza was a commercial success in 2011, with an estimated 40% of attendees hailing from out of town. Grossing a projected $17.3 million in 2010, after a significant drop-off to under $15 million in 2009, both Lollapalooza and the City of Chicago are, for now, benefiting from record attendance with a large number of global travelers happy to compensate for any drop off in local interest. A first-person example of this is how some out-of-towners shared space in a Lincoln Park apartment with my friends and myself. These visitors included a group from Minnesota who rated the weekend a great experience even though their car was stolen and one of their crew ended up in west-side hospital.


Yet in what may be a glass half-full/half-empty exercise, one wonders whether the large number of visitors is a positive sign of Lollapalooza’s staying power as a cultural force or whether this is a case of the locals starting to grow weary of the crowds. Survey the local concert-going crowd and the general sentiment is that, after five years, the novelty has worn off, with diehard music fans focusing on select after-party club shows. A disdain for the festival experience, as opposed to catching an artist during the peak fall and spring touring seasons, is what killed off another great event concept, All Points West in New York. Certainly, a destination festival dependent on importing a big part of its audience has to continually gauge its market. The DeLuna festival in Pensacola, Florida—one of the most innovative festival setups with two main stages located steps from the Gulf of Mexico—demonstrated the challenges of attempting to establish a new tradition, scaling up with an inspired lineup in its second year, but experiencing poor attendance in the wake of a weak economy and the cancellation of one of its headline acts, Linkin Park.


Another concern with any major festival is the event’s impact on independent promoters or club owners. Many promoters and club owners quietly chafe under the restrictions of the exclusionary rule that festival organizers impose on bands that play the festivals. In the case of Lollapalooza, acts selected for the bill are prohibited from appearing within 300 miles of Chicago for the six months prior to and three months following the festival. While C3 has tried to address many of these issues by partnering with local clubs to blanket the city with after-show concerts, a number of sources for this story pointed, off the record, to residual distrust among local promoters. Joe Shanahan, one of Chicago’s most respected club owners, concedes that promoters have mixed feelings about festivals, and that many voiced their concerns when the decision was made to bring Lollapalooza to Chicago as a destination festival. He acknowledges that many Lollapalooza and Pitchfork artists will voluntarily decide not to come back to Chicago for six months.


Lollapalooza has also been subjected to local scrutiny in Chicago. Aside from the between $15-$18 million in gross revenue directly generated by the festival, organizers project that the weekend’s visitors produce an estimated $85 million in overall revenue for the local economy. Under a ten-year contract with the city set to expire in 2018, C3 donates roughly over $2 million to the City of Chicago’s Parkways Foundation towards preservation and renovation of the parks, as well as to a host of city programs, based on an agreement to turn over 10.3% of gross revenue and 8.5% in sponsorship sales. But Lollapalooza has drawn criticism for the huge tax exemption it receives each year: the 5% Chicago Amusement tax that concerts, sporting events, movies, and circuses of every stripe have to pay. Critics question whether the city needed to grant the concession in order to attract and retain the festival, given the reality that Lollapalooza has needed a stable center of gravity accessible to fans, perhaps more than Chicago needed another major summer event. The flipside of the controversy, though, is that the long-term commitment of the festival to the city, coupled with the marquee attraction of the Pitchfork Festival, has helped burnish the city’s reputation as a destination for fans of alternative music.


When it comes down to it, the most fundamental complaints about large festivals have to do with the quality of the performances and the experience for the fans. Simply put, many fans who prefer seeing their heroes in a more intimate club setting simply don’t enjoy the massive production of a festival. Tom Kipp, a veteran of several bands including Silkworm, notes that he, like many in indie Seattle circles, sees the entire enterprise as “an awful shuck ‘n’ jive.” Kipp explains, “I just hate being treated like a piece of livestock and having it assumed by the curators of said festivities that I’ll meekly accept any sordid brutalization of inclement weather, brutal heat and dust, ever-escalating cost, food and beverage bullying, or gruesome inconvenience on the way to relieving myself.”


Another common criticism has to with the quality and consistency of performances, particularly for acts that aren’t built for such big stages. Bands such as the xx and Animal Collective, who can deliver transcendent sets in a club or a more ambient setting, have appeared flat when thrust into a mid-afternoon slot at Lollapalooza. Indeed, the size and scope of Lollapalooza and the other major festivals limit their potential as platforms for grooming new talent. While Lollapalooza offers fans the opportunity to catch countless artists on the way up, particularly at the earliest time slots, a major festival is less likely to break a new artist, as most fans aren’t on the grounds until mid-afternoon. Lady Gaga, in particular, has reveled in the fact that when she first appeared at Lolla on a side stage several years ago in the days before she became a spectacle, few people saw her, and those who did lacked appreciation for what the infant Gaga had to offer.


Despite these concerns, large festivals such as Lollapalooza remain popular with both fans and artists. Shanahan, co-owner of Chicago indie mainstays Metro and Double Door, offers a counterpoint to the criticism: “The festival is a great deal for the fans and the artists I work with really enjoy playing the festival. They have the opportunity to interact with their peers, and get really great exposure. 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.”


Episode 16: 2011 Artists on Lolla from Lollapalooza on Vimeo.


Peer recognition is what makes an event like Lollapalooza so appealing to artists. Major festivals are a sign of prestige and allow touring artists a break the monotony of non-stop touring by hanging out in the company of their peers. Bands seem to feed off the energy and excitement that fans bring to the festival. In some respects, the concert industry has come full circle: Back at the origins of live music, the earliest tours were all-star revues where one could see virtually anyone in rock, rhythm and blues, or soul, all as part of one bill.  In fact, it is just as common is to see young artists with an infectious energy from rising so far so quickly that it rubs off on other bands, or performers like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Lady Gaga return as conquering heroes years later. And even indie artists with a long track record of playing these kinds of events still get a kick out of it.


Lollapalooza’s Legacy


Lollapalooza remains a popular draw for indie artists, both emerging and accomplished, a testament to the staying power of the original concept and the respect that artists have for Farrell. In short, the common denominator has been Farrell’s passion and continued involvement. But by popularizing the alternative concept, Lollapalooza unintentionally created the seeds for the demise of its original format.


Lollapalooza’s legacy carries on in a number of different ways. The original model of a touring carnival lives on, in part, in the form of artist-driven touring packages, curated by the artists themselves. The closest parallel to the original Lollapalooza are Pearl Jam and Dave Matthews Band tours, in which the headliner serves as emcee and benefactor to other artists sharing a similar fan base. Artist-driven shows allow bands to largely control the event and reap the rewards of touring, giving them a much more pronounced role than being another act at a larger festival. At the same time, it makes practical business sense in terms of spreading the benefits among bands that enjoy a close relationship or affinity. The artist-driven model plays into a natural inclination of artists to momentarily transition out of the performance spotlight and move behind the scenes, helping out likeminded peers by using the bully pulpit of fame to pay respect to their mentors, while calling attention to emerging artists. It also creates easier opportunities for artists to collaborate.


On the other hand, affinity-based tours, like the original Lollapaloozas, have been difficult to sustain, unless tied to a discrete market subsegment. While the H.O.R.D.E. Festival, Lilith Fair, and the Gathering of the Tribes were difficult to sustain, the Vans Warped Tour has been a resolute success since its start in 1995 by featuring a nice combination of music, lifestyle elements, and art that taps into the punk/extreme sport demographic, as it would become the basis of the X-Games and Mountain Dew ads.


The major festivals have largely yielded the role of breaking new bands to a series of regional and niche festivals, led by the Pitchfork Festival. The transformation of the music industry into an underground friendly environment, characterized by a steady and infernal buzz, a near-continuous music release cycle, and seemingly endless touring have made artists less dependent upon discovery at industry confabs such as SXSW and CMJ. Music fans are just as likely to learn about a new artist by visiting the artist’s social media site online, through dozens of music-related blogs, or at a local club gig. The decentralization of media, where the kingmaker role once held by Spin or Rolling Stone is now shared by influential blogs such as Pitchfork, Brooklyn Vegan, and Stereogum, is reflected in fragmentation of the live music scene. Lollapalooza’s lonely vigil, at its inception, for nurturing new and emerging artists, has been passed on to smaller regional showcases such as Conferette 35 in Denton, Texas, the Northside Festival in Brooklyn, and Pop Montreal. Each of these festivals represent examples of some of the best festivals for promoting new and emerging acts set in artist-friendly locales that serve to showcase the local environment, and those who live and work there.


While Lollapalooza’s enjoys a legacy for identifying the mass appeal of alternative culture, its current contribution to the entertainment landscape has been as part of a wolfpack of major festivals, along with Coachella and Bonnaroo, that have helped redefine interactions between artists and fans. Coachella and Bonnaroo, which have both expanded rapidly into major festivals since getting their starts in 1999 and 2002, respectively, are distinctive as festivals tied to a camping experience, showing an affinity with many of the large European festivals. On the other hand, Lollapalooza, like Austin City Limits, benefits from happening in an urban area with a tradition of supporting music, including a large home customer base. Both Chicago and Austin share a sense of pride for home-grown music with a vibrant bar and club scene that supports it. Alongside these four major festivals, a number of smaller regional and local festivals (such as Bumbershoot and MusicfestNW) continue to thrive, while others, like the V-Fest, are niche events that are trying to find their fit as they experiment with their format. Curiously, the east coast and New York, in particular, have not had much success with major festivals, owing perhaps to the high density of clubs. The recent Orlando Calling is the U.S. debut by the Euro-organizers behind Glastonbury and represents a grand experiment.

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