UK-Style Music Festivals Gaining Traction in the US

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While Brits themselves may be lying back and dramatically fanning themselves over their embarrassment of festival riches, the US is just starting to get a taste of “festival mania.” The announcement last month of Outside Lands, set for San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and featuring Radiohead, Beck and Wilco, was just the latest addition to a growing trend of large-scale events. It’s hard to believe that just ten years ago, the American summer music festival sure seemed dead in the water.

It was, of course, Lollapalooza that first attempted to reconfigure the UK festival for the States. Instead of a one-off multi-stage event (that everyone in your tiny country can easily get to), Lollapalooza sent just a few bands on a nationwide tour, and while it wasn’t exactly a bacchanalian weekend off, its diverse lineup was groundbreaking at the time: Siouxsie and Fishbone sharing the stage with Ice-T and Violent Femmes.

By 1994, Lollapalooza started to have some bad luck. Nirvana was scheduled to headline that summer, and, well, that didn’t happen. Festival organizer Perry Farrell sold his interest to the William Morris agency in 1996, and then Metallica headlined, driving away much of the original audience. Yet it was another event that seemed to sour the country’s mood on music festivals: Woodstock ’99. The concert, featuring lowest-common-denominator sports-metal bands like Limp Bizkit and Buckcherry, devolved into a fiery riot, complete with fleeing reporters and alleged rapes. America seemed about to enact a law restricting concerts to 50 people or less.

But only three months later, a new event sprang up in the desert, without the weight of history or the shackles of a tour: Coachella. It featured some hard rock like Rage and Tool, but leavened the lineup with artists like Morrissey and Beck as well as scads of electronica. 25,000 people attended, and its well-organized grass-and-palm-trees venue was a welcome change from the usual mud-filled pits (despite the searing heat). Reportedly, this first installment didn’t turn a profit, scuttling plans for an event in the fall of 2000. But since getting back on track as an annual spring event in ’01, Coachella has become more and more successful, proving not only that American festivals can make money, but that American kids can be trusted to watch their favorite bands without destroying the place.

Now it’s a veritable, ah, festival of festivals. Both Tennessee’s Bonnaroo and Washington’s Sasquatch started in 2002 with slightly more stinky-hippie vibes, but have since expanded; Bonnaroo sold 80,000 tickets last year. Lollapalooza settled down in Chicago in 2005, to great success (and a multi-year contract). Coachella producers Goldenvoice have expanded to the East Coast with the three-day All Points West, set for August in New Jersey. Even Pitchfork throws an alternative-to-the-alternative 3-day event. Sure, some may complain about short sets (and expensive snacks), but an emerging festival circuit seems like a great way for up-and-coming artists to access open-minded audiences without the risk of a solo tour, and as the record industry scales back (to put it mildly), this can only be a good thing. We may still be a far cry from the UK’s smorgasbord of events, but we’re slowly catching up, and I for one couldn’t be happier… although you’ll never catch me camping.

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