Summer festivals are struggling to stay relevant, yet there are more of them than ever. That apparent contradiction plays out across North America every year, never more so than in Chicago, in many ways the unofficial capital of the summer-festival season.
"Chicago is the third largest market in the country but for summer festivals it's the first largest," says Matt Rucins, general manager and senior talent buyer for React Presents, which promotes Spring Awakening and Mamby on the Beach. There are more than 150 festivals on the Chicago calendar this summer -- from relatively modest street fairs to spectacles such as Lollapalooza -- many of them devoted at least in part, if not entirely, to music.
The city also has an unusually high percentage of large-scale festivals that draw 10,000 to 100,000 people a day, including Lollapalooza (Aug. 1-4 in Grant Park), the Pitchfork Music Festival (July 19-21 in Union Park), Chicago Open Air Presents (which arrived last weekend at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Ill.), Riot Fest (Sept. 13-15 in Douglas Park), Spring Awakening (June 7-9 at Poplar Creek in Hoffman Estates), Ruido Fest (June 21-23 at Union Park), Mamby on the Beach (with dates and location to be announced), North Coast (Aug. 30-31 at Huntington Bank Pavilion on Northerly Island) and Lyrical Lemonade (June 29-30 in Douglas Park).
"For 10,000-plus-a-day festivals (in attendance), Chicago has the most in the country," Rucins says. "Because of the sheer amount of choice in this market, music consumers are becoming more discerning about what festivals they attend, and which ones they spend money on. That eventually will take a toll."
The glut creates intense competition for consumers' time and money, and there are signs that the robust market for outdoor shows is approaching overload.
Lollapalooza was once a slam-dunk sellout within minutes of putting tickets on sale. As recently as 2016, the festival sold out 80,000 four-day passes in less than an hour. But this year, four-day passes ($340) remain available more than two months after going on sale. Executives at Lollapalooza promoter C3 Presents in Austin, Texas, were unavailable for comment, but now former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel told the Tribune just before he left office that the festival should continue. It brings more than $5 million in revenue into the city annually.
"I think it's great to have one of the largest musical festivals in the country here and that's why I wanted them to expand and add a night (in 2016)," he said, to four days from three. When the festival's contract expires after 2021, "I think they should be renewed. They are an important cultural attraction. There is a price to be paid if they don't get renewed. That would be a major commercial and economic hit."
The slower-than-expected pace of Lollapalooza ticket sales this year wasn't a surprise to other festival promoters.
"We've seen a lot of the same trends: ticket sales are being pushed much later in the cycle, but not necessarily down," says Adam Krefman, an executive director for the Pitchfork Festival. "Last year we sold more tickets in the last two weeks of the cycle than we ever had."
But the slowing sales should prompt a reconsideration of how Lollapalooza is structured. When the festival expanded to four days three years ago for its 25th anniversary, the lineups started to stretch even thinner than in the past and the watered-down talent has taken a toll.
Emanuel, however, doesn't want the festival to shrink. "For a couple of years, I did explore with them another idea -- that of leaving things in place (at three days) and adding another weekend in the early fall that was genre specific -- I recommended country," the former mayor said. "But we settled on the expansion. There is no setting for a festival anywhere like the backdrop of the Chicago skyline."
The setting is part of what makes a festival not just a music event but an "experience" for an audience deciding how to spend its money on an overload of outdoor entertainment options every summer. Concertgoers now expect bigger festivals to include not only music, but amenities ranging from craft beer and boutique shopping to carnival rides.
"A friend picked me up to go to the first Pitchfork (2006 in Union Park) -- it was 25 bucks (to get in) and she had sandwiches and a picnic basket," Krefman says. "I remember it being like a (Grateful) Dead concert on a farm -- that was the reference point for a festival back then. You didn't expect creature comforts. But now people expect what is basically a village pop-up in a public park."
The multi-day Chicago Open Air Presents canceled in 2018 after two years in Bridgeview, Ill., then returned this year with headliners Tool and A System of a Down. "You can't just plop a couple of stages in a parking lot anymore and expect people to show up," says Gary Spivack, an executive for Chicago Open Air promoters Danny Wimmer Presents. "If you're going to do something in Chicago, you have to bring your 'A' game."
The list of festivals that came and went the last decade-plus in Chicago is a daunting one -- Intonation in Union Park, the Get in Fest at Guaranteed Rate Field, the Third Rail Music Festival in River West, Reggae Fest at Addams/Medill Park. Nationally, big-ticket events have gone bust as well: TomorrowWorld in Georgia gutted by bankruptcy in 2015, the Fyre Festival in the Bahamas in 2017 and last year's XO Festival trashed by mismanagement, the Sled Festival in Canada derailed by bad weather in 2013, among many others.
With a limited number of potential festival-level headliners available every year, it's more difficult for a big outdoor event to stand out.
"There is no doubt that true festival headliners in the rock base are few and far between," Open Air's Spivack says. "Coachella (in California) can get Travis Scott or Post Malone to headline, we can't. Our lane is more precious and more selective. If the talent isn't there, you can't shoehorn anything in."
The Lollapalooza headliners include three acts that already were top-billed at Coachella in April (Childish Gambino, Tame Impala, Ariana Grande). Yet Lolla endures because it can outspend anyone in the market and can dictate the talent distribution in Chicago music festivals each summer. Pitchfork is a distant second. Everyone else needs to find a specific audience and serve it zealously: Differentiate or die.
"Lollapalooza and Pitchfork are two known brands, and bands and management wait for those offers first" before deciding which Chicago festival to play, Rucins says. "I am limited in who I can go after, as is everyone else, and we all have our niche. Pitchfork is the informed music person's festival, Riot Fest is the rock festival, Mamby is the beach festival, Lyrical Lemonade is all hip-hop, Spring Awakening is electronic."
Riot Fest is entering its 15th year in Chicago by "staying true to the foundation we've had since 2005," owner Michael Petryshyn says. "It's punk-focused, whether it's the Descendants or the new wave of bands, and connecting all the dots around that, whether it's (reggae innovator) Lee 'Scratch' Perry or (hip-hop legends) N.W.A."
Spivack says Chicago Open Air Presents has found an open lane in the Chicago market by "serving the under-served" in metal. Mamby on the Beach, Rucins says, will be tailored this year for women and the LGBTQ community. Krefman sees Pitchfork's mission as widening cross-generational connections with Mike Reed's bookings pushing beyond indie rock into jazz, underground hip-hop and vintage soul, including the Isley Brothers as headliners this year.
The only certainty is that the longest-running festivals must shift with their audience or risk becoming irrelevant. Lollapalooza is a different festival now than when it first landed in Grant Park in 2005, let alone when it began as an alternative-rock outlier in 1991. Now hip-hop, electronic and pop acts have pushed rock aside to climb atop the bill. It's not the Lollapalooza of Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers anymore. Now it belongs to a new generation's favorites, from J Balvin and Childish Gambino to Ariana Grande and 21 Savage.
"Hip-hop and pop sell tickets right now," Rucins says. "Electronic music grew a huge amount over the last decade. Now the demo has matured. Electronic festivals are still viable but they've plateaued. Hip-hop will have a course correction in a few years. The genres all have their ceilings and you have to adjust."
And if you don't, the audience will be voting with its pocketbooks.
Tribune critic Chris Jones contributed to this report.
Greg Kot is a Tribune critic.
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