From Touring Carnival to Destination Festival: Lollapalooza at 20

For a feature on the origins of Lollapalooza, please see “Lollapalooza 1991: The Underground As a Community”.

When Lollapalooza disappeared from view after its seventh run in 1997, there wasn’t much of an outcry over what was lost. Its fans moved on to other things. The last of the first batch of Lollapaloozas seemed like a curious return to the festival’s origins, shifting away from mainstream alternative rock bands in favor of spotlighting a smaller number of cutting edge artists, particularly electronica acts such as the Orb, Orbital, and Prodigy, along with your random Snoop Dogg mixed in. As Lollapalooza’s core audience moved on to other things, the financial viability of an affinity oriented touring production not linked to a particular audience was in question. When the festival returned after a five-year hiatus, only to be grounded indefinitely in 2004 due to poor ticket sales, Lollapalooza seemed to have been an idea that had run its course.

Fortuitously, a cadre of seasoned concert promoters in Austin, Texas happened to be circling above, looking to create a music festival that would serve as a calendar bookend to industry confab South by Southwest. Lisa Hickey, marketing director for C3 Presents, the group that currently coordinates the production and programming of Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits Music Festival, notes: “When we were first doing research on creating Austin City Limits Music Festival, we compared different festivals, and found Lollapalooza had amazing brand recognition — over 95% of concertgoers were familiar with Lollapalooza.” When Lollapalooza was canceled, Charlie Jones, a partner at Capital Sports and Entertainment, which launched the Austin City Limits (or ACL Festival) in 2002, sprung into action. Hickey recalls: “Charlie reached out to Lolla almost immediately after hearing that they were forced to cancel in 2004. He named a lot of Lolla’s strengths, how he liked to transform it into a destination festival. Charlie kind of caught Perry by surprise. Perry wasn’t sure why we wanted to do this. But the amphitheaters were overcharging for a bad experience. It was great timing for Charlie to come in.”

The decision to rebrand Lollapalooza as a destination festival made practical sense. The costs and the high variability of putting on the festival as a touring show were wild cards; bad weather, poor acoustics, poor production values, or a fickle local audience could sink a tour. As the Lilith Fair would discover in attempting to reboot its festival in 2010, the uncertainties of certain markets made the idea of a touring festival that much more risky. A destination festival turned the concept on its head. Instead of facing the nightly challenge of barnstorming in search of an audience, organizers could pick a single accessible location with the infrastructure and support network capable of putting on a first class production, assemble talented production people, and establish a tradition through a long-term agreement.

There certainly was risk at play in transforming Lollapalooza into a single destination event. While major festivals have redefined the concert landscape, they were a relatively new phenomenon in the U.S. A well-conceived and well-executed tour could earn enough to offset poor ticket sales or logistics in a handful of less lucrative markets. In contrast, a destination festival also meant putting all one’s eggs in one basket, in a marketplace where large destination events had traditionally only been tied to a special event. Most notably, the famine in Ethiopia spurred Bob Geldof and other musicians to organize the once-in-a lifetime Live Aid concerts in London and Philadelphia. Subsequent benefit shows, such as Farm Aid and the Tibet Freedom concerts organized by the Beastie Boys, demonstrated the potential for the sporadic success of destination events.

Gary Bongiovanni, one of the leading industry experts on the concert business and Editor-in-Chief of trade publication Pollstar, explains that festivals had largely been a European phenomenon. “Europe has a shorter window for concerts. The relative absence of large venues such as indoor arenas, meant that European markets were dealing with relatively short windows for booking concerts, typically in the summer months.” Thus, the tradition of large summer festivals took root in Europe: “Acts grew accustomed to playing large festivals in Europe, such as Glastonbury and Reading. As a practical reality, if you wanted to play in a country like Denmark, you got accustomed to playing Roskilde, with roots going back to the 1970s, and the other large festivals.” In contrast, the concert calendar in the U.S. had largely been dominated by outdoor music theaters in the summer, with the combination of stadium and club shows at other times of the year.

With a new partner on board, and the creative visionary still attached, Lollapalooza was on its way to returning, but it still needed a home, since the viability of the touring model was very much in question. As the organizers considered cities, one stood out.

The City of Big Shoulders

Lollapalooza 2005 from Lollapalooza on Vimeo.

A destination fest. But where? Having a central location, an infrastructure, and a history hosting major events certainly couldn’t have hurt the city in question. But for Perry Farrell, Chicago was a market that consistently demonstrated a special excitement for the Lollapalooza concept. To test this theory, Farrell, one year, had organizers announce ticket sales for the Chicago leg of the tour before announcing which artists were on the bill. The show sold out almost immediately.

Artistically, Lollapalooza’s return as a single destination festival in 2005 had been a rousing success. Despite some sound-bleed issues, with Liz Phair straining to be heard over the pogoing Britpop of the Kaiser Chiefs coming from across the field, the festival setup afforded fans a great way to see a plethora of artists. The return of the Pixies was a big story and the short distance between three stages also meant one could catch the likes of Tegan and Sara, Kasabian, Dinosaur, Jr., and Drive By Truckers without skipping (or missing) a beat.

As the crowd waited for headliners the Killers and the Dandy Warhols, an up-and-coming band that was gaining buzz on underground music blogs took the stage. Scheduled to play the smaller Pitchfork Intonation festival in Chicago that summer, they canceled and moved up as a late addition to the Lollapalooza lineup, a sign of the intense hype building on the Internet. It was a colorful ensemble wielding a dizzying array of instruments — an accordion, a mandolin, a fiddle — and demonstrating an intensity and joie de vivre that one might expect from a house band at the corner pub, not on a festival stage. As excitement over the breakout performance cascaded across the field, the band members did the unexpected: Marching in a precise conga-like formation, the band took its act directly out into the audience, playing pied piper to a community of newly converted fans. Right then and there, the fans fortunate enough to see Arcade Fire make its U.S. festival debut knew they had witnessed something special.

In its first year back, the festival was a relatively cozy experience, featuring 50 bands spread across 46 acres and three stages over a two-day period. Smaller in scale and held over a much narrower footprint than later productions, the inaugural Chicago Lollapalooza was similar in size and scope to Austin City Limits when it first launched in 2002. Lisa Hickey says: “There was no real selection or bidding process. But when Charlie and our team looked at expanding the ACL model, building upon the success of working within a green space in an urban environment, with an emphasis on local food and art, we immediately liked Chicago.”

Episode 10: Chicago from Lollapalooza on Vimeo.

At the same time, the city of Chicago, which had experience hosting a collection of lakefront and neighborhood festivals, including the Taste of Chicago over the Fourth of July and the long-running blues and jazz festivals at either end of the summer, was receptive to another event that would broaden its portfolio and enhance tourism in the summer months. In choosing Chicago, the lads from Texas minimized the planning and logistical risks that tended to plague idyllic festival concepts set in remote locations. For every Burning Man, you have the whopping fiasco of the MtMx festival in Monterrey, Mexico in 2010, where scores of artists, fans, and even bus drivers abandoned the festival at the last minute due to security and logistical concerns. Chicago supplied the advantage of being a major tourist and convention destination, with the infrastructure in place to support hordes of fans.

After the success of the debut, Lollapalooza’s footprint and lineup have grown steadily to the behemoth it is today. Lollapalooza has come a long way since its inception, when Perry and his bandmates selected who would be on the first bill. With C3 on the production side and the William Morris Agency on the talent procurement side, this current arrangement has built on Farrell’s original vision to create a new type of concert experience, producing a festival within a hospitable urban environment and the amenities of a park district that knows how to support big crowds. According to Lisa Hickey, “Perry remains the visionary and plays a critical role as the figurehead. He has a lot of influence over the lineup and DJs, and also has had an instrumental role in certain aspects of the experience, such as creating and building up Perry’s stage and the Kidapalooza experience. He tends to have a lot of crazy ideas and they are usually all successful.”

One of Lollapalooza’s and Austin City Limits’ positive innovations has been their effort to bridge potential differences with local promoters and club owners by partnering to sponsor after-shows at local clubs. These allow diehard fans, as well as those interested in digging deeper into an artist they discovered during the day, the opportunity to see the bands in a more intimate setting. Most importantly, the after-parties bring in promoters and local club owners, encouraging them to support the festival, while offering out-of-towners the chance to experience some local flavor. At the same time, it allows local residents who don’t attend the festival to capture some of the spirit of the festival.

C3’s recognition of this dynamic is largely due to its own experience in promoting shows at small and mid-sized venues such as Stubbs and La Zona Rosa in Austin during South by Southwest and Austin City Limits. As Hickey explains, “What we liked about Jazz Fest in New Orleans was how there were activities to keep the party going through the city after an early outdoor curfew. We wanted to create the same vibe in Austin, and then Chicago. We felt it was an important part of the experience, as well as a way to be a better partner.” Chicago promoter Joe Shanahan adds: “I’ve worked with a lot of artists who wanted to continue playing late night shows at Metro. With the help of C3, we have had a series of after-shows, with donations from the various parties going to charity.”

Festivals and Their Critics

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.

The Future Outlook for Festivals and Lollapalooza

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.”

Lollapalooza 2011 from Lollapalooza on Vimeo.

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.