An open letter to Lollapalooza's Perry Farrell

August 12, 2007


  • Last weekend, Lollapalooza took over Grant Park for the third time since its reinvention as a destination festival by Austin, Texas, promoters C3 Presents. After a news conference on Day One, I questioned concert founder, co-owner and spokesman Perry Farrell about complaints from the local music community; later, he responded onstage with his band, claiming: "The Sun-Times doesn't want [Lollapalooza] back! They don't think we have good manners!"


    Dear Perry:

    The Sun-Times certainly does want Lollapalooza to return. But it wants the world-class festival this city warrants, and one that celebrates its status as the live music capital of America, especially since your five-year, $5 million contract with the city means this will be the major music event here every summer through 2011.

    With the original Lollapalooza tours from 1991 to 1996, you created a new model for the industry and delivered some of the most extraordinary concerts that hundreds of thousands of fans had ever seen. Your ideal was to champion diverse, innovative sounds before a vibrant, socially aware community, and you brought that vision to life while simultaneously making considerable and well-earned profits.

    The new Lollapalooza lacks any sense of mission beyond selling tickets. It offers a hodgepodge of bands performing on stages named for corporate sponsors, treating the music as mere entertainment -- or worse, just another tool for advertisers hawking their wares.

    Last year, I interviewed 13 Chicago concert promoters, artist managers and industry professionals and summarized their suggestions for improving the fest. The same problems were even more noticeable this year, and once again, many members of the local music community urged the following improvements.


    1. Limit corporate sponsorships
    Yes, these have become a fact of life, and that isn't necessarily bad: Advertisers help lower ticket prices and pay for amenities benefitting everyone. But the most commercially and artistically successful festival in America, Coachella, doesn't sell naming rights to its stages or allow advertising there. Why does Lollapalooza?

    One of this year's sponsors, AT&T, raised serious questions about artistic freedom when its Webcast censored Pearl Jam's comments about President Bush. Artists and advertisers sometimes have incompatible goals, and Lollapalooza must choose sides.


    2. Give us quality, not quantity
    The fest offers 130 bands on three days for a relatively reasonable $195, but there can be too much of a good thing: Several performers were overwhelmed by louder acts at neighboring stages; the smaller stages were plagued by sound problems, and one of them completely failed during a headlining set.

    The festival wouldn't suffer if it cut back to 80 great acts on four main stages and one smaller platform. Given the size of the park, concertgoers might even enjoy more music if they had more time to get from field to field -- or if the free trolleys served average concertgoers as well as VIPs.


    3. Reconsider the VIP areas
    We can debate whether a sense of community can ever exist amid a two-tiered system in which most fans stand under the sun in a dusty field while others pay $850 to recline on lounge chairs and enjoy a wine bar, massage tent, catered food and air-conditioned Porta-Potties. But there's no denying that prime parcels of cool, shaded greenery ringing the fields are cordoned off for a privileged few at the expense of the many who might enjoy stretching out on a blanket in between sets.


    4. Join the local community
    Lollapalooza still doesn't have a Chicago office, and it's only alienating the local scene with contracts prohibiting its acts from performing within a 90-mile radius for 60 days before and 30 days after the fest unless it's at an officially sanctioned event. This clause might be necessary to protect ticket sales for top headliners, but it unfairly penalizes smaller touring bands, local artists and clubs.

    The fest also continues to ignore Chicago's diversity. Last year, it failed to publicize appearances by Common, Kanye West and Manu Chao in the African-American or Latino communities, and this year, Femi Kuti played a day-closing set to a sparse crowd of 2,000, even though he's a hero to Chicago's 35,000 Nigerian-Americans. The fest is missing an opportunity to sell reduced-rate tickets to fans of performers like these who otherwise feel excluded from the concert.


    5. Make it special again
    Coachella scores major reunions of legendary bands; Pitchfork offers rising stars and cult heroes performing classic albums, and the old Lollapalooza specialized in surprise collaborations. If the new Lollapalooza really wants to be the biggest and best destination festival, it needs to create more once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

    Chicago has plenty of ordinary rock concerts every day of the year, Perry. What it doesn't have yet is the extraordinary festival it deserves, and we hope you'll give it to us.