Lollapalooza’s place at the head of the class during the peak of the summer outdoor festival season is in many respects a reflection of state of the industry. Industry consolidation and the reduction of A&R departments and promotions have carried over into the concert industry. But even to cynics who saw it as a disturbing trend in the mid-‘90s, the commoditization of the alternative concept has produced some positive benefits, namely a leveling of the playing field and the reemergence of an underground model. The risk-averse nature of these large festivals represents a case of festival organizers and artists hedging their bets: bands, promoters, and fans play it safe by participating in large destination events where the audience is certain to find something to its liking. In turn, though, such an approach creates a larger number of slots, where festival programmers, having already secured a draw with big name headliners, can think outside of the box with more experimental programming on side stages.
Despite its transformation into something much different from the original touring carnival, Lollapalooza enjoys unprecedented popularity. It’s easy to see why, as industry expert Pollstar’s Bongiovanni explains: “Festivals remain popular with fans, by creating a unique experience distinct from a regular concert, and are a great value, exposing fans to new artists. And fans are likely to return to see bands when they come through town.” For now, major festivals such as Lolla seem to have much more of a positive than negative effect on touring by drawing a different type of fan—one in search of a tribal experience—and exposing its audience to a couple dozen bands it never expected to see. Festival can also increase demand from the concert-going public, by raising awareness of bands headed out on tour and by introducing new favorites to its attendees.
Still, it’s an anomaly that festivals are doing well at a time when the industry on the whole is suffering, so that doesn’t mean they won’t face obstacles in an ever-changing musical landscape. Naturally, the danger lies in reaching a saturation point with festivals, as well as creating so much value that fans, in cost-conscious times, opt out of seeing many of the artists when they return to the market. Michael Eavis, the founder of Glastonbury, predicted that festivals could be on the way out, at least in Europe, due to the economy and to the “feeling that people have seen it all before.”
Just as important are the creative challenges that festivals face in keeping their musical offerings lively and cutting edge. As Henry Rollins, one of the participants of the original Lollapalooza tour, notes: “The difficulty will be for the larger labels. Their bands can’t tour. Their bands suck live. Their bands live in the studio environment and when it comes time to do it live, they get their asses kicked by the real bands who do it on a stage. Real bands and small labels will always be fine. These facts have nothing to do with Lollapalooza.”
For emerging artists, the name recognition and association with a major event still represents a major marketing boon. The hefty payouts from the major festivals help cross-subsidize tours for artists. Yet while up-and-comers can benefit from being part of major festival environment, their struggles breaking through in the industry remain the same as ever. And for a pioneer like Perry Farrell, and any musician aspiring to become an entrepreneur, success brings with it a host of commercial considerations that seem far removed from where artists first got their start as indie musicians. As Rollins puts it, “Perry Ferrell wouldn’t know what to do in the independent world. It is simply not the world in which he works. Not remotely. It’s not a put down, just a fact. When he does Lollapalooza, he is in rooms with Bud Light, American Express, etc. getting the underwriting happening. It’s not exactly something the band in the van draws experience from. As to DIY ethic in practice, in evidence and in motion, two words: Ian MacKaye.”
To a local promoter like Joe Shanahan, the future of destination festivals is tied to sustaining and developing their connections to the community. “While both Lollapalooza and Pitchfork are moving in the right direction, I would like to see both incorporate more venues, more local promoters, and more civic organizations into their philanthropic arm,” he says. “They should be more inclusive rather than exclusive. Chicago is a fantastic market and a fantastic city to live in, which is why the civic piece is some important. Perry has been very civic minded, he has almost become a Chicago native himself. When the field got torn up this year, C3 took care of this problem immediately. I believe that if it’s good for Chicago, it’s probably good for bands. If it plays in the Midwest, it will play somewhere else.”
Whatever the future holds for Lollapalooza, credit Perry Farrell and his inspired vision of a world where freaks and geeks could have their day for setting in motion a traveling carnival that has thrived and succeeded beyond anyone’s back-of-the-tour-bus expectations. As a reminder of how far Lollapalooza has come, the veterans from the class of 1991 and later lineups are immortalized in a hall of heroes in the hospitality tents at the festival. The younger selves of Trent Reznor, Henry Rollins, Ice-T, Thurston and Kim, Fishbone, David Grohl, Billy Corgan, J. Mascis, and Siouxsie Sioux can look on with bemusement at how their work has endured and how alternative culture remains relevant. Many of the collaborators in Farrell’s freak show remain active to this day, although in ways they couldn’t have imagined. A street hustler best known for “Cop Killer” now plays a detective on one of the longest running shows on TV. The noise architect who famously screeched “Bow down before the one you serve” has won an Oscar soundtracking the story of the twentysomething that all society now bows down to. The guy who brought you tales from the tour van is still as active as ever as an artist and roving cultural critic. And the fellas who helped start the chain of events rolling with an afterthought of a traveling carnival to celebrate their imminent demise as a band 20 years ago have returned in 2011 as Jane’s Addiction.