That’s how Mikel Jollett, the frontman of Airborne Toxic Event, described the scene at this weekend’s Lollapalooza Music Festival in Chicago. Having just finished a set, Jollett and the five-member band’s sole female member, Anna Bulbrook, showed no signs of fatigue in the triple-digit heat indexed weather.
And if the heat weren’t enough, you would think the band’s tour - spanning 300 shows over the last two years - would have done them in. But nope. Lollapalooza is always worth the energy. For artists and fans alike.
Consider this: the festival was supposed to be a farewell tour for Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell’s band, Jane’s Addiction back in 1991. Nearly two decades later, the headliner and closing act of this year’s festival: Jane’s Addiction.
It wasn’t until 2005, after two unsuccessful rebirth attempts by Farrell, that Lollapalooza as we know it was resurrected. Only it was re-incarnated not as a traveling tour, but as a two-day (and now three-day) festival with more than 70 acts and five stages. Smack in the middle of summer in a city that spends much of its year desperate for hot, sunny days: Chicago.
Snoop Dogg, a veteran of the old Lollapalooza format, made a grand return.
With backing from top Hollywood agency William Morris and C3 Presents, the company now led by “the three Cs”, Charlie Walker, who last served as president of Live Nation’s North American business, Charlie Jones, who helped build the music division of Capitol Sports & Entertainment (the company that represents Lance Armstrong), and big-time music promoter Charles Attal, Lollapalooza had a dream team and was ready to make America’s dream festival.
Today, Lollapalooza and its peer festivals in Tennessee (Bonnaroo), California (Coachella) and Texas (C3’s own Austin City Limits) have built annual fan bases by emphasizing the experience as much as the music. Often times, tickets approach sellout figures before the lineups are released.
Festival lineups often make fans choose between two or three performances they want to see.
“After the first year it became as much about the experience as the music,” said Griggs Powell, who runs merchandise sales for the three Charlies at both Lollapalooza and ACL Festivals. “Those guys have made the event so enjoyable that the bands almost don’t matter.”
The tickets may sell in a hurry, but when the lineup does come out, typically a few weeks after tickets go on sale, the names on it certainly speed things along. By leveraging popular rock bands with an increasing dependence on touring for revenue (since album sales aren’t what they once were) like Radiohead, the Foo Fighters and Coldplay with rock legends like Tom Petty and Paul McCartney, the major festival promoters like C3 are able to have a key role in America’s music scene.
And as if promoting festivals weren’t enough, companies like C3 even have their own artist management businesses, where up-and-coming artists and bands like Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, and concert divisions, for booking shows at popular Austin venues Stubb’s (co-owned by Attal) and Emo’s. It may seem odd to promote your own artists at your own venue and put them on your own festival lineup, as C3 did with Black Joe Lewis this year, but today’s music business is all about vertical.
As in expectations get higher and higher every year and every festival.
For example, when the ACL lineup was released with popular ‘90s acts like the Beastie Boys, Dave Matthews Band and Pearl Jam listed, there weren’t all smiles on South Congress in Austin. This is especially odd considering the latter two represent two of the best touring bands in the US over the last decade-plus. It would typically cost more than $50 (for a lawn seat) to see each of these headliners, not to mention the nickel and diming you’d do to see the 100 or so other acts. But the price of an ACL ticket? Less than $200.
With ticket prices so affordable, it made perfect sense for South Dakota 16-year-old Josh Lundgren to see one of his favorite bands, Jane’s Addiction, for the first time.So while older fans have more money to buy tickets before the lineups are released, which leads festival promoters like C3 to cater to them with certain headliners, i.e. Bob Dylan’s forgetful 2007 ACL performance, it’s the buzz bands that typically make festivals worth attending. These are the bands that fill up live music venues like Austin-based Stubb’s and Emo’s on a weekly basis.
Agents like Tom Windish, founder and owner of a Chicago-based agency in his own name, represent the very acts C3 needs to secure in order to keep the buzz going year after year.
Bands like The Killers (lead singer Brandon Flowers [behind driver] and drummer Ronnie Vannucci, Jr.[white tee]) get the star treatment at festivals after years as a buzz band.
Windish’s bands and artists like Sweden native Lykke Li, Chicago rapper Kid Sister, UK drum and bass legend Roni Size, and American buzz band Matt & Kim have played most of the major festivals this year. Windish himself has been called “the golden boy” because his agency is something like the Midas of American festivals since you’d likely find a dozen or so Windish artists at ACL, Bonnaroo, Coachella, Lollapalooza and each of the other major festivals.
One of this year’s top buzz bands, Passion Pit, is being with festivals this year. The Boston band played Lollapalooza Sunday afternoon to a crowd of teenaged girls, college co-eds and indie rock fans that certainly would’ve made Griggs Powell’s brother Houston, C3’s lineup guru, proud. Powell, who works for the three Cs, is also to credit or to blame for this year’s ACL lineup depending on whom you ask. But based on ticket sales (only one-day tickets for Friday and Sunday are left), he has every reason to give himself a pat on the back.
Passion Pit was a top buzz band of 2009, which meant plenty of festival gigs.
True, many of the fans had already purchased their tickets without knowing the lineup, but like Lollapalooza, ACL is a can’t-miss weekend in Austin for music lovers and seldom do you hear complaints about the Friday-to-Sunday festival the following Monday. And you certainly won’t hear complaints from city officials. In Austin, the festival has enabled the Austin Parks & Recreation Department to re-sod much of Zilker Park, a popular playground for Austinites, and Chicago officials estimate $13 million in revenue thanks to a new contract that keeps Lollapalooza in the Windy City through 2018, with the possible exception of 2016 should the city’s Olympic bid carry through successfully.
It’s not just city officials smiling either. Festival sponsors reap the benefits for three days, maybe longer. Companies based in and out of Austin from Dell and H.E.B. to PlayStation and Vitamin Water pay C3 big bucks to get their names atop stages with screaming fans and popular bands. And, of course, there are a few VIP passes thrown in.
Key sponsors get prime real estate in “box”-like seating.
Dan Deville, who was MCing the PlayStation tent at Lollapalooza where fans could take a break from the 90-degree plus weather and chill in the air-conditioned area and play video games. Deville wasn’t sure when PlayStation’s sponsorship of Lollapalooza began, but knew why the relationship was valuable.
“We’ve been doing this for a few years and people love coming here to have a good time. These are exactly the kind of people we’re trying to reach and it fits under our message of united under one console. These are fans of different bands and types of music, but they’re united under one festival,” said Deville.
And when fans aren’t playing video games, they may hang out in Chicago radio station Q101’s “Hammock Heaven” area where hammocks are first-come, first-serve and are free of charge according to station rep Nicole Cullen. Or maybe you’ll have to make the dreaded trip to stand in line at a port-a-potty or you’ll spend a few minutes deciding which festival shirt to buy.
Popular Chicago radio station Q101 sponsors “Hammock Heaven”.
Hungry? Just grab a bite to eat or quench your thirst at one of the dozens of vendors lined up mid-way through the stages. Graham Elliot, a popular restaurant in Chicago, is on the top end of pricing with lobster corndogs with lemon aioli for $9. Maybe after that entrée, you’d like dessert from The Windsor Ice Cream Shoppe, where “The Dipper”, a frozen chocolate-dipped cheesecake, is only $4. Or you can do the healthy thing and get watermelon by the slice for $2 from Old Towne Smokehouse. One of the perks for Lollapalooza VIP-pass holders: free Sweat Tito’s (a mixture of Sweet Leaf Tea and fellow Austin company Tito’s Vodka) and Ben & Jerry’s from Ice Cream Man.
Austin fine-dining restaurant, Hudson’s on the Bend, has a new startup called “The Mighty Cone” that has a flourishing business out of a trailer on South Congress based largely on success and buzz surrounding their tortilla cone-shaped fried chicken and avocado offerings it provides at ACL. The staff typically wears t-shirts that read, “the only time you can eat Hudson’s for $8”, and they’re not kidding.
Speaking of Austin business, Sweet Leaf Tea, which has fast-become a festival favorite in both Austin and Chicago thanks to a true friendship between founders Clayton Christopher and David Smith and C3’s founders that became a strategic partnership, just got a $15 million investment from Nestle to expand their reach. Turns out, it’s not just the bands that are trying to go national.
Sweet Leaf Tea comes in 10 flavors in multiple festivals.
But it really is all about the music at these major festivals. Bands like LA-based Carney, a combination of two brothers (last name Carney) and two other talented musicians, play major festivals to get attention from fans and major labels alike. Last year, they played Bonnaroo and the Outside Lands Music Festival in San Francisco, and earlier this year they played the 10,000 Lakes Festival in Minnesota in the middle of nearly 100 shows in four months that started around Memorial Day. They made it on C3’s radar enough to play Lollapalooza, but were turned down for the chance to play ACL to conclude their tour, which will now end in late September instead of early October.
But not to fret, Carney and other up-start bands will always be OK so long as they keep playing venues like Emo’s, which they did the week before arriving in Chicago, and getting in front of people like Tom Windish, Huston Powell, Perry Farrell and the three Cs. They know good bands when they see them the same way fans know a good deal when they see one.
LA band Carney basks in the sun with some ice cream after a hot performance.
“(Festivals) are a good deal,” said Kevin Grover, who made his fifth trip to Lollapalooza this year. “It’s fun to watch the people as much as the bands.”
Yes, it is fun to watch that sweating mass of humanity.
For those of you in the know, I'm writing an all-access, behind the scenes book on ACL Festival and Austin's live music scene. What do you think is a better title: "Where Else But Austin" or "He Said Austin, And They Listened"? Please comment.