Lollapalooza, one of the biggest summer music festivals in the U.S., wrapped up Sunday. The festival drew more than 240,000 people to Chicago’s Grant Park for 156 acts, including headliners Green Day, a reunited Soundgarden and Lady Gaga. In a summer where general concert sales have lagged causing a flurry of tour date cancellations around the nation, Lollapalooza was one of the big festivals that boasted strong attendance.
Jeffrey Brown catches up with music critics Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, who host Sound Opinions on WBEZ in Chicago, to discuss highlights from this year’s Lollapalooza and how the festival has changed, as well as a legal controversy surrounding the festival promoter:
A transcript is after the jump.
JEFFREY BROWN: Joining me on the phone from Chicago are Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, the hosts of the program Sound Opinions. Greg is also a music critic of Chicago Tribune. Welcome to you. Remind those of us those people who aren’t familiar with the history here, Greg you can start Lollapalooza then and now, what was it and what has it become?
GREG KOT: It was a traveling music festival organized in 1991 primarily by Perry Farrell, the lead singer with then-breaking up Jane’s Addiction, as a kind of farewell tour, and he brought some of his friends along with him — a bunch of bands that sort of constituted what was then known as alternative rock. And the festival turned out to be much more successful than anyone expected, at the time drawing huge audiences across the United States to see a bunch a bands that really weren’t played all that often on the radio. I’m talking about bands like Jane’s Addiction and the Butthole Surfers and Henry Rollins and Nine Inch Nails, who at the time were a brand new band. And it created an audience and sound and a marketing demographic. Alternative rock was born, radio formats soon to follow. And the festival was fairly successful on a traveling level through about the late ’90s. It went away for a few years. It tried to resurrect itself in the early 2000’s, proved to be unsuccessful. The name of the festival was then bought out by an Austin, Texas-based promotion company, which now bills itself as C3 Presents, and was reconstituted as a destination festival in Chicago, based in Chicago annually on the Lake Front, one of the valuable places of property in the city of Chicago, Grant Park. And it’s been in Grant Park ever since 2005.
JEFFREY BROWN: And Jim it came back and has ground into a kind of spectacular festival, but it also came back amidst a very changed music business by the time it came back in 2005.
JIM DEROGATIS: Yeah, you are absolutely right. Obviously the model for Lollapalooza mach II came from Europe and the big European festivals like Glastonbury and Ross Gilda, where you know all across Europe all across all throughout the summer, you know, hundreds of thousands of concert goers travel to one location to see several days worth of acts presented. Lollapalooza mach II was not the first to do this here. We had Coachella out in the desert outside of Los Angeles, we had the Bonnaroo Festival in rural Tennessee, but they saw an opening here and they saw this piece of geography in the center of the country, and they recruited Mayor Daly’s nephew to be their attorney and they got a sweetheart longterm deal, C3 Presents, with the city to bring this thing to Chicago through 2018.
JEFFREY BROWN: Continue the story, because a lot of success, but you’ve also been doing a lot of reporting on some legal issues that they face, although I’m not quite sure I understand how clear it all is about what they may be facing.
JIM DEROGATIS: The Illinois attorney general, Lisa Madigan, is investigation Lollapalooza for antitrust non-competitive concerns regarding the impact that it’s had on the local music business. Lollapalooza imposes these radius disclosures that stipulate that none of the bands that play at the festival can play anywhere in the area of Chicago for six months before and three months after.
JEFFREY BROWN: It’s called a radius clause, right? And that’s not so unusual, right?
JIM DEROGATIS: What’s unusual is the length and the terms of Lollapalooza’s. It dwarfs anybody else’s in the business — Coachella or Bonnaroo. It defines the Chicago area as 300 miles — that would include Detroit, Ann Arbor, Indianapolis, Madison, Wisconsin, Milwaukee. It’s really egregious and the impact that it’s having on the local Chicago music community has been extreme. And hence the investigation. It remains to be seen what’s going to happen. It can be three things: The attorney general can take no action; the attorney general can impose a consent decree whereby Lollapalooza doesn’t admit that they did anything wrong, but they changed their policies; or she can file suit on behalf of the citizens of Illinois against Lollapalooza.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Jim, you told me before we started that because of all this reporting you’ve done, you didn’t actually go to this year’s festival, but Greg you did. So did any of that impact the music, the festival the turnout? Or what was it like this year?
GREG KOT: It’s basically the same festival. The one thing about Lollapalooza is that on just a commercial level, it’s been tremendously successful at a time when the concert industry is singing doom and gloom on certainly a wider scale — the arena and amphitheater shows are not doing well at all this summer. The festivals have been the exact opposite scenario. Coachella had one of its best years ever out in California. The Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee did very well this year. The Austin City Limits Festival is selling tickets very well in Texas. And Lollapalooza had a record-breaking year in terms of attendance — 240,000 people over three days.
JEFFREY BROWN: What’s your theory for that? Why do the festivals do well as opposed to the arenas and other tours?
GREG KOT: I think the fact is that they book 130 bands, and they do book the cream of the mainstream crop. You’ve got a guy like B.o.B., sort of a crossover hip-hop R&B act who had a number one hit performing at 11:30 in the morning. And it goes all the way on up to acts like Lady Gaga and Greenday and the reunion of Sound Garden. These are acts that are people would pay to see individually over the summer and now they are all in a place at one time for the price of basically $90.00 a day. I think people consider that a fairly good bargain. They are drawing 80,000 people a day and 40 percent of those are coming from out state to come see these acts in Chicago. They’ve done a great job of marketing it and they do a pretty good job of booking the top mainstream bands every year it seems.
JEFFREY BROWN: Jim, weigh in here. Where do you see the economics of the festivals and fitting into the larger music industry now?
JIM DEROGATIS: I think to some degree it’s had a really negative effect on the summer concert season across the U.S., because yeah, I’ve called Lollapalooza Wal-Mart on the Lake. That’s an aesthetic observation as a critic. I think that they throw everything at the wall and there is no vibe and there is no real spirit like a great festival has.
JEFFREY BROWN: You mean it’s just sort of lost the original theme?
JIM DEROGATIS: It’s far from the original theme. It’s become this bland, corporate, homogenized, essentially overgrown street fair. But it is also like Wal-Mart, the big business that is that department store. It moves into a community and it has a negative effect in terms of driving other business out of business. Lollapalooza’s again unique compared to Bonnaroo or Coachella or any other festival in America, with the possible exception of Austin City Limits, which is run by C3 Presents, the people behind Lollapalooza, in that it has made the city of Chicago a partner. Greg talks about all the money that’s coming in. The Chicago Park District nonprofit foundation applies for all the licenses for Lollapalooza and gets considerable tax benefits. Any private promotion trying to put on a concert like that in Chicago would be paying much more in terms of taxes, so the city has given this — in the same way that it would when Boeing moves its corporate headquarters to Chicago — the city has given it considerable tax breaks and a considerable leg-up and actually a contract that bans any competing festivals from happening in Grant Park if it isn’t run by the city itself. And again, it’s politics, it’s Chicago. Their attorney was Mayor Daly’s nephew, the liquor is sold by a crony of Mayor Daly’s nephew who happens to have 45 underage drinking guilty pleas on his record. There is a lot in the great Chicago tradition, but a lot rotten about this deal, in addition to the good things that Greg pointed out.
JEFFREY BROWN: I didn’t know we were setting up a debate here. Greg you —
JIM DEROGATIS: Greg is well aware of it. He’s continuing to cover it as a critic. Their complaint about me has been, are you a critic or are you a reporter this year. I chose to make it real simple — I’m an investigative reporter and I’m looking at what you guys are doing on the lake, because this is one of the biggest concerts in America and it has many questions that have been raised about the way it was set up.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Greg a last word here? Sounds like in spite of all that, it’s going to continue doing well for the city and people still keep coming.
GREG KOT: There is another side of this argument, and that is one of the reasons the city has it here, is that this festival brings in about $20-22 million to the local economy. It is overall a good thing for Chicago. There is no doubt about the fact that clubs are suffering during the summer, but Lollapalooza isn’t the only festival that has radius clauses. There are street festivals every week in Chicago that have radius clauses, too.
JIM DEROGATIS: But no nine months at 300 miles.
GREG KOT: I think you know that there definitely needed to be some tweaking in terms of those radius clauses, but the fact is that the radius clauses are a very common thing in the music industry. And the other thing, a lot of promoters and agents are saying none of these bands have to play the festival. At the end of the day they can chose to play a club as opposed to the festival. Most of them chose to play the festival because it’s viewed as a good thing for the band. It’s like one of those things where if the band plays the festival — and the key thing to a festival of this size is that a Lady Gaga fan or a Sound Garden fan is going to bump into something that they would never normally see. And they become a new fan of some band that they otherwise never would have discovered or paid to go see if they were playing a smaller club show in the city. So on that level it can be a good thing for the band and for the clubs when that band comes through the next time and has a bigger audience. I think the complaint about music festivals is essentially to sort of say we don’t go outdoors during the summer. I think it’s a natural part of the summer concert season as anything else. That’s not to say it shouldn’t tweaked, but I think overall these are the kinds of things that make summer worth living and that they should be there, should be found a way to arrange some compromises here to allow these kinds of things to continue rather than making them go away.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. I hope you guys enjoy the rest of your summers, Lollapalooza and other festivals, then, now and in the future. Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, the hosts of Sound Opinions, thank you both very much.