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Lollapa-loser? A critical look inside the rise and fall of Lollapalooza 2004

Jason Korenkiewicz

On paper Lollapalooza 2004 looked to be the most anticipated offering of the festival in a decade. The event was to traverse North America hitting 16 cities with an unprecedented two-day bill in all but one town. In hindsight, one has to wonder if there were other options tour organizers could have used to prevent this unfortunate end. The only certainty, right now, is that Lollapalooza 2004 is cancelled leaving an enormous void in the touring plans for many bands and their followers.

Perry Farrell

Photo credit: Chris Cuffaro

In a statement last week via the Lollapalooza website, festival founder Perry Farrell explained his emotions and rationale for the cancellation of Lollapalooza 2004, "You can imagine the dismay I share at this moment with the artists and musicians who were looking forward to the tour. Lollapalooza could no longer see fit to continue this year. Our plight is a true indication of the general health of the touring industry and it is across musical genres."

The New York Times followed with a story that substantiated Farrell's statements concerning a weak summer touring market. The article stated that after tax day (15 April 2004) touring revenues began a slow descent culminating with last week's Lollapalooza announcement. On paper Lollapalooza 2004 looked to be the most anticipated offering of the festival in a decade. The event was to traverse North America hitting sixteen cities with an unprecedented two-day bill in all but one town. Acts confirmed for the entire tour included marquee names like Morrissey, Sonic Youth, PJ Harvey, Modest Mouse, String Cheese Incident, Michael Franti and Spearhead, and the Flaming Lips. In addition Wilco and Pixies had been added for select dates. Tour organizers indicated in their statements that the only dates experiencing strong ticket sales were the two dates featuring a reunited Pixies, one of which would be their first New York City show since the early '90s. While Farrell's comments ring true and the organizers lowered prices to allow for a wider appeal ($30 to $50 depending on location), one has to wonder if there were other options for the tour organizers that could have been used to prevent this unfortunate end.

First and foremost is the format. Traditionally, Lollapalooza has always been a one day festival with a handful of bigger name acts on the main stage while the second stage is populated by up and coming and local acts. The festival would often spend more than one day in a particular market with the performance schedule remaining mostly intact from one date to the next. The move to add a second date was a risky one, one that ultimately didn't pay off. The consolidation back to a single date would have immediately halved transportation, rental, insurance and advertising costs as well as significantly decreased guaranteed performance payments to artists.

Even with this change a lingering feeling remains that we would have still seen the cancellation of this year's tour. In order to figure out the scope of the disease plaguing this year's event it is necessary to review three of the most successful Lolla lineups: the inaugural year in 1991, the star-studded follow-up in 1992 and the radio friendly 1994 version of the festival. What becomes obvious in reviewing these past lineups is that the 2004 edition of the tour used a subtly different plan in selecting and grouping the talent. The mix for the previous editions of the festival used a winning plan that allowed ticket buyers to come from a more diverse demographic makeup. In looking at the following it becomes clear that there were options to keep Lollapalooza 2004 on the road.

The Hit Factor
In order to keep word of mouth circulating and ticket sales escalating, you need to book bands that have songs on the radio. Lollapalooza 1991 featured Jane's Addiction hitting the airwaves with "Been Caught Stealing" and Nine Inch Nails following suit, despite a slow start, with "Head Like A Hole". In 1992 Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam were all in various stages of garnering college radio and other more mainstream airplay during touring season, while 1994 was no less potent as Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys, Green Day (performed on the second half of the tour) and the Breeders all fought to break through at radio. Even with twice as many confirmed acts, the 2004 version featured just four acts with recent significant spins beyond college radio: Modest Mouse is currently climbing the charts with "Float On", Morrissey's "Irish Blood, English Heart" debuted at #4 on the Billboard singles charts before dropping quickly, and both PJ Harvey and Flaming Lips received some radio attention for their last albums. Upstart artists like Franz Ferdinand and Velvet Revolver have begun to make inroads at radio and may have brought the tour closer to the essential publicity that comes with radio play.

The Hip-Hop Factor
One of the most understated elements of the Lolla legacy is the tour's ability to bring along hip-hop or black acts that are embraced by white suburban youth. This skill in finding acts that cross demographic boundaries is essential in forwarding the diversity that Lollapalooza has always promoted as part of their mission. In 1991, Ice-T/Bodycount filled the role, Ice Cube joined in 1992, and A Tribe Called Quest picked up the mantle in 1994. Despite a bloated two-day lineup, the 2004 version of the show only included two significant hip-hop acts, Michael Franti and Spearhead, who were relegated to the weaker second day lineup, and Danger Mouse who is without an officially released full-length album. Acts like the Roots, OutKast, Mos Def or even The Black Eyed Peas would have been strong candidates to galvanize this key joint demographic group as additions to the 2004 roster.

The Youth Factor
Many of the acts chosen for this year's tour were long on critical credibility but short on drawing interest from the all important 18-24-year-old demographic. Between Sonic Youth, PJ Harvey, Flaming Lips, Modest Mouse, Wilco, Pixies, Morrissey and Michael Franti there is at least a hundred years of touring and industry experience amongst these bands, and no less than fifty albums amongst these groups and their previous incarnations. What becomes evident from looking at past rosters is that Lollapalooza has become a place for developing acts to make a name for themselves. While many previous artists had significant success before Lollapalooza, Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day and the Breeders came away from the tour with a much larger fan base than when they joined. This year the likely recipients of this attention would have been Modest Mouse, the Polyphonic Spree (who are about to release their second album) and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (currently without a record deal). Adding groups like the Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, TV on the Radio and various other young bands on the brink of greater things would have guaranteed a cutting edge buzz around the tour.

The Metal Factor
You don't often think of Lollapalooza as a venue for metal acts, but throw in past participants like Metallica, Queens of the Stone Age, Alice in Chains, and A Perfect Circle and suddenly the impact of metal bands on this festival is clear. This year's version didn't include one clear candidate to fill this niche. The obvious choices to fill the bill would have been The Darkness or Velvet Revolver, a new band featuring Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland and various members from the original version of Guns N' Roses. The Darkness has continued to build an audience in the US while Velvet Revolver has generated enough of a buzz for their debut album to open at number one of the Billboard albums chart. One has to imagine that the inclusion of either into Lollapalooza 2004 would have added a much-needed dose of swagger to a field of aging alternative rockers.

The Credibility Factor
While you need radio friendly, up-and-coming, and hip-hop artists to round out the Lollapalooza lineup, you also need critically acclaimed alternative artists to give their endorsement to the tour. This year's tour was long on this as Sonic Youth, Wilco, Pixies, Morrissey, PJ Harvey and Flaming Lips all brought credibility to the tour. The problem is that many of them feed off of the same potential ticket buyers, and most haven't played an entire tour in venues similar in size to the ones planned for Lollapalooza. Past offerings dealt with this problem by bringing in artists that pull from an older or different group of ticket buyers. Over the years this role has been filled by Siouxsee and the Banshees, Nick Cave, and George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars, to name a few. Possible options for this year could have been Elvis Costello, Neil Young, Television, or even in a long shot, Brian Wilson. An act of this stature would have certainly skewed the potential audience to an older demographic more likely to purchase tickets for a large summer tour.

In the postscript to his statement on the Lollapalooza Website, Farrell issued a cryptic message, "I am still looking for a shining moment or two for us this summer. I hope you will receive me when I call." In the interim, one can't help but think about what could have been. Imagine standing in a field enjoying a lineup that included OutKast, the Roots, Velvet Revolver, Morrissey, Pixies, Franz Ferdinand, the Strokes, Sonic Youth and PJ Harvey, or some other variation to your liking. Organizers did an admirable thing in moving to include the jam band movement (String Cheese Incident) and its fans, but somehow they fell short with metal, up-and-coming, classic rock and hip-hop artists. As we wait to hear about the uncertain fate of a touring institution, the only certainty is that Lollapalooza 2004 is cancelled leaving an enormous void in the touring plans for many bands and their followers.

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