Survival of the fittest for the summer’s big music events

In the early 1990s, Lollapalooza's triumphant summertime tours were a victory lap for the Alternative Nation. So many teenagers clamored to spend their concert dollars on such formerly underground acts as Nine Inch Nails, Dinosaur Jr., and Siouxsie and the Banshees that traveling package tours from Ozzfest to the George Strait Country Music Festival picked up on that momentum. The giant musical road show seemed to be a golden financial ticket for the live music biz.

Cut to 2008. Lollapalooza is still a concert destination — if you want to travel to Chicago, where it has morphed from a national touring behemoth into a once-a-year event. Ozzfest, after several strong years, has followed suit, downsizing to shows in Los Angeles and Frisco, Texas. The Warped Tour, another '90s concept, is still going strong, but must step carefully to avoid the tombstones of the nearly forgotten Lilith Fair, the Fleadh, the Further Festival, the H.O.R.D.E, and a host of others. In their place, relatively smaller concerts like the Download Festival and the hip-hop–themed Rock the Bells visit a handful of cities, while a wave of stationary weekend and one-day fests from Pitchfork to Sasquatch! replace the promise of a grand mobile music event.

What happened?

One theory is that the massive festivals became too bloated, and that concertgoers started seeking out more singular concert experiences. Allen Scott is vice president of Berkeley-based Another Planet Entertainment, which this year is coproducing two local long weekenders, Outside Lands Festival in Golden Gate Park and the more eclectic Treasure Island Music Festival. “I'm not sure if people like that amphitheater experience as much as they used to,” he says. “I think they're looking for a little bit more of a unique experience.”

There's more to the equation, though. The question of what doomed the last music festival boom grows increasingly relevant as the number of big events around the country grows while the demand for tickets remains unclear. Tennessee's Bonnaroo and Southern California's Coachella — the first major music festivals to find success as the traveling festival scene wound down in the late '90s — do not appear to be in trouble, despite a dip in attendance this year at Bonnaroo. But the wealth of concerts that have sprouted in their wake may not be so lucky. reports that none of 2008's big festivals have sold out, and that total sales of the top 100 tours fell by one million tickets, or 5.6 percent. The industry attempted to make up for that loss by raising prices, which are up 5.9 percent from a year ago. Pollstar concluded that the trend of promoters jacking up prices “is not a sustainable path for a business that should be constantly adding new customers.” Meanwhile, there are still more lessons to be learned from early mistakes.

One factor harming past festivals and the current glut is competition for the same marquee names. In the '90s, that battle for the big sellers became unsustainable, says Rick Mueller, president of national concert promoters LiveNation. “Ozzfest and Lollapalooza had a great run,” he says, but notes that the haggling over the limited pool of artists capable of headlining such enormous events inevitably spelled doom for the scene as a whole: “Those tours just found it hard to keep going.”

As this tension intensified, lineups began to blur, with bands like Primus and Smashing Pumpkins alternately headlining Lollapalooza and the H.O.R.D.E. Festival until each began to lose its identity. Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of music industry magazine POLLSTAR, sees this as a major reason for the downfall of the mobile concert. He specifically mentions 1996, when Metallica headlined Lollapalooza, as a possible breaking point. “They had a number of great years, but maybe they wore the concept out,” he says of the initial Lollapalooza formula. “Metallica had bigger numbers playing on their own after Lollapalooza than Lollapalooza did. What that meant was that the real Metallica fans didn't want to go see them with 20 other bands.”

Of course, many of the stationary festivals that have sprung up more recently around the country share the same artists — Radiohead, Jack Johnson, and a handful of others can be found atop many this summer's bills, including Outside Lands — raising the question of whether the current crop of promoters is headed for the same fate as their '90s peers.

Interestingly, it's the Warped Tour, the lone road dog still standing from the old days, that seems to have hit on a winning formula. It has outlasted its comrades by emphasizing its sheer number of bands (sometimes as many as 100 in one day) and cultivating a reputation as a scene for a young demographic hungry to discover new artists. Live Nation's Mueller says it's this focus on the event, rather than a big headliner, that “has really contributed to making it about the Warped Tour and not about one band.”

Warped Tour creator Kevin Lyman adds that his concert focuses on artist development. “We're known as a place you get to know an artist and then follow them through their whole career,” he says. He points to the fact that the concept behind the tour has remained essentially unchanged since he started it in 1994. Of course, even the Warped Tour needs some name-brand recognition to sell tickets. But Lyman says he's fortunate there, too, in that older bands who got their break there, like Bad Religion and NOFX, return again and again for less money than they could make elsewhere because they want to support the scene that nurtured them. POLLSTAR's Bongiovanni also notes this factor in Warped's ongoing luck: “They've done well because the artists like playing it,” he says. “They don't do it for the money.”

Still, the Warped Tour is a unique success story. With a tanking economy and high gas prices as additional burdens on promoters, the risks in creating a financially flush festival in our current climate are real. This is especially true, given the wealth of choices showgoers have within one geographic area. In the next couple months, the Bay Area alone will host the Download Festival, Rock the Bells, Outside Lands, Treasure Island Music Festival, Warped Tour, and Slow Food Rocks (a two-day component of Slow Food Nation with Gnarls Barkley, Ozomatli, and the New Pornographers, among others).

“When there's a good idea, there's always market saturation,” says Jordan Kurland, who works with Noise Pop and the Treasure Island Music Festival. “It happens in every industry, and the entertainment industry is particularly bad at it.” This year the Vineland Festival in New Jersey bit the dust before it even started, canceling its August date because of regional conflicts the same weekend with All Points West (also in New Jersey) and the Virgin Festival in Baltimore.

In the end, some local promoters hope that just as the demise of the traveling festivals begat a robust regional scene, competition for destination concerts will sift out the weak to create a more stable live music industry as a whole. “I think festivals are gonna find their own level,” says Another Planet's Scott, “and the festivals that survive are the ones that are able to provide a unique experience, get the right talent for that region, and then it's about location, location, location. Those are the festivals that are going to be around for a long time.”

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